You can now also hook into Swenson’s work via her brand new podcast!
Dear Readers, it’s time for Part III of our Fresh Writers Series, and I’m very excited to highlight the gifted and thoughtful academic Haylie Swenson as our latest Fresh Writer to read. I don’t normally highlight academic writers (or even nonfiction writers generally (so far, anyway)—sorry, NF folks! I’ve got love for you too!), but when you come across an actually good academic writer (and trust me, I’ve read enough terrible ones to know how rare they are), they deserve as much recognition as we can give them.
Swenson’s debut publication, “Lions and Latour litanies in The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt,” is an award-winning one, earning her the (among medievalists) coveted (2012) Michael Camille Essay Prize (“awarded for the best short essay…on a variable theme that brings the medieval and the modern into productive critical relation”) as well as publication in the prestigious postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Whether you’re a student of medieval studies or not, this article is absolutely worth the read. While absent the humor of Mary Roach and the storyteller-style of James Gleick (largely by virtue of its genre as academic rather than creative nonfiction), Swenson’s article possesses all the impressive clarity, thoughtfulness, and good-natured appreciation for audience as the works of these acclaimed authors. For many academic authors, their writing tends to read like a violent attempt to defy the reader’s understanding in order to showcase just how smart the author is comparatively. (In other words, like an asshole). Not so with Swenson!
While accessing the article itself requires a sign-in with the journal, here’s the abstract of Swenson’s debut work:
“This essay draws on Ian Bogost’s invention of ‘Latour litanies’ to argue that Villard’s sketchbook gives us a compendium of vibrant and unpredictable objects, which is particularly true concerning his drawings of lions. Responding to debates over whether these sketches were actually drawn from life—‘contrefais al vif ’—as Villard claims, I chart an alternate path by arguing that Villard’s lions represent a moment of encounter with a dangerous object, a strange, ultimately unknowable, predatory other.”
postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2013) 4, 257–269.
And here’s a taste of the article itself:
“Regularly appearing in the New York Times Op-Ed section as an ‘Op-Art’ series, ‘Things I Saw’ is a column featuring things seen and drawn in various cities by Jason Polan (2012). Portrayed through simple black and white line drawings, Polan’s objects – a plant, a taxidermied coyote, a boy peering at a Jim Henson exhibit – mingle freely on the page, with no apparent regard for scale or thematic ordering. Through this mingling, Polan’s column creates what Ian Bogost (2012) calls a ‘Latour litany.’ Referring to the work of actor-network theorist Bruno Latour, the term describes a list of apparently unrelated things, as in this example from Latour’s Pasteurization of France: ‘A storm, a rat, a rock, a lion, a child, a worker, a gene, a slave, the unconscious, a virus’ (Bogost, 2012, 38). Functioning ‘primarily as provocations, as litanies of surprisingly contrasted curiosities,’ these lists appear with regularity in the work of Latour and other object-oriented theorists, where they are embraced for their ability to alter our perception of ordinary things (Bogost, 2012, 38).”
However, while her article in postmedieval deeply impressed me, it was actually through a non-academic nonfiction article she posted in her blog last September that first arrested my attention to her writing talent. The post is called, “This Mo(u)rning,” and it’s an incredibly tender and thoughtful piece about Swenson’s discovery (and saving) of a little mouse from a library-haunting cat. Here’s a taste:
“Last night I held a mouse while it died. I had just shooed away a menacing cat outside our local library, and not for the first time, either. A few months ago I rescued a sparrow from this same cat, carrying it home in a box supplied by a nearby friend. I hoped an evening’s worth of quiet at my house would help him recover from his shock, and it worked, I think; the next morning he hopped away into the bushes. The mouse wasn’t so lucky.”
For now, her blog and her postmedieval article are Swenson’s only publications. However, with a talent like hers, I know this won’t be the case for long. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her future works, and be sure to update this post accordingly. Thanks for writing, Haylie Swenson!
Sweson’s given bio:
Haylie Swenson is a PhD student in English at The George Washington University. She studies animals, ecologies, and posthuman theory, along with medieval literature, and she also has a particular interest in creatures that literally or metaphorically bite.
A few words from Swenson on her current dissertation project:
Reading a variety of premodern and contemporary texts in conversation with each other, my dissertation argues that writers and artists come to understand death, grief, and memory through the bodies of animals living and dying alongside humans.