Emre considers the marks on the wall—and on the page—where the human appears

Speaker Merve Emre presents at a podium in front of two JHU KSAS banners at the March 2024 Macksey Lecture in the Glass Pavilion.

Last week, AGHI hosted Professor Merve Emre (Wesleyan) as this year’s Macksey Lecture speaker for a double-header in both Baltimore and DC. Well known as a public essayist, interviewer extraordinaire, and consummate instructor of writing as a craft, Emre presented two very different papers.

The first, “On American Miniaturism: Too Close Reading” (March 7), highlighted how the contemporary form of the very, very short story—sometimes in as few as two short lines of dialogue—actually offers a fascinating opportunity for authors to explore the limits of subjectivity. Authors like Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, Emre says, refuse to offer much in the way of characterization, tropes, or even narrative, and thus force readers to work through the difficulties of such deceptively simple stories. Playing with syntax, punctuation, and other fundamentals of grammar in like these miniature authors do highlights (Emre concludes) how “grammar can be where the human makes its mark.”

Merve Emre sits at a podium to read her talk on Woolf and Bourdieu, sitting in the JHU Bloomberg Center with the Capitol Building and DC skyline at evening behind her.

On March 8, Emre spoke to a crowd at the new JHU Bloomberg Center at 555 Penn in DC, starting with the provocation in her title: “Why I Feel Bad for Men, or Reading ‘A Room of One’s Own’ with Pierre Bourdieu.” Here again, Emre focuses on how different artists have managed to wrest truths from their own fictions. In particular, says Emre, Virginia Woolf—whose Annotated Mrs. Dalloway Emre recently edited and introduced—imagines the need for a literary tradition of their own for women, one without either “the avarice and the comfortable desperation of men” as they have learned to compete within the modern university. But for Woolf in the 1920s as much as for Emre almost 100 years later, “The question of how the modern woman will write cannot be disentangled from the question of how she will be taught to write, or rather, where she will be taught to write.”

As a director of writing at Wesleyan’s Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism, no doubt this matter has a ring of urgency for Emre. In her own turn to the present, this sweeping essay where fiction and fact merged, Emre’s final lines speak a warning that echoes Woolf’s Room: “To create a tradition, it is not enough for some to toil in poverty and obscurity and for others to have a room of one’s own. To create a tradition, we must turn what was once a toil for some into a pleasure for all. We must turn a room for one into an open and free space for many.”

Posed group photo of nine grad students and guest speaker Merve Emre in the AGHI grad lounge.

Not only was Emre in town to deliver two sweeping lectures (complete with Q&A with our audiences), but also to speak to some of AGHI’s fellows and faculty. On Thursday before her first talk, the Translation Circle grad student group met with Emre and discussed the difficulties of translation, form, and linguistic context—drawing on Emre’s contributions as co-author of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (Columbia UP, 2020).

We are immensely grateful to Merve Emre for joining AGHI for such a generous series of events this year. To read more of Emre’s work, see her website, her profile as contributor for The New Yorker, and (coming soon) a new book forthcoming from Norton tentatively titled, Love and Other Useless Pursuits.

To see more about AGHI’s esteemed history of Macksey Lecturers and to keep an eye on next year’s guest, see our series page!