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Exploring Ideas From Two Sides

Literary critic and memoirist Michael Clune receives a Guggenheim Fellowship

By Jennie Yabroff

Fall | Winter 2019

Michael Clune, who will spend his year as a Guggenheim Fellow completing his fifth book, has won acclaim both for his creative prose and for his academic writing. Photo by Lauren Clune.

Long before he ever thought of becoming an English professor, Michael Clune was a lonely adolescent who hung out at the public library, roaming the stacks and reading whatever appealed to him. A turning point in his education occurred when, at age 15, he came across translations of Japanese haiku by the British scholar R. H. Blyth. To this day, he remembers the look of the pages in Blyth’s edition, where each poem was embedded in an extensive commentary.

“The writing I found in Blyth had no parallel in my experience,” Clune recalls. “I was astonished at how, immersed in his prose, these fragile poems revealed depths, new angles of surface, seemingly endless relations with more writing, art, philosophy than I’d imagined existed.” This discovery, he says, was a major reason he “fell in love” with literary criticism.

Clune, who was born in Ireland but grew up in Evanston, Ill., eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Oberlin College, followed by a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. In 2010, he joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve, where he is now the Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of the Humanities. The author of two academic books and two memoirs, Clune was recently named a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow—an honor conferred on scholars, writers and artists on the basis of their “prior achievement and exceptional promise.”

Although three decades have passed since his early encounter with that volume of haiku, Clune’s devotion to the critical enterprise remains undiminished. As we think about art of any kind, he says, it grows “richer, stranger, funnier and more mysterious.” It’s a belief reflected in both his writing and his teaching.

“The word ‘passionate’ comes to mind, but not in a cliché, Dead Poets Society way,” says English graduate student Camila Ring, who took Clune’s seminar in 19th-century American literature last spring. “If you could see my thought bubbles during class, they would be filled with exclamation marks.”

A Narrow Escape

Clune’s passage into the ranks of endowed professors and Guggenheim Fellows was not as inevitable as it might seem, however. During those teenage years when he was reading in the library, he was also developing a dependency on drugs and alcohol that would worsen in college. After graduating from Oberlin, he tried working as a manual laborer but got fired by six employers in a row. In the spring of 1998, when he learned he’d been accepted into the graduate program at Johns Hopkins, he had a job repossessing lawn mowers. “My joy in immersing myself in literary study,” he says, “was shadowed by the working world I’d so narrowly escaped.”

Despite his determination to pursue an academic career, Clune continued to struggle with addiction. During a trip home to Evanston, where he’d gone to try to get clean, he was arrested in a Chicago housing project for felony possession of heroin. The arrest, Clune says, saved his life. His subsequent court-mandated treatment not only helped him quit drugs; it also gave him the clarity and focus he needed to dedicate himself fully to his intellectual work.

After the arrest and a successful stint in rehab, Clune spent nine months living in his father’s basement, paying off debts and dealing with legal issues. In addition, he was writing every day.

“When I got clean, I was like, ‘Wow, this stuff in my dissertation is really interesting,’” he says. Working proved to be a self-reinforcing habit. “A problem that besets many writers and academics is procrastination,” Clune says. “Recovery taught me that instead of waiting until I felt like writing or doing research, I should do it, and I’ll feel like it once I’ve started. Anything I’ve been able to achieve is because of that discipline.”

Today, Clune meditates and exercises, goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and counsels recovering addicts. At the same time, he strives to convey the life-changing power of literature to his students.

“Michael cares about seeing what literature is, what it does and why it’s valuable,” says Catherine Forsa (GRS ‘16), a former graduate student of Clune’s who is now an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. In class, he is open about his history of substance abuse.

“He’s really personable and vulnerable in terms of his experience with addiction,” Ring says. “You can tell his personal experiences have informed how he is now, and help him savor meaningful things like literature.”

Eternally New

Clune’s openness about his experience extends to his writing. As an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan from 2005 to 2007, he started work on a memoir about his addiction. In the process, Clune arrived at an insight that he quickly applied to the seemingly separate realm of literary studies.

In 2013, Michael Clune published a memoir about addiction and a work of literary criticism. In different ways, both books explore the idea of eternal newness.

The fatal allure of heroin, he now realized, lay in the fact that the thrill of getting high never lost its intensity. “Dope never gets old for addicts,” he wrote. “It never looks old. It never looks like something I’ve seen before. It always looks like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Soon, Clune became fascinated by writers who sought to achieve that same quality of eternal newness in their work, countering the dulling effects of familiarity.

“For evolutionary reasons, our brain regulates our perception of familiar objects to preserve space to notice something new,” Clune says. “Our experience of the world tends to dim. One of art’s functions is to renew our sense of the freshness of the world.”

Clune began writing an academic book on this theme, integrating literary criticism with recent findings in neuroscience. Because he was completing his memoir at the same time, he found himself exploring a single idea from two sides: one personal, one analytical.

“My voice in creative prose is very distinct from my academic writing,” Clune says. “I work a couple of months on a creative project, then get to a place where I need a break. It’s a change of pace to go into critical work.” When a publisher wanted to issue his two manuscripts in a single volume, Clune resisted. Instead, they appeared in 2013 as separate books: White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin and Writing Against Time.

White Out is a visceral and lyrical account of Clune’s addiction. He recalls, for instance, discussing philosophy with a drug dealer who had a needle in his neck (a sight that seemed perfectly normal to Clune at the time). Even though the memoir was published by the tiny Hazelden Press (part of an addiction recovery center in Minnesota), it was a hit, making National Public Radio’s and The New Yorker’s lists of best books for the year. Meanwhile, Writing Against Time confirmed Clune’s reputation as a literary critic who draws on and contributes to other academic fields. The book even inspired composer Christopher Trapani,  another 2019 Guggenheim Fellow, to write a piece of chamber music with the same title. The piece, Trapani explained before the premiere in 2014, is about “the sensation of suspension in an enveloping present, prolonging the wonder and enchantment of a new aesthetic discovery.”

Clune’s next book, Gamelife, was another memoir, this one about his youthful devotion to computer games. Straddling the line between art and technology, the games provided Clune with a perfect means of examining his aesthetic development.

“I was interested in my own childhood and the role technology played in my life,” he says. “I was also interested in how artworks operate in our lives. Computer games were a manageable way of exploring that because there is so little tradition around them, whereas if I was going to write about my formation as a reader, it would be hard to get a fresh take.” He organized each chapter around a different game from the 1980s, when the technology was nascent and users typed commands to navigate avatars through imaginary worlds. 

In his second memoir, Michael Clune examines the role that video games played in his aesthetic education.

By the time Gamelife was published in 2015, Clune was a full professor at Case Western Reserve, teaching American literature and organizing a weekly colloquium whose guest speakers included poets, fiction writers, essayists and scholars. Colleagues recognized him as a galvanizing force in the department, and found Gamelife a revealing view of another side of his personality.

“I admire the moments of vulnerability in Michael’s writing,says Sarah Gridley, associate professor in the Department of English. “Gamelife is a window into a lonely childhood, where we see him shaping and responding to alternative worlds.

The book also gave him a certain street cred with his students. Clune brings his passion for contemporary culture, including video games and gangster rap, into the classroom. “Michael has this way of giving an example of a complex idea that makes it more relatable,” Forsa says. “He’ll compare it to something that is not literary.” 

Clune’s approach illuminates for students the connections between the art they consume in their personal lives and what they study in class. “You see his students enthusiastic about Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson,” says Gridley, a poet herself. “I think that’s hard to do with today’s young people; they have so many stimuli, it’s hard to have print on the page come alive for them. That’s something that Michael really knows how to do as a teacher and writer.”

A Defense of Judgment

This isn’t to say that Clune’s students immediately embrace every writer he asks them to read. In fact, it was their resistance to a 20th-century poet that gave him the idea for his latest academic project.

Clockwise from left: Michael Clune’s students and colleagues in the Department of English, including doctoral student Camila Ring and Associate Professor Sarah Gridley, praise his ability to inspire enthusiasm for literature. Photo by Lauren Clune.

“We were reading Sylvia Plath, and a number of students hated it,” Clune says. “I was trying to explain to them why I thought it was great poetry, and I realized I didn’t have a vocabulary for justifying what I was doing, which was putting poems in front of people and saying, ‘Read this, it’s great.’ If they said, ‘Why is it great? Why should I listen to you?’ I didn’t have answers for them.” He is now writing a book, A Defense of Judgment, under contract with the University of Chicago Press, that seeks to provide such answers.

“The book’s point of departure is, How do we judge artworks? How do we decide what works are better than others?” Clune says. “We live in an age that’s suspicious of experts. We want to believe everyone’s opinion is equally valid. We also think whether one book is better than another book is a matter of subjective opinion. But I believe there’s a very strong case to be made that when we are judging a work as trained professors, it is a method, not opinion. Practice gives professors the authority to say reading Henry James is a better way to spend your time than watching The Apprentice. But people are very reluctant to make those claims.”

Clune knows this stance puts him in danger of being branded an elitist or a snob, but he believes that the opposite view, that all opinions are equally valid, is a false form of populism.

“It feels egalitarian to say everyone gets to pick what’s good, but what it really does is throw everything into the marketplace,” he says. “The sole arbiter of value becomes capitalism and whatever advertisers can convince people to buy.”

Clune plans to finish the book during his Guggenheim Fellowship year. The prize has allowed him to take a sabbatical from teaching—a prospect that made him slightly nervous at first.

“Teaching is very inspiring to me, which is why I’ve never taken a sabbatical before,” he explains. “A lot of my best thinking happens when I’m with students and we’re thinking critically together. You’ve heard a movie or song a million times, but when you show it to a friend, it becomes live again. That’s what happens with teaching: The students renew the work for me with their freshness.”

Jennie Yabroff is a writer and editor in New York City.

Page last modified: November 12, 2019