On Harry Potter Studies

I’m a little bit late to the party on this, but thought it worthy of a quick post anyway. Last weekend saw the UK’s first academic conference on J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Alison Flood wrote a nice overview of the mixed reception of this event in the Guardian, see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/18/harry-potter-order-60-scholars. I thought there was quite a lot of food for thought in the article, particularly in the contrasting statements from John Pazdziora (who organised the Potterfest at St. Andrews) and John Mullan from UCL, about what a conference is FOR (see my last blog post for why this is rather interesting to me right now).

Pazdziora, a PhD student at St Andrews, said:  “These are the most important, seminal texts for an entire generation of readers. In 100, 200 years’ time, when scholars want to understand the early 21st century, when they want to understand the ethos and culture of the generation that’s just breaking into adulthood, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be looking at the Harry Potter novels. As literary critics, as academics, why on Earth wouldn’t we want to come to grips with these texts? There’s so much here to talk about, culturally and critically, that a two-day conference really can only get the conversation started. People will be reading and writing and studying Harry Potter for years to come.”

Mullan wasn’t convinced: “I’m not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups,” he said. “It’s all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study.” He speculated about whether the conference was a result of those who enjoyed Harry Potter as children now reaching an age where they could apply academic criticism to Rowling’s work. “Perhaps that has happened,” he said. “But why do universities have conferences? It’s to attract attention to themselves as dynamic places. St Andrews has taken a bit of a gamble here. Is all publicity really good publicity? They will get attention for having a Harry Potter conference, but I don’t think it’s going to give them the reputation of cutting edge cultural analysis they might be hoping for.” He professed himself “amazed” that the academics participating had time to do so. “They should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do,” he said.

Now, I understand where John Mullan (an eminent scholar in my own field) is coming from, but I find two things he said a little worrying. Firstly, his assertion that universities hold conferences “to attract attention to themselves as dynamic places” seems to me a sadly superficial evaluation of what the conference is for. As I argued in my last post, I think conferences serve, or can serve, an incredibly useful function as furnaces for the refinement of ideas if participants approached them a certain way. To describe them as some kind of a box-ticking exercise in the promotion of a particular image doesn’t reflect their best side. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that Mullan sees this as simply one aspect of what conferences do, and focused on it in order to make his point that St. Andrews might actually be doing itself some reputational damage here. But it seems to me that, more and more, as academics we need to be articulating why what we do is important to the general public, and I’m not sure personally that framing conferences as a PR gimmick is the best way to do that.

Secondly, the children’s literature thing. “[Academics] should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.” Well, yes and no. Again, I can see where Mullan (who is a deeply respected scholar in my own period of study) is coming from: cultural studies has opened up the floodgates in a way that can be frightening and disorientating for any student, critic or lover of literature, and there is a constant fear that the most dazzling, inventive and significant texts (the ‘classics’) will be pushed aside in favour of bad quality ephemera that caters for some modish fad for the obscure, the fringe, the neglected. But personally I find it very difficult to argue with one key tenet of cultural studies, the idea that if something is widely read then it is worthy of consideration, because it gives us an insight into a cultural hunger or fascination that can help us understand our world a little better. This is an argument that I’ve used to push forward the case for my own pet writers (“do you KNOW how many copies Charlotte Smith sold in the 1790s? Do you KNOW when the academic world finally deigned to publish her collected works?” etc etc) and I think it holds water to a great extent, and without any detriment to giving critical attention to adventurous and interesting writing that DOESN’T sell.

Children’s literature is a particularly interesting sub-section of this debate. Personally I believe children’s literature to be more than worthy of academic study, partly for the reason that Pazdziora offers: it shows us the texts that are influencing and shaping readers’ minds during a deeply crucial formative period. One only needs to look at any ‘The Nation’s Favourite Book’ survey to see how deeply texts that are assigned to the GCSE and A-Level syllabi retain a hold over adult readers years down the line. Can we afford to let these kinds of texts slide from our field of view because we have a horror of being seen to be reading ‘children’s books’? I don’t think so, myself.

In the field of eighteenth-century studies in which I spend most of my time, ‘children’s literature’ is undergoing a real renaissance. Scholars are starting to articulate, with considerable force, the importance of this literature on all aspects of eighteenth century culture. It’s not my area, but one of my best friends works on how the children’s literature of Anna Laetitia Barbauld interprets and furthers philosophical theories of associationism (Locke / Hartley) in new and inventive ways, and I think it’s fascinating. There’s now no shame, it would seem, in admitting that you are a scholar of eighteenth century kidlit. So why should we be more sniffy about that of the present?

I’ve had my own brushes with a frustrating stigmatization of ‘children’s literature’ back in the day when my main focus of academic study was late 20th century fiction; I wanted to write my undergraduate thesis on Philip Pullman’s work, and found it very difficult to find a supervisor. Intrigued by this dearth of Pullman expertise, I then wrote a piece of graduate work about how the incomparable His Dark Materials books came to be marketed and reviewed as ‘children’s literature’ at all, and came to the conclusion that essentially, this happened because that’s how Pullman’s previous oeuvre had been marketed and received. Simple as that. Not much to do with the content at all, which still awes and challenges me every time I pick the books up.

Now as it happens, the HDM books are a very unusual exception to the rule in this respect; such has been their quality, appeal and impact in ‘serious’ reading circles, and so insistent is Pullman’s presence as a respected commentator on educational and civil liberties policy nowadays, that they have now been re-marketed in numerous ways for an adult audience and personally I wouldn’t feel at all ashamed to avow them as some of the best books I’ve ever read in any academic or non-academic circles. But these issues beg questions about the Harry Potter conference, which hasn’t managed to shed its ‘kidlit’ image quite as successfully as His Dark Materials. If it is the publishing industry – specifically in-house marketing decisions and, I suppose retailer decisions such as where to stock a book instore – that determine what is kidlit and what isn’t, do we want to give those arenas quite such a degree of power over how to canonize? Does the academic community have a role in not only resisting these commercially dictated boundaries and finding a voice to re-draw them based on considered textual analysis? It may well be that Mullan has done so; that his rejection of Potter is due to a considered conviction that the literary quality of these books is not worthy of study; this isn’t entirely clear from the article. But personally, I think Pazdziora’s initiative seems like a good, if brave, way to fulfil this objective. I’d love to hear from anyone who attended the conference and has thoughts on how it went and what, if anything, they think it achieved.

The Art Of The Conference Paper; or, Dirty Weekends.

I’ve spent most of this offensively glorious summer’s day at my desk inside my flat, desperately boshing away at a conference paper. I’ve just typed the final lines, quickly saved and closed down the document so I can’t look at my horrific handiwork, wiped the sweat from my beleaguered brow and poured myself a nice cold English Garden. It occurred to me that it might be good to get a blog post in about the art of the conference paper (as I see and aspire to it) while I’ve got it all still buzzing around in my head.

Some of you will be only too familiar with conferences as such. Others, not so much. They’re a cornerstone of academic life, and occupy a wide variety of places in the hearts of those who, happily or miserably, attend them. Some see them as the best thing about academia – I have a friend who describes academia as her long-term lover and conferences as their dirty weekends away, when they ‘rejuvenate their relationship’ and she’s reminded of how much she loves it even though most of the time it just gets on her nerves. Others see them as either terrifying (especially if you’re giving a paper) or pointless and expensive (especially if you’re not). Some attend them with a careful strategy to see as many papers as they can to actually maximise their knowledge; others go – quite frankly and openly – just to network, to make those all-important contacts that might help you publish a paper or get a leg-up in a funding competition or even get a job.

Unsurprisingly, they can be all of the above, depending on who’s running them and how the programme shapes up. Personally I love a good conference, and have tried to submit papers to as many as possible over the course of my PhD so far. You often hear some great research, put a face to a revered name, and often get to corner your heroes and heroines and ask them about their work / get their thoughts about yours. When they let their hair down (which they invariably do after a bit of the lukewarm wine that your conference fee pays for, among other things) the academic community is an excellent place to be – full of fiercely intelligent, slightly weird people who have both a great passion for what they do and a keen sense of the ridiculous about the oddities of their profession.

But I want to specifically write about the conference paper today – the twenty minute presentation that you give at these things. The process goes like this; you submit an abstract (usually two hundred words or so) a few months in advance of the conference, outlining the focus of your paper and the argument you want to make. Hopefully you get accepted, at which point your paper is put into a panel with two others, often with a convincing overarching theme to enable discussion. Then you have to write the thing.  Yep, that’s right. You’re basically hypothesizing when you send your firm, confident abstract in. You haven’t yet done the research and have no idea if your argument holds water. You get the nod, and then you have to start researching and writing and hope for the best.

Of course, this is just one way of doing it. It’s my way, and it derives from a sort of principle I have that conferences should be used over the course of a PhD to push research forward. When you get an acceptance and know you have to present your paper, well, you’ve got to write it. The other way of doing it, of course, is to present papers that you’ve already written, that you may have presented already, and just perform them again, slightly tailored. That has its own benefits of course – there’s less work involved. But the one time I did that, I felt rather dead inside without the adrenalin rush in the couple of weeks building up to the conference. I was bereft of the sense that this conference had really helped me inch a bit further along the path to a finished thesis. So, no more of that if I can help it.

This is leading up to something, promise. I have this idea about how the conference paper could be made a better sort of beast than it currently is, which, as an experiment, I’ve been trying out with the paper I’ve just written. Of those papers I’ve seen over the last year or two (and I DO include myself in this statement, and there ARE exceptions) the majority have been – to my mind – based on work that is altogether too polished. What I mean by this is that, whether written years before the conference or days before, they generally appear to be large, finished, carefully reasoned, elaborately footnoted pieces of work, probably originally clocking in at about 10 thousand words or an hour long, BUT then mutilated and squished to fit into a twenty-minute box for the conference. What this means in practice, for the listener, is a very quickly spoken, rather garbled polemic that assumes an awful lot of knowledge and as a result, can rather lose one’s attention. And, invariably, run over time.

Crucially, this kind of process – writing a long piece of work and then cutting it down for a spoken paper – also has a necessary impact on the tone and feel of one’s argument. If you’ve put that much work into a chapter or essay, trust me, you’re going to feel very defensive of your conclusions. As a result, many of the papers I’ve seen are presented in a rather confrontational or else frightened way. There’s a definite feeling among panelists that the audience are an enemy, there to catch you out or attack your theory. As an audience member, I never feel at all hostile to the speakers, but I do frequently feel that I’m just being presented with a range of fait accomplis ; stuff that is often not related to what I study, and doesn’t make an attempt to reach out, link the research to wider questions and engage the diverse specialisms of the audience.

As I mentioned, I have been guilty of all this and more myself. So, this time round, I decided as an experiment to write my paper rather differently. This paper is called “Ne suis-je pas son mari? Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith and Cross-Channel Conjugality”. It’s  for a superb-sounding graduate conference to be held at Newcastle University on 1st June (so, a week today) called ‘Romantic Connections: Networks of Influence’ (full info here, for the that-way-inclined http://www.ncl.ac.uk/niassh/events/supported/RomanticConnections.htm )

What I’ve done differently this time is consciously attempt, in my writing, to destine this piece of work for a conference paper and a conference paper only. I’ve asked myself: As an audience member, what would I love to hear? And I came up with the following:

1) A brief introduction to the work of the writers in question – don’t just assume that everyone knows who they are and what they did and why they’re important

2) A series of exciting questions with broad appeal to be asked about their work and significance – relate their output to themes that everyone can think about and offer thoughts on

3) A clear hypothesis or suspected argument; but more importantly, the sense that actually this is work in progress; that as an audience member I can engage with and possibly influence the direction of the research during the Questions session

4) A sense that the day is interactive – that the speaker has been soaking up the ideas of other people, and that they will actually use their paper to respond to some of these issues.

So, I tried this out. I gave myself a 3000-word cap (still probably a bit too long, but I usually do about 7000 and then cut it down to 2500, so a definite improvement). I have obviously read all my primary texts thoroughly, and have given the nod to a few critics whose work has helped me articulate to myself why this subject is important; but I’ve tried to utterly ignore the demon who sits on your shoulder and hisses, “But you haven’t read this, but you haven’t read this, but you haven’t read this“. (I don’t NEED more material! It’s only twenty minutes. ) I’ve given a lot of space to an interesting anecdote and to asking what I think of as broad, exciting questions. And only 1.5 pages to each of three novels that I discuss. Hardly any to criticism. And I’ve left space, or I will, to reflect the content of an earlier paper or two.

The result looks… hmm. It looks a bit sketchy and unfinished. Thinking about showing this or reading it out to someone, I feel as anxious and just WRONG as I would if I showed them an early draft of a short story, or a painting while there were still big swathes of white and unfinished limbs. But I’m trying to ignore that feeling.

The real test will be this time next week, when I’m in Newcastle, being very frank about the fact that this is work in progress and seeing how the audience respond. There is an unfortunate possibility that I will come of as an underprepared amateur. But maybe (hopefully) it will go down well. And I’ll get some feedback and advice and thoughts that will make this little sketchy piece of hypothesis bloom into a wonderful, informed chapter that is something of a collaborative effort. That, I reckon, is what conferences might be for. That and the dear old lukewarm wine.

Ok, enough. I’m off to meet friends at the park. Speaking of wine, I have a champagne-washed cheese and a bottle of Prosecco and I know how to use them. Til next time.

On Beginnings

Alright. I’ve been running round like a mad thing recently and not been able to update as much as I’ve wanted. I finally got my Cecilia chapter off to my supervisor, and have immediately dived into preparing a conference paper for the beginning of June. Will update about that sometime in the next couple of days, because I think the art of conference-papering is one that is worthy of some consideration, even if it may only be of direct interest to my more geekily inclined readership.

But for now, I wanted to do something about creative writing. Specifically, the creativity that is involved in creative writing. Because really that’s what my first ever post claimed this blog was largely about, and I hate false advertising. I was thinking, as I concocted a rather creative spaghetti bolognese earlier this evening (ran out of red wine, used vodka instead, it was ace), that I might do something about Beginnings. Because I’m starting my second novel at the moment, and often that’s what’s most interesting to people isn’t it? how you actually get the ideas from the swirly paintpot-water mess in your head down onto the page in reasonably cogent lines of writing. That’s the challenge.

But then, I realized that I should probably save the story of #2 for another day. Because frankly at the moment, Rites (novel #1) is taking up every spare moment I have to lavish on stuff that isn’t the PhD, and I’m having to bat #2 away like an irritating child that’s bothering you with a toy dinosaur while its older sibling has just lopped its own finger off or is about to set fire to the house or something. It HAS to be about Rites at the moment.

It’s just over three weeks til the launch now, and I’ve started to have to do interviews and things like that  (see the Press page if you’re interested. They are funny old things, interviews. They really deserve their own blog post. Maybe one day they’ll get one. ) Now, the thing that has struck me about interviews is that they often seem to ask the same questions. The most common of these questions is, “Where did you get the idea?” or “How did it come about?” or something like that. You don’t want to bore the interviewer, and you know they’ve only got a few lines to fill, or twenty seconds of airtime to populate, so you mumble something about a community and a central incident and a voice, and then that’s it and the next question comes along. And you feel a bit relieved because you don’t have to go any further into the weird unsavoury hotpot of ideas that bubbles away inside your head and you wouldn’t know how to describe it if you did. But you also feel kind of frustrated because you didn’t have space to explain, you didn’t have time to tell the only thing that the reader or listener wants to know, which is how creativity works. And you wish you could.

Well, this is the closest I can get.

There were a lot of moments over a number of years that fed into the beginning of Rites. There were many moments in my childhood on a warm afternoon when I ripped open an ice pop, or heard the call of a wood pigeon, or felt a sense of oppressiveness on a quiet suburban street. There were some moments in church during my adolescence when I felt a frightening sort of alienation at the vast rumbling beast of the congregation, standing up, sitting down, kneeling rising, speaking, all in unison. There was one moment when I was eighteen, when my first love handed me a book by some writer named Julian Barnes called Talking It Over, and I lay in his bed for the rest of the day (the first love’s bed, not Julian Barnes’s) and read it from cover to cover and refused to get up and do whatever it was we had planned earlier because there was something about it.  There were numerous conversations with people who thought very differently to me about God and his/its usefulness. Some facts that I found out when I worked at the Ministry of Justice, about sexual offences legislation and conviction rates, that baffled and upset me. There were several instances of very painful juvenile heartbreak and jealousy – who can hurt like a fourteen year old?

Obviously, I never knew these moments would feed into a book. The best I can describe it is that I sort of ‘favourited’ them in my mind, much as you favourite a tweet, should you happen to be on Twitter. That is, I felt those moments with more than usual significance, and I revisted them mentally, with pleasure or pain, over the years. They had a sense of transferability about them as well as being very intimate – they inhabited that strange and beautiful crook between the personal and the universal, the particular and the recognizable. When I was about 24 and I started writing short stories (most of them terrible) and sending them off to magazines and competitions, it was these moments I came back to and mined for feeling. I tried to sharpen my vocabulary on them.

The stories didn’t do that well. I got a couple published in anthologies – I am very grateful for that early encouragement – but I don’t think they ever did, or will, change anyone’s world. I felt constrained by the form. Short stories, well, they’ve got to be short. I had a lot to say.

So by the time I was 26, I wanted to write a novel.

I was having a conversation with a guy I was seeing at the time. He told me a story, the central event of which was that somebody lost their keys, and the keys had a name and address written on them, and ramifications ensued. There was something about that image that just sent a little bit of a jolt through my mind. I said he should write a story about it. He said he’d rather not. I said that I might do, in that case. He said to be his guest.

I went away and kept thinking about the keys. Again and again. Abandon. Accident. Discovery. The phone call – there would be a phone call, of course, Recrimination. Confusion. Things spiral out of control. She doesn’t understand. And suddenly there was a voice in my own head. A young man’s voice. Not someone I’d ever met; a stranger. Precise and pedantic and ever so slightly mocking.

“When I was fourteen, I did something terrible. At least, that’s what some people tell me.”

Well, I wrote those lines down and around this time last year, just before I turned 27, I went away to a tiny isolated flat belonging to my grandparents in Norfolk – real Alan Partridge country – with just my computer, and I wrote a bit of narrative by this person who I thought for some reason was called Day. It was almost a character study. He was trying to tell the reader something but didn’t know where to start. He was so hampered by his baggage, the baggage of this incident and the baggage of the years that had passed since then that he kept failing, and giving up, but then no, insisting that what he had to say was worth saying. He was speaking about other people, three other people, and I knew that they had been there when the keys thing happened too. And gradually they started to form in my mind, and certain of my favourited moments clung to them and became parts of their personalities. They were all me, but they were also not me, they were strangers. I started to draw some diagrams, to figure out how they knew each other, how they fitted together. I wrote random words and phrases and arrows down in a notebook, and then I typed them all up into wobbly chunks of prose on my laptop, all through the narrator of Day.

Day was hard work. I think he is to read, as well as to write, actually. He exhausted me so much that I assumed he was the only narrator. More than one was unthinkable at the start. But then I got to a point where I suddenly didn’t know where to go with him any more. I was sitting there in that Norfolk flat, and suddenly I thought, very clearly and sharply about that Julian Barnes book I once read. And three narrative voices suddenly clamoured at me from all different directions. One was a woman, and she was drunk. One was a priest, and he was smug as you like. And one was a young woman and she was angry, and crucially she knew that I – the reader, the writer – had been speaking to Day. So she wanted to speak to me – the reader, the writer – too. And that was the start of it all. Day wasn’t the only narrator. There were loads of them. They all wanted to get their story in. They were all talking about the same thing. And they were all passing like ships in the night.

That was the beginning. More on middles and endings another time, perhaps, if this was of any use or interest.

For now, I’m off to bed. Today I have: cycled to campus, prepared and delivered undergraduate marking, made notes for the conference paper, had a meeting about chairing a panel, run to Clifton Ings, written a funding application, and made a wicked vodka spag bol, aka “meaty Bloody Mary” (thank you Stephen May). I am therefore knackered, and bed-bound.

Til next time!


Hello. Sorry for a bit of a lacuna over the last few days – I’ve been in London, with very little meaningful access to the interweb. It was a great trip – scheduled partly to meet my agent (there is really no way that I can say that without sounding like a wanker, is there?) and partly to take in some art galleries, museums, theatre and quality time with cherished old friends whom I don’t see half enough. I had a cracking time – particular highlights were: meeting said agent Euan at the A.M.Heath offices (seems like a great guy, we talked about exciting things); Ganapati (amazing South Indian kitchen in Peckham, book ahead and order the lamb dal cha); watching Detroit at themNational Theatre (superb script, excellent drunk acting); browsing Borough Market and the South Bank book market (homemade pasta and freshly squeezed fruit juice, grudgingly resisted bookish temptation since I have approx a billion to read already); a dirt-cheap Lebanese restaurant just off from Paddington Station (annoyingly can’t locate on Google Maps, but green beans & lamb houmos to die for); and the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern (getting quite a lot of flak for this on Twitter… went along with high snootiness and a sense of zeitgeist obligation, but was flabbergasted to enjoy it. Really really enjoy it.)

A bit of a word about the Hirst, actually. Because it’s book-related, sort of, ultimately, promise. The reason I stumped up my fourteen quid  is because, one day over a greasy brunch in Morrisons, I was wagging my fork and lecturing my dining companion about why Hirst was a knob when I realised that the only reason why I thought he was a knob is because other people had told me he was a knob. I had a sort of hand-me-down impression of a canny generator of both controversy and cash; his art seemed to me a sort of artistic equivalent to Stewart Lee’s description of Jeremy Clarkson’s “outrageously politically incorrect opinions which he has every week to a deadline in the Sunday Times”. There’s something suspect about an artist making that kind of money, surely? Isn’t there? And about him constantly using the morbid, the deathly, the shocking, to do it? Crass.

Well, for what it’s worth, the main thing that struck me about the exhibition was how much of Hirst’s voluminous output doesn’t fit this shock jock bill. I had never really heard of “Lullaby, The Seasons”, a dazzling array of thousands upon thousands of hand-painted pills, painstakingly arranged in great complex swathes of modulating colour along mirrored shelves… but I stood marvelling at it for a long time, and can still see the colours when I close my eyes. Ditto the stunning “Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven”, a set of enormous stained glass windows of achingly vivid colours which on closer inspection are made of hundreds of thousands of butterflies. Both were simply very beautiful. Yes there was a subtext of mortality to both – ‘Lullaby’ in particular made me think a little more about medication’s role in helping us to accept our mortality – but the main thing that sprung out of these works for me was an investment in the pleasure that can be provoked by aesthetic criteria, coupled with a self-reflexive edge that asks us to question what role this pleasure plays in helping us to adjust and streamline the world. If that isn’t good art, what is?

HOWEVER, the most memorable moment of the exhibition for me was actually in response to one of the most famous shocking pieces of art, “Mother and Child, Divided”. For those who don’t know, this is a cow and a calf, each cut in half and preserved in a pair of glass-walled tanks in a formaldehyde solution. The tanks are set a distance apart so that you can actually walk through the cow or the calf, inspecting each grisly inch of gut and gristle. Now, I and my friend had just finished squeamishly inching our way through the cow, and I was feeling rather shaken – the sense of enclosure provoked by the experience seems like it can’t help but make one reflect on both the meatiness and fragility of one’s own body, the proximity to that state of death. At that moment, I saw a little boy, probably no more than about four years old, who had been brought along to the exhibition by his enterprising mother or aunt or family friend. He was crouched down inside the calf, tracing his finger along the passage of its intestines. And he was absolutely loving it. There was a massive grin on his face and every now and then he would shout out to his mum or whoever, “YEAH! GUTS! COOL!” He was utterly untouched by the sense of horror and humbleness that the memento mori is culturally calculated to produce. Either he was simply responding to something that he found instinctively appealing in the pattern of the animal’s innards without really being aware of the grisly context, or else he was cheerfully aware of this context and his reaction was, despite this, one of ludic pleasure. Looking at this vignette, I felt one of those shifts in perspective that you sometimes get when confronted by art and that make the fourteen quid entry fee worthwhile; a sense that my reactions to certain constructs are culturally conditioned; that death (among other things) doesn’t need to be responded to in a particular way; that it’s possible to it occurred to break out of that, to take pleasure in the seemingly unenjoyable.

It also occurred to me that while I didn’t rate “Mother and Child, Divided”  that much in itself, that with the addition of that gleeful little boy, it is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. And this, in turn, as I wandered along the South Bank afterwards, got me thinking about the place of reception in Hirst’s work. When he created that thing, did he think of it as being admired from the point of view of a solitary, omniscient viewer? Or did he imagine it in something like the context I saw it – with a group of people crowded around it, observing not only the piece itself but also others’ reactions to it, learning something from that spectrum of reactions, letting the piece act as a catalyst to generate reflection on difference? It would be nice to think he did, I thought. And then I reached that lovely secondhand book market, and browsed the books for a while, and of course my mind, still lingering on this idea, gradually turned to books, which it always does eventually. I realized that this context of social reception is something that’s pretty intrinsic to what I do with books, both academically and creatively. Books don’t exist in a vacuum. Or at least, they shouldn’t. Academically, the Chapter that has been monopolizing my every waking hour recently is not just about Cecilia; it’s actually about how people were talking about Cecilia. I’m arguing that the novel acted as a catalyst to provoke explosive debate about issues of identity and social classification in assembly rooms across London, among many conversationalists who were not really supposed to debate those kinds of issues (ie. women). Creatively, I realized that the book I’ve written has been set up to defer resolution, to keep the moral balls in the air, to keep people talking. I don’t know why but my ultimate dream for the book, rather than amazing reviews or the Orange Prize or fantastically lucrative sales figures (ha!) has always been that somewhere a few people might sit around a table in the pub and have an argument about it. And that observing one another’s responses to the events, identifications with the characters, they might slightly re-place themselves in the world. This, I think, is the point of literature. More widely (this has after all been a post mainly about Hirst) it’s the point of art. Are books still best placed to generate this kind of debate and re-positioning?

Fourteen quid. Well worth it.

My eye! what a lot of print for the money.

I’ve been mainly blathering on about the book so far, but in fact most of my time recently has been taken up with what I eloquently label in my head as ‘PhD stuff’. In fact, ‘taken up’ is a nice way of putting it. What I mean is that recently I’ve been getting up at 6am, working through til midnight, standing friends up for coffee, and eschewing the dear, dear pub. All in the name of getting one Chapter done.

That’s deliberate, by the way. The capitalization. The ‘chapter’ has dominated my life and haunted my dreams so comprehensively for the last few months that it has become, in my head, The Chapter. Lower case just won’t cut it.

(For those who do not do / have not done a PhD. The Chapter is a long piece of work (13000 words, so that’s about 40 pages). It will form approximately one sixth of my thesis, which is what I’ll hand in at the end of this 3 or 4 year glorious epoch of my life.  PhDs are, from what I can understand, sort of bottom-heavy. Your first year is largely spent reading around, your second year is spent tentatively translating that reading into prose and doing more reading, your third year is spent writing more and doing panic-reading, and your fourth is spent making the whole thing presentable, crossing ts and dotting is, etc.)

The Chapter is about a juicy, 941-page novel by Frances Burney, called Cecilia: or, Memoirs of an Heiress. Now, I KNOW THAT’S LONG. But you should honestly give it a try. It’s a cracking book.


If you’ll pardon me the digression – what’s wrong with long books, anyway? For me, part of the joy of reading Cecilia – or any 18th century novel – is the size of the thing. It’s a satisfying if slightly feverish feeling to unleash yourself on a book without fear that it will end. To let your eyes wash over a page, taking in only the odd word, but losing little from it; to plough through a hundred pages at a go without feeling that anything is slipping through your fingers. I’d been reading rather thin, sparse stuff just before the first time I ever read Cecilia; lesser-known McEwans, some blinding short stories etc; and the length and fussiness of Cecilia was actually a welcome contrast after reading literature in which the writers seem almost scared of using a surfeit of language sometimes. Burney has no such compunction. A masque can take up 80 or 90 pages; each character speaks for a paragraph of 16-20 lines. And in some ways you feel by the end as if you know them better for it. Sometimes I think that these days we over-fetishize brevity, that in paring things down so much we lose something valuable. And it’s not even as if it definitely reflects reality better. Excess brevity/sparseness runs the risk of seeming too withdrawn, too self-consciously rugged. In real life, there are an awful lot of words. A lot of thoughts, and a lot of events, and a lot of pointless, phatic, banal conversation. If you subscribe to this, Burney’s highly realistic I suppose.

Do we have no use for them in this penny pinching age of austerity, at least? Think on this. Wilkie Collins, in an essay called ‘The Unknown Public’, describes an encounter with an old bookseller. Collins asks what the best journal he stocks is, and the guy says:‘Why, Lord bless your soul, just take ‘em up and look for yourself, and say if they ain’t good pennorths! Look what a lot of print in every one of ‘em! My eye! What a lot of print for the money!’

Anyway, the good and bad thing about a long book is that, of course, it follows that there’s a lot to say about one. The Chapter, therefore, started off being about hereditary naming in Cecilia. Then it grew to be about hereditary naming versus taxonomic naming. Then it swelled slightly to become about these two types of naming in the novel as negotiated through polite conversation, records of which I found on a research trip to the New York Public Library. Then it became clear to me that of course if I was talking about hereditary naming then that necessitated reading up on inheritance law, marriage contracts and the like. And that if I was talking about taxonomic naming, then I should know a bit about Linnaeus and natural history… and Lavater… and satire…. and that the whole thing probably had something to do with commerce…. and before I knew it, the Chapter was basically about the world.
It’s okay. I’ve set some firm boundaries and I’m nearly there. I’ve nearly knocked the thing on the head, so I can start the next chapter (not stressing me out yet = small case). It’s a good thing too, because I’m going slightly mad. I keep having dreams where I’m Cecilia going mad in a pawnbroker’s shop. Going mad and tracking changes.
I shall now go to watch Mad Men and eat pasta with friends. Thanks for reading, by the way – it’s really nice that you are. The hit count is a bit mental. I wonder who’s reading me in Pakistan, Nigeria and Luxembourg? Hm? Belgium, Canada, Macedonia – I totally know who you are.
Til next time!

parental perplexity

I just woke up to a message from my dad. He’s read my book – I brought a copy to Manchester to give to him and Mum at the weekend. It’s dedicated to them (as well as to one very excellent friend), so it was a bit of a Moment, and obviously I’ve been rather nervous wondering when they’ll read it and what they’ll think of it. Anyway, in Dad’s message he said some very nice things about it, which I won’t share because (a) they’re private (b) I’d sound like an idiot. Then he finished up with, “It was gripping, uncomfortable and haunting. I did not sleep very well last night after reading it.”

My first reaction was delight. Rites (in my deeply biased opinion) could be described as a a bittersweet book, but it’s heavy on the bitter and very light on the sweet. It’s about four teenagers and what they get up to in the summer of 1997 in an Anglo-Irish Catholic suburb of Manchester (clue: it involves a virginity pact and it doesn’t end too well, and that’s not giving anything away). If you’re devoutly Catholic, you probably won’t like it. If you’re militantly atheist, you’ll probably be frustrated with it. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys certainty, clear resolution and believing that everything happens for a reason then I think you might find it uncomfortable reading. So I’m delighted that it’s kept at least one person up at night. The worst thing anyone could say to me (within reasonable bounds of politeness) is “Aww, yeah, I thought it was lovely.”

But then another thought struck me. I wrote back:  “Thanks Dad! I’m sorry I robbed you of some sleep… I hope it’s because you were pondering all the searching moral questions, and not just because you were wondering how you brought up such a twisted individual…”

The parental editor is an issue I think every writer probably has to deal with at some point. You’re in your groove, bashing out some edgy stuff about sex or death or psychological torture or whatnot, feeling terribly avant-garde, and suddenly you see your mum peering over your shoulder, asking plaintively “Why don’t you write a nice story about ponies?” Of course, you have to banish her and carry on writing as you want to, otherwise you’re a bad writer. But all you’re really doing then is deferring the moment of discomfort until you’re actually presenting them with the book. Now, I don’t want to dismay you, gentle reader, but there are a few sex scenes in Rites too. Nothing too graphic, actually. But because of the context, scenes that could or could not be found disturbing. The thought of my parents reading those scenes – not to mention my 90-year-old grandparents, who have declared their firm intention to get hold of a copy – is … conflicted.

I should look on the bright side. They can’t react worse than Ernest Hemingway’s ma, who wrote to him after reading The Sun Also Rises:

“It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year …. What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? …. Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than “damn” and “bitch”—Every page fills me with a sick loathing.”


Which literary parents over the course of publishing history d’you think had the toughest job mustering a grin and clapping their deviant offspring on the back? My money’s on Mrs. Plath.


awkward introductions


Alright, Internet. My name is Sophie Coulombeau. I’m a reader and a writer. To be more specific: I’m both an academic-in-training, currently in the second year of a PhD  in English Literature at the University of York, and a writer of fiction and drama. This blog is a sort of jotter pad of my thoughts about reading and writing and the way these two processes influence each other. It’s meant to provide a handy catch-all sort of corner for anyone interested in my activities, struggles and achievements on my bibliophilic beat.

First, let’s be upfront about the irritating promotional stuff. I’ve got a novel  (my very first) coming out on June 25th this year. It’s called Rites, it’s published by an independent publisher called Route (see here http://www.route-online.com/all-books/rites.html ) and I will, frequently, be posting things about it. Where you can buy it (if you’re so minded), what other people have said about it (if anyone bothers saying anything about it), all that kind of jazz. This may or may not be irritating.

On the plus side, if you’re a writer (especially a newish writer, struggling to break into the brutal Hobbesian world of literary fiction) and you’re interested in the reality of bringing a manuscript from scribbled jottings in a notebook to a beautiful shiny elegant object on the shelf at Waterstones, then you might find what I have to say of interest. I’ve discovered over the last year or so that there is very little public awareness of what it is like to write your first book in today’s climate. How do you go about making the thing coherent, when you realize you’re in your mid-twenties and all you’ve got is twenty four pages of scrawled phrases and impressions, a whisky habit and a black polo neck, and the uncomfortable realization that if you don’t JUST BLOODY WELL WRITE THE THING then you’re never going to be a writer at all? How long does it take, once you’ve forced yourself to do it? Where do you write? WHAT do you write? How do you balance the emotionally and intellectually draining process of crafting a narrative with the job you do to pay the bills? How do you get the big break? Agent or publisher, which one comes first? What’s your relationship with your agent? Do they help you with drafting, or just act like talent management? What’s your relationship with your editor? Can they tell you to change your story, or do they just correct your grammar? How much input do you get into cover design? How much do you get paid? Do you get paid at all? How well are you expecting to sell? What happens if you don’t sell any? What happens if you do?

If any of this kind of stuff seems intriguing, then do come back to check the blog, because I’ll be frequently reflecting on the composition of Rites as the publication date approaches. I tried to keep real-time updates on Facebook and Twitter as I wrote it, but found these forms weren’t ideal for the kind of reflections I wanted to make – ‘novelist’ is just another word for sufferer of verbal diorrhea, after all – and in many ways it’s only now that I feel I’ve gained enough distance from the acutely anxious and nerve-wracking process of re-drafting to reflect on it properly. Having said this, I have just started my second novel – which is already proving itself to be a very different kind of creature from the first –and I will be having another go at reflecting on the composition process in real time for anyone who’s interested. We’ll see how it goes.

A word about my day job. I’m currently in the second year of my PhD in English Literature at the University of York, writing about the relationship between naming and identity in late 18th / early 19th century British literature. There will also be updates about this academic work – both my research and the day-to-day experience of being a young(ish) academic at this moment in Britain. Perhaps this might seem like a less juicy topic for many people, but it’s something that I’m keen to write about precisely in order to get across my passion for professional geekdom . Despite the cultural stereotypes, academia is a fascinating, dynamic, intellectually exhausting and often downright hilarious place to work.  In the wake of the Browne Report, it’s also a world that is currently taking a good, hard look at itself and asking: What are we? What’s our role? What are we doing? What should we be doing? This is interesting, and it’s important. At least, I think so.

Oh, one more thing. I might write about food quite a lot too. Just because I love it. And I make it quite a lot. And sometimes I take pictures of it, and don’t know who to show them to. So I’ll most likely do it here.

That seems just about enough for a first blog post, so I’ll leave it there. Thanks for reading, do come back. You can visit the Facebook page for Rites here or follow me on Twitter here https://twitter.com/#!/WritingMyRites if you’re so inclined.