Strange Bedfellows: The School Years (or: Public engagement & why it matters)

I’m incredibly happy to announce some brilliant Strange Bedfellows-related news. The project team has received funding to run a public engagement programme in York over Spring Term 2013 that will add a fascinating dimension to our research about project about  creativity, analysis and arts/educational policy. Six humanities research students from the University of York, and six from the University of Leeds, will be workshopping with Year 12 students from Huntington School to observe and calibrate their creative and analytical processes, and interview them about their creative lives, curricula and aspirations. This will lead to a project report and hopefully a journal article about the findings of this strand of the project; a short film; and an exhibition of the Year 12 students’ creative work to coincide with the York Festival of Ideas in June 2013. We’re very grateful to Huntington School and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York for investing in the project to enable this to happen!

We are currently recruiting postgraduate workshop facilitators  – if you’re a humanities postgraduate at either university, and you’d like to gain unique public engagement experience, please have a look at the full info here and drop us an email!

Facilitator recruitment email

Why are we doing this, you might wonder? What are PhD students doing poking around in secondary schools? Don’t they have enough on their plates? Well, yes, we do. But when we set up our project originally (see here for a post talking about its origins), we decided that we weren’t happy with the prospect being just a series of seminars or lectures given by academics to other academics in the rooms of a university.  We wanted our knowledge base and audience to be far more inclusive than that. Inspired by the emphasis in recent years on public engagement in academia, we decided to talk to a rising generation of school leavers from different social backgrounds and pursuing different educational curricula, just deciding what to do with their lives, about the issues that we’re interested in. How do they see creativity? How does it relate to their current school curriculum or other analytical activity? Is creativity a passion, an aspiration, a hobby, a luxury, a necessity? We wanted to observe the processes by which they create and analyse, and give them the opportunity to challenge our values and preconceptions, which can’t help but be somewhat rooted within the academe.

We also wanted to try to give the students a voice in some of the debates about educational and arts policy that are currently raging – after all, they will  be just as affected by current government policy on these matters as us, and perhaps more so. Recent developments in government policy indicate a worrying trend to dismiss the arts and humanities as unimportant or disposable. Key among these are the slashing of funding for arts organisations across the UK, the accepted recommendation of the Browne Report to eradicate the teaching grant for arts and humanities subjects in universities, and the recent decision to exclude arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate.­­ The government’s current approach – paying lip service to the importance of creativity while systematically removing support from its facilitators – risks producing a generation of young people whose state education system dismisses arts subjects as unimportant, who are opting out of arts degrees which might enable careers in the creative industries because they are too expensive, and who have no access to affordable cultural activities in their local communities. To the best of our knowledge, the young people whose futures are at stake have seldom been asked for their opinions on the relationship between creativity and analysis, their curricula and their creative lives, their aspirations and the opportunities that are provided for them by the state. This workshop programme aims to give them an opportunity to intervene in this debate.

So if you know anyone at York or Leeds who might be interested, do point them in the direction of this blog post or of the Strange Bedfellows website, and ask them to drop us a line. We’ll be selecting facilitators just before Christmas, and training in January to commence the workshops on 30 January 2013.

Ode to Arts Council England

Recently Arts Council England published this write-up of my German translation deal for Rites. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news/arts-council-news/yorkshires-next-great-young-novelist-signs-transla/  This led me to reflect, first soppily, then angrily, on a couple of things.

I’m constantly aware of the huge debt of gratitude I owe to ACE for its role in funding the Next Great Novelist Award and the publication of Rites. However, not everyone appreciates its importance in the same way. Among other measures, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announced £34million cuts to DCMS, some of which will very likely hit ACE (which has already cut administrative costs by 50%) hard. (see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2012/dec/05/autumn-statement-2012-arts-funding).

I’ll be writing to my MP about the amazing impact that ACE has had on my life and how worried I am about the impact of these cuts. I know most people won’t have the time / motivation to do this, but if anyone has enjoyed or profited from reading Rites, please do just bear in mind that, like many other books you may have enjoyed, it’s an Arts Council England baby. As well as funding initiatives to discover and nurture new talent in unusual places, ACE undertakes very important work in supporting writers who need to take a bit of time out from their day jobs to write. The vast majority (especially new writers who aren’t lucky enough to be independently wealthy) simply can’t survive on (retrospective) earnings from sales of their books, the lion’s share of which goes to retailers. So, if you love literature, love the ACE, and appreciate its work, and spare it a little thought come May 2014.

A Portrait Of The Thesis As A Young Scrawl

Once again, it’s been a ridiculous amount of time since my last post. Well over a month. As ever, I have big gropey handfuls of excuses. Been away. Been writing a play. Been exhausted. Been teaching. Been marking. Been applying for fellowships and funding. Been supporting friends going through difficult times. Been planning public engagement project. Been submitting papers for conferences and journals. Been drunk. Been reading Bring Up The Bodies. However, most of all been doing  something I haven’t blogged about that much so far – the bread and butter of PhD work – a Chapter.

The fact that the Chapter, and the associated re-working of my thesis that it occasioned, took up so much of my summer and autumn means that the academic side of stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. Given this, and the fact that I have recently been chatting to several friends who want to start a PhD / have just done so and are anxious about it, I thought it might be worth blogging a bit about the thesis in its own right – where it comes from, how it develops, why it takes as long as it does. Partly because my posts about academic work seem (somewhat to my surprise) to find the readiest audience and most enthusiastic reception to date, but also partly as a selfish exercise in reflectiveness. Doing a PhD in my subject, you’re so often bogged down in the most quotidian and minute of details – how can I go about dating this letter? where can I get access to this out-of-print book? – that I think it’s beneficial from time to time to squint broadly at the project as a whole as if taking in a view of a landscape. Ask where it came from, ask where it’s at, ask where it’s going.  Ask why you’re bothering and why it’s important.

I am now a bit over two years into my PhD, which is sort of only supposed to last for three years (that is, this is how long the AHRC pays my fees and gives me a stipend for) but really always lasts four (that is, I’ve only ever heard of one person doing my subject who finished in three, and a senior academic confided in me recently that “when someone’s finished in three years, you can usually tell by looking at their thesis”. The fourth year is a tricky prospect, which shall be blogged about hereafter. For now, any offers of lucrative work that can be combined with frenzied writing-up will be gratefully received). My project, as I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog post, examines how the relationship between personal proper naming and identity was conceptualized in Britain in the late eighteenth century (specifically 1779-1800). I do this through examining a large number of different kinds of text – novels, poetry, plays, pamphlets, diaries, philosophical and political treatises, dictionaries, prints and paintings, government records and correspondence – for manifestations of concern or preoccupation with this relationship. I then work from that evidence to ask how and why the act of proper naming was made, during this period, to stand as this kind of site where anxieties about kinship, belonging, social position, gender, race and nationality were worked out. What impact this process of working out has on literature and especially the development of the novel. And how it has impacted on notions of identity as they exist today.

At least, that is what my project is NOW about. It wasn’t always thus. It started off like this:

 

This is a page of notes I found the other day that tickled me pink, because it records the exact moment at which I hit on a PhD project. I was doing my Masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was sitting in a seminar on William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, which was taught by Professor Stuart Curran (a great man in the field of 18th century studies… it was actually the last seminar Stuart taught before he retired).  Stuart casually mentioned at one point that he wished someone would do a project on literary names, because the name ‘Tyrrel/l’ (as in, Godwin’s character Barnabas Tyrrel and Burney’s character Justice Tyrrell) has an interesting lineage and there are many others like it in literature of the era. My notes show my excitement. “Names! Names, names, names. Waverley / Willoughby. Anville / Lovell / Tyrrell” I scrawled. For that seminar, I wrote a paper about how the novelist Charlotte Smith engaged with Lockean philosophy around naming in her novel Desmond. Stuart was incredibly supportive of the essay, and encouraged me to send it off to a competition run by the journal Eighteenth Century Fiction. They turned it down for publication, but sent me a very nice letter saying I was ‘considered a runner-up’. Mildly gratified, I left Penn to start a job working for the government back in London, and forgot all about it.

But not for long. Civil service work did not agree with me, and I hankered after the books. So after a year or two, I got back in touch with Stuart, now retired, and asked him if he thought my project had legs as the focus for a doctorate. I got an incredibly encouraging email back, and the name of a potential supervisor at York with whom he strongly recommended I get in touch. She was no less supportive. I managed to slap together an application in my evenings after work; the rest is history.

But the project, the project. What even was the project? I remember well the feeling of utter disorientation I got from turning up at York with this vague idea, this inane-seeming suspicion that “there was something quite interesting about how people were talking about names” and little else. I knew I thought several writers were talking about names in particularly interesting ways – Burney, Godwin, Smith – but what they were really getting at or why they were doing it or what its importance was I had no idea. I felt guilty that someone had given me money, had placed their confidence in me to come up with something worth knowing, when I had so little solid certainty to offer in return. I spent my first year reading widely and erratically – about seventeenth-century memorial sculpture; twentieth century memorials for genocide victims; deed poll procedure today; eighteenth debating societies, charities and embryonic law enforcement agencies. I blundered down blind alleys that led nowhere (presenting papers about epitaphs and satire) and others that actually led somewhere fascinating, though not the place I’d imagined (surveillance theory, anyone?). I changed the focus of my prospective thesis a million times; in terms of chronology, generic focus, subject matter. I narrowed it to one author and widened it to include the world. I lay awake at night worrying that I would never settle, never get it sorted, that I would be kneading and poking a vast limitless expanse of playdough-like text, failing to mould it into any definitive shape, for time immemorial.

Eventually (and not before a few months ago) I settled on a compromise that just – and I really can’t put it any better than this – felt right. Twenty years, not fifty. Five or six major writers and a lot of ‘backup singers’ to boot, not just one. Proper personal naming only – the names that human beings call themselves and others – rather than all kinds of naming, which basically becomes a thesis on language itself. I defined roughly, clumsily, how the question I wanted to explore fitted in with criticism that already existed, on historical naming practices, on literary naming strategies, on existing theories about how the fluid notion of ‘identity’ came to exist in the form that we understand it today, on accounts of the novel’s importance in this process. I took the material I had written so far- one long chapter on Burney, about five conference papers and a lot of book reports and fragments of text – and parceled them out into five rough clusters of related material. I kept those pieces of paper on a notice board and wrote questions and ideas and re-shaping suggestions on post-its and stuck them up there. One of the chapters was bullying all the others in a most unseemly manner, so I broke it up and moved all its bits around. Another was clearly never going to thrive, so I brutally exterminated it. Eventually I was left with a workable plan. And a lot of things that I still had to do.

This was the work of a whole summer. And, really, of two years. Just to get an idea of the shape of it all.

And I’m not even finished yet. I’m so far from it.  Barely halfway there. I have a monstrous first chapter, a sort of engorged scene-setter, about the relationship between common naming philosophy and proper naming theory from 1700-1779. It needs fully rewriting and a lot more work on dictionaries. I have a reasonably polished second chapter on Frances Burney and the historical phenomenon of surname change, but this still needs to benefit from a two-week research trip I’m undertaking to the College of Arms in January. I have a conference paper and an abstract and a lot of notes that will become my third chapter on Godwin, Bentham, and disciplinary naming. I have that old paper that was rejected by Eighteenth Century Fiction, which should form the basis of Chapter Four on matrimonial naming (it looks crude and confused when I read it now, although there’s a kernel of sense at the heart of it. I can see why they said no). And I have a scattered multiplicity of book reports, anecdotes and general feschtenschrift that will become Chapter Five, which reflect on how all these different kinds of concern with naming interact when an author names a character, and what this can tell us.  That’s it. And I’m willing to bet that by this time next year, it’ll look different yet again. All the chapters will have grown, shrunk, swapped limbs, merged, dragged in their mates that I don’t even know exist yet. I will have many sleepless nights.

But the great thing? The great thing is that I’m starting, as the thing solidifies in my hands a bit, to stop feeling like a fraud. To start being able to say with a bit more confidence, “No, there is a need for this. This is a good project, and it’s important.” When I hear any discussion about civil liberties on the news, I start thinking about what I’m going to say about Godwin and Bentham, about how little work has been done about the origins of the census, and about how patchy work is on practices of documenting individual identity. When I hear someone talking about whether to change their name when they marry, I’m able to offer some kind of historical context for the way that the notion of changing this symbol of identity makes them feel; to surprise them with how many people laid out vast amounts of money on getting an Act of Parliament to change their surname in the eighteenth century and why; to interest them in Burney’s Cecilia and its pantheon of fans (Burke, Johnson, Gibbon, Napoleon, George Washington, John Quincy Adams…). When my undergrad students start chatting about J.K.Rowling’s (deft and intelligent) use of allusive names in the Harry Potter series, I’m able to enrich and contextualise their understanding a bit by talking about some of the traditions of literary naming of which she is a part. Recently I got an email from a TV production company who were potentially interested in making a programme about personal proper names and the role of eighteenth century fiction in popularising certain ones – clearly they think there might be some kind of appetite among the non-academic public to find out about this stuff.

I also had my first article accepted for an academic journal. It’s about Godwin’s Caleb Williams, the text that originally sparked my interest in this stuff, way back in 2008 in Philadelphia. My interest now comes from an entirely different angle, but it owes its existence to that early, formless instinct – “Yes, there’s something here, there’s something“. Difficult as it is at the start of the PhD, I think you have to trust that instinct. I’ve often been tempted to describe the thesis as like a jigsaw that you need to put together, fitting pieces in, taking them out, forming different clusters and then it all suddenly coming together. But in a way that’s a rubbish analogy, because it implies that there is an ur-thesis, an ideal thesis that just needs to be figured out and assembled. A friend of mine got much closer the truth, I think, when she said last night when we were discussing this, “When you get pregnant, how can you know what the baby’s going to turn out like? Even though it’s inside you.” Same with a thesis. You want it, you look forward to meeting it, you know the materials that go into it. But what will come out at the end is anyone’s guess. Hopefully you’ll love it no matter what.

 

 

 

 

 

“Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner.”

 

I do not like science. I’ve never liked it. This may have something to do with the fact that when I was eleven years old, an odious boy in my biology class put earwigs in my glasses case. Or it may have something to do with the fact that science has always seemed, in a vague way I’ve never really bothered to articulate properly, to stand against what I love most about art. It seeks to state, rather than to question. To close things down to facts, rather than open them up to possibilities. To say (mangling the words of Virginia Woolf) that “someone [or something] was this or that”. Literature, my most beloved form of art, has always seemed to be about the opposite of saying that things were this or that. It seems to be about taking the thisness or thatness, and prizing it apart to show the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the room to reframe or reinterpret. Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner. Oh, of course it’s NECESSARY. I owe science one every time I turn on my bedside lamp or log into my beloved Twitter. But that doesn’t mean we need to TALK about it.

What I say above is, of course, in itself a statement. Perhaps a rather silly one. In recent years, following my re-entrance to academia and the current vogue (an entirely worthy one, in my book) for interdisciplinarity, I’ve started to wonder whether my instinctive prejudice against the scientific bullyboy is misguided. Counterproductive. Whether perhaps my dislike for science is born more of fear (all that jargon! all those graphs!) and envy (so NECESSARY! so INDISPENSABLE! so … government-funded!) instead. I’ve started to take a tentative interest in one particular branch of science – psychology. What I’ve found has surprised and (cautiously) delighted me. Psychology, it seems to me, might be the story of the mind. Which gives it something rather in common with literature. 

This is another, more eloquent way of putting it. 

“No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?”

That is the psychologist / novelist Charles Fernyhough speaking – you can read the full article here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/15/scienceandnature.society It’s rather old (2005) and Charles has done a lot of other stuff since then, but it was enough to convince me and my fellow Strange Bedfellows coordinators that we wanted to ask him to be our first speaker in the SB speaker series that kicks off on Thursday. The mission of the Strange Bedfellows project is to investigate and clarify the relationship between creativity and analysis. Who better to address this relationship than a scientist/artist, somebody who not only practices both disciplines but also sees a powerful and persuasive linkage between them? I’m looking forward to hearing how Charles separates the different strands of his professional life, forces or encourages them into interaction, and perceives the similarities and differences between them; to having him no doubt demolish my woffly objections to science’s stranglehold on the truth, but also perhaps to query convincingly whether science is concerned enough with beauty. 

Come and join us if you’re in York on Thursday and it sounds like your kind of thing. See the poster below for details. You can find out more about Charles here http://www.charlesfernyhough.com/about.html and more about the Strange Bedfellows project (including the recent fantastic posts from our interdisciplinary blogger team) here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=25.Image

 

Introducing our Strange Bedfellows bloggers!

Today, my friends, is an exciting day. As some of you may remember from this post, I’ve recently been working to launch an interdisciplinary academic/creative project called ‘Strange Bedfellows?: Creativity and Analysis in an Age of Austerity’. I run this with my York colleague Ben Madden, my Hull colleague Ryan Hanley, and more recently in collaboration with Alys Mostyn at the University of Leeds. We’re all PhD students with a keen interest in the relationship between creativity and analysis, both on a private cognitive level and in public and higher education policy. If you like my personal blog, which basically considers the relationship between creativity and analysis in my own life, I can say pretty definitively that you’ll find Strange Bedfellows interesting. You can find out more about the project’s mission statement here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=5.php

The project has four strands to it:

*a speaker series (kicking off with the fantastic Charles Fernyhough, novelist and Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Durham, speaking about Neuroscience And The Novel on October 18th http://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/public-lectures/autumn2012/neuroscience-novel/);

*a public engagement project in a local secondary school (partners on board; funding application submitted; sitting tight);

*an interdisciplinary conference and panel of writers reflecting on government treatment of creativity and analysis, happening at the year’s end (currently being put together; exciting developments afoot)

*AND A BLOG.

The blog is the big news today. Over the last few months, Ben Ryan and I have been soliciting and evaluating applications from a huge range of dynamic, innovative thinkers who have something important to say about the way that creativity and analysis interact in their daily lives and wanted to blog collaboratively for Strange Bedfellows. With great difficulty, we selected our final panel of eleven in August. These people think, study, work and create across the disciplines of visual art, music, film, poetry, fiction, philosophy, publishing and criticism. They will all be blogging approx once every fortnight for us over the course of the next academic year, interacting with each other and the public to develop their own and our communal thinking about this relationship and why it’s important. You can read their profiles here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=18.php and see the Strange Bedfellows post explaining what the blog is all about here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?p=199.

If you’re interested in higher education / the arts / creativity / interdisciplinarity, bookmark this blog and follow us on @StrangeBedProj to get a digest of blog posts from day to day and follow the Strange Bedfellows journey over the academic year.

A big welcome to the blogging team! We’re delighted to have you on board.

This Much I Know – Starting a PhD

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! It’s that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are falling and York is suddenly thronged with freshers, both undergrads and postgrads – some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, others clearly already suffering from the first of many appalling hangovers. I arrived here in York exactly two years ago (almost to the day). I remember my sense of wonder at the city itself – the fresh air after the smog of London, the glorious jumble of architecture ranging from the medieval to the kitsch, the buzz of the bars, the smell of warm chocolate from the Nestle factory – and this late September weather always rekindles in me that glorious sense of discovery, possession and potential that makes York such a very special place to live. But I also remember feeling terrified – that I’d left everything I knew to move to a new city where I didn’t know a single soul, but also about the process of starting a PhD. I’d spent my twenties to date flirting with the idea of a PhD – skirting around it, coming close, fleeing into the arms of the civil service, igniting the spark again, finally making the leap and committing myself. I’d done as much research as possible, but I still felt like I had no idea what to expect. I felt like not only a novice but also a fraud.

When I recently wrote a piece for the Independent about the reality of being a humanities doctoral student, I got a vast amount of feedback from people all over the world. The most gratifying messages were from those who were about to start a doctorate and said they were interested and/or reassured by what I had to say. It was lovely to cast my mind back to my own feelings of trepidation two years ago and think that the feature might have helped to set others’ nerves to rest. With that in mind, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a less generalist piece than my Indy one, more targeted at those PhD students starting their humanities doctorates now or contemplating applying for them this year. So here it is. It’s heavily influenced by the late and great Jane Moody’s Top Tips For Surviving A PhD, which was delivered as part of the York Humanities Research Centre’s excellent graduate induction course. And I nicked the ‘This Much I Know’ format from the blog of York head teacher John Tomsett, who in turn nicked it from The Observer magazine. I think it’s a good one because the title manages to connote the sharing of knowledge but also a very important sense of humbleness. Because although I know this much, I very definitely do not know it all. Only two years in out of three (or more likely four), I’m still feeling like a complete chump every day as I regret things I didn’t do earlier, worry about things I won’t do until it’s too late, or ask myself how I didn’t get around to this until now. All the more reason though, I think, to share the tips I wish someone had shared with me back in 2010. Please  share the post if you think it might help someone you know.

THIS MUCH I KNOW – STARTING A PHD

1. Often during your first year, you will feel as if you’re flailing around in research outer space without oxygen. This is entirely normal. 

What I mean by this is that it’s okay to have no idea what your project will look like as you blunder your way through your first year. Yes, we all had to write a proposal to get on to the PhD programme, and pretend we were dead certain that it would pan out exactly as we said, but that’s just a hoop that you have to jump through – albeit an entirely necessary one – to demonstrate that you’re capable of knowledge of your area, forethought and careful planning. As you start to read around (hopefully with the guidance of a supportive and knowledgeable supervisor) you’ll realize that some of your assumptions and theories that make up even the best proposal are old news and have no originality whatsoever. Others are wrong. Others are laughable. Part of being a good PhD student is reacting to this by adjusting your project accordingly, which can mean that you rather wildly redefine your project from day to day, hence the floating around in space feeling. Eg. I started off wanting to talk about naming in the novel within a forty year period. In the middle of my first year I read so much exciting stuff about the radical novel that my project lurched rather unsteadily into being about the novel as a forum for political debate, with emphasis on transit and crossing physical borders. I then realized that this subject had been rather exhaustively covered already, and that I was in fact still interested in names, so I went back to my original focus but with a circumscribed time frame and an interdisciplinary focus and a far more carefully historicist approach. My supervisor oversaw this reeling and lurching around with superb calm. It’s all normal.

2.  Your supervisor is, metaphorically speaking, a tool. Not a taskmaster. 

This is not a criticism of the supervisor. Quite the contrary. I and many of my friends started the PhD terrified that each supervision was some kind of test; that we would be found wanting and chastised unless we put in a superb ‘performance’ every time. This is rubbish. They really don’t care how you ‘perform’. I find it far more productive to think of my supervisor as a very sophisticated, expensive, useful tool. She has these vast stores of knowledge, these excellent critical faculties, these unrivalled contacts. But fundamentally the relationship exists to make my research better. Not so I can get a gold star every term. It’s tough to bear this in mind when your supervisor’s as impressive as mine is, but I try very hard and I think it helps.

On a related note…

3. Your project takes up about 75% of your mental space. It takes up about 0.75% of your supervisor’s. If that.

As per above. Submitting work is an intimidating process. I and my peers used to operate on the principle that that each quavering book report submitted for inspection would be dissected with the ferocity of a mad surgeon intent on finding a tumour of bullshit. This is not the case. Your supervisor will have a gazillion other things to think about, including their own research, the research of their other PhD students, the MA and undergrad courses they’re teaching, departmental duties, conferences, networking and their personal lives. They will be reading your initial work briskly and broadly, and commenting on only the things that jump out to them (though they will obviously be giving more careful attention to, say, your final thesis). I found this thought extraordinarily comforting for some reason. It stopped me feeling that submitting work was an ordeal, and gave me the confidence to challenge my supervisor’s criticisms on the basis that, even if I wasn’t as extraordinarily intelligent or experienced as her, I had given my project more thought than she probably had.

4. Do the boring stuff now. You’ll be glad of it later.

I’m talking about all the induction week things that you miss because you’re suffering from last night’s Cheeky Vimtos. The library tour. The ‘Using Resources’ session. The IT induction. Go. Go. Go. By listening carefully and taking away the notes to consult in the future, you will save yourself hundreds of hours of future grief agonizing about how to work the catalogue, the best archive search, the referencing guide. This stuff is bum-numblingly dull, but it is important. And it is necessary, if you’re to waltz off at the end of three or four years with that delightful doctorate.

5. Use Zotero. 

I CANNOT BELLOW  THIS LOUDLY ENOUGH. I did the first two years of my PhD without any referencing software whatsoever, largely because I failed to follow Tip #4 above and failed to realize that such things existed. Embarrassing. This meant, in short, that I had to manually enter every citation and every bibliography, which resulted in (a) boredom (b) errors (c) mislaying useful references or late-night Google books discoveries because it was too much of a blag to note them properly. Zotero is a free iTunes-style library of bibliographic information, which lives in your web browser and enables you to record all the information (publisher, ISBN number etc) of any useful resource you find on the internet with just one click of the mouse. You can then insert this info into your writing, in one of thousands of referencing styles, by dragging and dropping. It is like magic.

I’d like to note that I’m not paid by Zotero to say this. Honest. I believe there are other similar programmes out there and they might be just as good. But personally I’m loved up with Zotero now. You should be too. http://www.zotero.org/

6. Join Twitter.

JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. If you’re not already on it, that is. I firmly believe that anybody in academia who’s not on Twitter is shooting themselves in the foot every day that they stay away. Their foot is now a puddle of bloody smithereens. Pretty soon they’ll have no foot at all. You get the picture. #overextendedmetaphor

I have found funding opportunities only on Twitter. I have seen amazing jobs advertised only on Twitter. One of my best friends got her studentship after seeing it advertised only on Twitter. I see conferences, Calls for Papers, Calls for Panels and exciting projects advertised only on Twitter. I have obtained valuable research leads and had fascinating discussions with a range of both fellow academics and eclectic others including higher education specialists, novelists, historical biographers, policymakers, Private Eye cartoonists and interested public – ALL ON TWITTER. You can’t rely on posters in the grad common room and the odd expensive conference for your networking opportunities. GET ONTO TWITTER.

However…

7. Go to conferences. 

See my post here for why I think they’re still useful. Although Twitter is an ESSENTIAL part of academic networking, there is nothing like face-to-face contact to forge contacts and enable detailed discussions. Chose your conferences carefully (they are frequent, far-flung and expensive) but try to go to as many as you can within reason. Always try to write a paper that will push your research forward, not distract you from it (I have slipped up here, but am trying to mend my ways). Arrive early and stay late. Talk to as many people as you can. You never know what opportunities will emerge.

But…

8. When somebody is unpleasant to you, ALWAYS try to put it down to awkwardness rather than malice.

This was the Hot Tip of Jane Moody’s that I remember best. She told us that it is one of the downsides to academia that you will meet a lot of very awkward people; brilliant intellectually but not so great socially. Some of them will express this awkwardness in conventional and easily interpreted ways; by blushing, mumbling, shuffling etc. Others will ignore you when you speak to them; or turn away abruptly when you’re talking about your research and start a conversation with someone else; or say something slighting; or react aggressively to an innocuous comment about their own research. All of these things have happened to me on occasion, and my first response was always to run away and cry. My second was to remember Jane’s excellent advice; try where at all possible to understand that these people are awkward and not malicious. Don’t take it personally. Smile and be unruffled. Continue to try to be friendly. Generally, I feel like this is very very effective, although also very very hard to do.

8. Do earthy stuff to stay sane. 

It’s a popular York joke (again perpetuated by Jane) that academics are obsessed with cakes, and baking more widely, and I know a number of PhD students across an international network of institutions who keep food blogs. I think there are good reasons for this. When you spend so much of your time grappling with intellectual problems, there is something marvellous about escaping to an earthly realm for a while, doing something very physical and tangible (no lewd jokes please). And what could be more so than making food with your hands and then stuffing it into your greedy craw? This is one of the ways I stay sane, along with boxing and running, and all three make me feel so much better and saner when I’ve had a long and tortured PhDay. It doesn’t have to be those hobbies, obviously. But I would recommend developing some kind of extracurricular life that’s unrelated to your PhD. Otherwise, you might finish in three years, but you’ll also be a shell of a human being.

9. Don’t compare yourself to others.

One of the things about doing a PhD is that you’re in a cohort. You start at the same time as a few other people – intelligent, talented, competitive people – and you progress at roughly the same pace throughout. What do you think happens? Someone gets a paper published first. Someone gets told their upgrade was the best their supervisor’s ever had. Someone wins a prize. Someone gets offered teaching where others don’t. The easiest thing in the world is to measure yourself up to your peers and wail “I’M SHIT!” and start to resent them for being so bloody excellent and smug. Resist this like the plague. Firstly, it doesn’t do you a shred of good and it does you a lot of bad. Secondly, there’ll be something that hasn’t even crossed your mind that they’ll be resenting you for (or trying not to) at the same time. Collaborate with your peers, learn from them, get drunk and have superb times with them… but when it comes to progress, try to view yourself in splendid isolation. Are you going at the right pace for you? That’s all that matters.

10. Enjoy it.

This, inspired by a fellow PhD student @pathadley on Twitter the other day. “It’s not about ‘getting’ a PhD. It’s about doing one.” Slightly cheesy though it sounds, this is extraordinarily good advice. Try to relax and enjoy what you’re doing – the reading, the drafting, the socializing, all of it. Even the shitty parts, and yes there WILL be shitty parts, like when you’ve been rejected for funding or a conference and your writing makes no sense and you’ve got no money and you’re ill and it’s all gone to hell. Try to find SOMETHING to enjoy. Because when you’ve finished, when you’re holding the diploma and you’ve changed your name on your credit card, I reckon the acquisition of ‘PhD’ will feel pretty anti-climactic. As with most acquisitions, the sense of pride/satisfaction will fade rather quickly, and you’ll be left asking what memories you have from the three or four years of your life you devoted to this. Make ’em good ones.

Pity the sockpuppeteers

Alright. It’s been a rather indecent amount of time since my last post, close to a month I think. A month in which, after the madness of launching Rites and the subsequent burst of reviews and publicity, I’ve sort of changed lane a bit to concentrate on other projects.

But when I go out to the pub and run into people I haven’t seen for a while, they still invariably ask me “How’s the book going?” or (more frequently if I’m honest) “How’s it selling?” So I’m forced to consider those questions quite frequently. It’s often a bit awkward because the fact is, funny as it sounds, that I don’t really know. The book is out in the ether, selling or not-selling, being talked about or not-being-talked-about. I get the odd google alert that somebody has said something about it somewhere on the internet, and if I pester my publisher reasonably determinedly they will tell me the sales figures as far as they can make them out from the mysterious web of distributors, retailers and sale-or-return, but it’s all very vague and in general it has just sort of gone off my radar.

My sister got pregnant with my gorgeous niece Amelie at about the same time I found out I was going to be published, and it’s often amused me to compare the two situations in my mind. Authorship is remarkably subject to the same sorts of tropes as pregnancy – the conception is fun, the birthing a horribly painful process but worth it, etc etc – only the other day someone asked me if that was my only book and I said without thinking, “Got a second on the way”. But here is one very distinct difference between the two roles. When you have a child, you’re a “mother” or a “father”. You have changed state in quite a primal and intrinsic way. Your primary function is different. Whereas the idea of being a “writer” just doesn’t seem as real and permanent and earned to me. I don’t really think about Rites that much any more. It doesn’t define me, when I’m no longer writing it.

This feels both depressing and liberating. On the one hand, considering the amount of blood, sweat and tears I put into it and the sacrifices I’ve made in other areas of my life to give it my all, it can feel sad that feels like such an ethereal entity at the moment. On the other hand, I find this very ghostliness quite exciting. I’ve been able recently to throw myself back into academia with renewed energy and without feeling it’s a chore after fiction. I’ve also started an new kind of creative project. I wrote a short screenplay for a friend, and got such a taste for it that I’ve now started a full length play. I’ve got a good feeling about it. More on that another time.

One story that’s been setting tongues wagging in the publishing world at the moment is the exposure – mainly by the crime writer Jeremy Duns – of the practice of ‘sockpuppeting’. I’ve been following this story with some amusement and quite a lot of cynicism of the Bears Shit In Woods ilk, but considering it in light of my own brief experience of the aftermath of publishing a book gave me a new perspective. For the uninitiated, “sockpuppeting” refers to the practice of posting positive reviews of your own books under a fake identity, usually on websites such as Amazon. The nastier breed of sockpuppeteers also trash their rivals’ books under these identities. Duns has generally caught the culprits out – most notably the crime writer R.J.Ellory – by noticing when they sign the wrong name on an account. Essentially what the whole thing shows is that lots of writers are vain, cynical scoundrels out to fool the public and scupper the public’s trust in online reviews.

Or does it? While I hereby politely invite anyone who loves me to shoot me in the head if they ever catch me crouched over my keyboard logging into my fortieth Amazon account and swearing Rites was “guaranteed to touch your soul” (really, R.J.Ellory? Really?)  I can also weirdly sort of understand why the sockpuppeteers do what they do. I can understand – though this is nothing more than a vague fluffy hypothesis – how it just might be not a cynical strategy designed to generate income, but instead a coping mechanism generated by a failure to dissociate in the way that I’ve found myself doing, once the hype dies down and life goes back to normal. If you don’t move on, if you continue to define yourself by the book which must in 99 cases out of 100 end up floundering around in the bargain bins, then how terrible must it feel? To receive “No new results” on your Google Alerts every day, to check Amazon again and again for five star reviews but see none, to search the shelves in Waterstones in vain? Impotent in every other sphere, how easy is it to create another Amazon profile? To write what you wish others would? Perhaps to set up a few different ones, create a few different voices, to start a bit of controversy? After all, nobody would ever know… or so you imagine, until Jeremy Duns comes along.

Pure hypothesis, of course, and probably a slightly sentimental view of a nasty practice. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing these writers are exposed – quite the opposite, especially if they trash their fellow scribblers while hiding behind a pseudonym. Just that I think there is something in the very lonely, isolated activity of creative writing*, and in the very little amount of interest that the world seems to take in one’s hard work, that might make this kind of behaviour tempting. I also think the importance of sockpuppeting shouldn’t be overstated, because the nature of anonymous reviews lends itself to skulduggery of one form or another, and anyone who places too much trust in them is a bit of a dolt. I’ve encountered some writers personally who have asked me to write them a positive Amazon review. Once, when somebody sent me an unsolicited glowing review of Rites, I suggested without thinking that they might want to put it on Amazon myself, then immediately felt so cheap and grotesque that I vowed I would never ever do so again. Is this practice so very different from sockpuppeting?

One thing’s clear to me anyway; the most reliable way to avoid ever falling into that deep dark long-drop bog of ignominy is to keep your eyes on the prize of the next thing. September’s an exciting month. I’m writing a new thesis chapter, making research trips to find out about name changing in the 1780s, gearing up for the launch of the Strange Bedfellows project, chipping away at the next novel, and getting this play written. In which, as I tweeted yesterday, the characters are just as odious (delightfully so, from the writer’s point of view) as those in Rites. Will do my best to up my blogging rate along the way.

*perhaps in academia too, anyone remember Orlando Figes? –

The best junk email I have ever received

Ok, I’ve been horrifically neglectful of my blog recently, and I’m planning posts on sock puppeting, the Strange Bedfellows project and my first experience of scriptwriting, the first of which will go up in the next couple of days. But for now, this junk email I received made me laugh so hard that I choked and started wheezing like an epileptic walrus, so I just wanted to share it with the world. Form an orderly queue, ladies.
Nathan Kiganda kiganda49@live.com
14:18 (19 hours ago)

to undisclosed recipients
Dear friendThis is to introduce to you my Presidential Marriage Insurance Project.This project has been in place for now 17 years.As you are already aware my future ambition is to become President but i cant succeed without a firm foundation and your support.I have dedicated my future marriage prospects to building a firm politcal foundation for myself and that’s why i called itMy Presidential Marriage Insurance.My Presidential Marriage Insurance started way back in 1995 when i was still a student at Mbale Secodary School and it has been all along running upto now.This programme was very active at Kiira College Butiki,Makerere University,Delhi University and in all the areas i have been to.

In 2007 i added more vigour to this programme by including it in my Biography,a book that i myself wrote and sent to President George Walker Bush of the the United States of America for Publication.In 2008 i designed a concept paper which has been acting as a guide line to this project.In 2009 i enlarged the concept paper and transformed it into a booklet which will soon be published.

You could be a pressman, a politician or president, religious leader, Ambassador or a useful citzen but the most most important thing that i need from you is support.Your support is very very paramount towards the success of this programme.I am not yet married and am still searching for the most suitable patner.I am still single and infact i don’t even have any serious girlfriend.

Previously, i had girlfriends i had considered for this programme but i have taken over 8 to 10 years without seeing some of them and so they only remained my girlfriends in words but not in reality.I am alone and my heart is yearning for miss right and it is the reason why i am searching. I am in Love, therefore my door is wide open for any body who is interested.

I need a lady who is between the age of 18 and 25, however those exceeding 25 but below 30 years of age are also acceptable if they meet the set requirements.I need a lady who is intelligent,ethical,trustworthy,caring,Loving,Supportive and with good moral conduct in the society.She must be beautiful with a figure 8 shape, an attractive face ,a soft and killing voice.She must be an Orator or a good public speaker.The desired lady should be highly educated with atleast a bachelors Degree or should be an undergraduate student at any given University.Mother Africa is a continent of honour therefore her dressing code should depict a lady of honour.I need a lady who puts on trendy but descent clothes that can earn her respect and honour in the society.The cosmetic makeup on her body and hair should also depict a lady of honour ,respect and Dignity.

You can participate in this programme in a number of ways.You can recommend your most beautiful sister, relative or friend or yourself if you meet the set standards.You can also participate as volunteer in spreading this message or you can contribute assets such as car,Land,Camera, house etc,gifts or some money ,academic scholarship,foreign tour/travel sponsorship for two people etc towards the success of this programme.I need you for you are my success.Together we can succeed.Please forward this message to a friend, a relative or any other person.

May God bless you,

For God and My Country.

Kiganda Nathan
Tel: 256 78 2 230826
Email: kigandanathan@yahoo.com.

NB:I sent a copy of the Concept Paper on my presidential Marriage Insurance to President George Walker Bush when he was still at White House.

Money contributions should be made to;
ACCOUNT NAME: Kiganda Nathan
ACCOUNT NUMBER:1004100269906
ACCOUNT TYPE: Savings
BANK: Equity Bank Uganda Limited
Swift Code:EQBLUGKA.

MY PRESIDENTIAL MARRIAGE INSURANCE

This refers to the ways means and choice of marriage partner in preparation for my my future political career of becoming president .It involves the search for the most suitable lady with the desired qualifications and requirements.It is a sheme that has been designed to build a solid foundation for the future first family.

MISSION
To build a solid foundation of Peace,Love, Unity, Leadership,Joy and Happiness for an examplary first Family.

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES OF THE PRESIDENTIAL MARRIAGE INSURANCE SCHEME.
1-To select/get the most suitable marriage partner with the desired qualifications and requirements.
2-To prepare, train and bring up a future first lady .
3-To avoid future cases of marital instabilities within the first family.
4-To improve on my Social and Political position/Image in Uganda and the World over.
5-To pave ways of improving and building a viable personal financial base/stand for myself with a view of being self reliant and independent.
6-To promote civilized and positive cultural practices with a view of building a united and peaceful nation.
7-To promote literacy and higher level education .
8-To prepare and plan for all my marriage related ceremonies and obligations.
9-To provide an alternative to military force as a means of ascending to political Power.
10-To promote God’s creating abilities and values as he wished them to happen in their natural state.
11-To promote peace ,love,Unity,Good governance,Joy and happiness in our Nation.
12-To build a solid foundation for an increased role of the first lady in public and Social Affairs.

Kiganda Nathan
Tel: 256 78 2230826
Email: kigandanathan@yahoo.com
kiganda49@live.com
NB:Check my recent picture from the above attachments.Take time to read through the information in the attachments to this email message.Picture Kiganda Nathan.jpg (in Kanzu was taken on 2 April 2011 at Kansanga Kampala and picture 004.jpg the most recent was taken on 18. February 2012 outside Mengo Teachers Union Hall during a wedding reception for one of my relatives.

NB. I  am currently at  Bunga  Kampala-Uganda and teaching at Trinity Secondary School,Katimbo zone,Kirombe-Nanganda Lukuli, Makindye Division,Kampala,Uganda.

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Do ya think I’m sexy?: Vanity, bravery and the Booker Factor

The Booker longlist was announced on Wednesday. For those of you who weren’t sitting in front of Twitter all day pressing refresh, here it is:

Nicola BarkerThe Yips (Fourth Estate)
Ned BeaumanThe Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
André BrinkPhilida (Harvill Secker)
Tan Twan EngThe Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
Michael FraynSkios (Faber & Faber)
Rachel JoyceThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday)
Deborah LevySwimming Home (And Other Stories)
Hilary MantelBring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
Alison MooreThe Lighthouse (Salt)
Will SelfUmbrella (Bloomsbury)
Jeet ThayilNarcopolis (Faber & Faber)
Sam ThompsonCommunion Town (Fourth Estate)

My thoughts on the books themselves won’t take up much space, for the simple reason that I haven’t read any of them – all are recently published and some aren’t even out yet. I’m not a great fan of judging a book based on its cover (literally, chortle), so I’ll try to refrain from speculations based on gossip and my preference for minimalist jacket design. Equally, I shan’t go down the well-trampled route of bemoaning the books that weren’t on there… much.* Instead I want to think/write a little bit about the idea of the literary prize and the creation of taste – culminating with a slightly shameful admission.

Taste.You can see my eighteenth-century roots showing through here, since the  idea of taste was a massive preoccupation  from about 1700-1800. But I also think the notions of what it is to judge, discriminate and appreciate are as important as ever these days  – perhaps more so. Although cultural studies has in many respects opened up the floodgates when it comes to deciding what is ‘high’ culture (see my recent post on Harry Potter Studies ), people still manage to have frequent and heated discussions about what is ‘good’ art and what is not. These discussions are nowhere more volatile than in circles of passionate readers (though film buffs give them a run for their money).

I’ve got a bit of a theory about this. It’s pretty much entirely unevidenced, and someone’s probably come up with it before, but hell, I’d love to know what you make of it anyway. I think that every time there’s a technological or social development that opens up a previously elite medium or product to mass consumption, those who previously enjoyed it will find a replacement. They will fix on a new criteria to act as the badge of quality, the hallmark of elite cultural experience. What gave me this idea was reading a book by the Romantic scholar Deidre Lynch called The Economy Of Character. In it, she argues – this is a brutally simplified version – that the rise of psychological interiority in fiction of the late eighteenth century – the very idea of character as we know it – can be partly explained as a response to commercial pressures including the explosion of print culture. As I read her argument, once (among other commercial developments) the physical book lost its exclusivity, certain kinds of content – certain kinds of tropes, certain kinds of caricatured characters – became associated with that mass consumption, and new kinds of character – ‘unknowable’, ineffable characters – started to be created by highly educated, elite writers and lionized by highly educated, elite readers. To discuss these characters in public began to stand as a sign that one was a truly cultured reader, a reader of taste.

That’s a crass summary of a very long and very complex book, but you get the gist. Certain readers crave the desire to think of themselves as an elite, and they will shift the criteria they use to define elite taste rather than suffer others to colonize the familiar ground with them. This applies to both the form and the content of the reading experience. They’re not always separable.

There are probably numerous examples of how else this tendency might have been manifested over the last couple of centuries. I’m interested at the moment in thinking about how it might apply to the rise of the e-book. I used to see someone with a Kindle and, despite my reservations about its homogenization of the reading experience, instinctively assume they were a sort of ‘reader of quality’ – wow, they care that much about reading? that they’ll spend that much money on that gadget? But as Kindle prices dive and the numbers sold soar – and printed books sell fewer copies in comparison – might we see this instinct turn on its head? If printed books become more expensive, beautiful collectors’ items only available to those with the funds or passion, might we see the printed book once again function as a symbol of an elite reading experience?

I could go on and on about this, but for now let’s focus on the role of literary prizes. I assume that many brave books are probably only published because it’s assumed that although they’re not natural bestsellers, they might have a crack at the Booker or Orange Prize, which are judged by members of the literary elite and therefore confer a mark of distinction on both the author and the publisher. Which, almost-ironically, might make them bestsellers among the general public, because of the urge I’ve outlined above, to be part of this literary elite. See a good set of data here on sales after last year’s Booker prize – http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/26/man-booker-prize-2011-winners – for example, sales for Julian Barnes’s The Sense Of An Ending shot up by almost 600% after he took home the gong.

I have experienced this urge at first hand when it comes to literary prizes. It’s sort of painful to admit this, but if I pick up a book in Waterstones or the Little Apple shop round the corner, I’m quite a lot more likely to buy it if it has ‘SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2010’ or ‘WINNER OF THE ORANGE PRIZE 2011’ written on it. Why? There’s no guarantee it’ll be any ‘better’ – any more to my taste –  than the book next to it, which didn’t get shortlisted. All that stood between Book A and Book B was the subjective choice of a panel of five people whom I’ve never met, probably shepherded together for largely cynical reasons, who all have their own preferences, agendas and axes to grind. I’d be better off asking my friends, whose tastes I know and opinions I definitely respect.

If I analyse my own reasons carefully, I’m afraid they’re not pretty. I’d say it’s about 30% a vague notion that these judges probably have quite a few brain cells to rub together and have done some important filtering work for me. And it’s about 70% the fact that I want to be the kind of person who reads the Booker shortlist. I want to have my finger on the pulse! I want to know who’s hot! I want to make sexy literary conversations while smoking cigarettes at parties!

Sorry, but there it is.

“So we’re basically talking about literary hipsters?” a friend responded when I put this to him recently. Well, yes and no. The craving for an elite reading experience certainly looks dangerously close to snobbery from some angles, and from others looks dangerously divorced from any value system based on pleasure in language, the joy of learning or the desire to enlarge one’s own compass of empathy and experience.

On the other hand, I think there is something to be valued in this desire to be different. It’s an age-old truism that the market has its downsides because people like what they’re familiar with. Imagine the frustration of a writer constantly being asked by publishers to stick to the genre they know because it sells, because they’ve got a fan base, because it sells already so why fix what ain’t broke? Maybe prizes provide respite from this tendency. May I humbly submit that if it weren’t for this constant forward propulsion in certain circles to find something original and unusual and ‘high quality’  – even if it’s to cater to the vanity of ‘elite’ readers – then books that push the boundaries and change lives for the better might never get made? The snobbery performs a useful function. It makes it worth one’s while to write and publish brave books.

Well, that’s what I’ll tell myself as I perform my role as a willing cog in this process for yet another year, and pore over the Booker longlist again. Oh – that and the fact that I have an extra reason to Buy Booker this year. My old undergraduate tutor, Dinah Birch, was on the judging panel. I do remember Dinah (she only taught me for one year) to be a truly excellent and judicious critic – in my first few weeks she told me that I had to get out of the habit of writing like an elderly Victorian gentleman with the gout. And looking back at my first year essays, my God she was right. So I’ll trust her on the longlist.

I don’t have enough money to buy all twelve books, so I’m going to try to get three. I’m currently minded to go for the following:

1) Hilary Mantel Bring Up The Bodies: This is the only one that I can honestly say I always had on my List. Wolf Hall was sensational. I’ve been drooling over the prospect of this one ever since it came out.

2) Michael Frayn Skios: Because it’s been touted by the pundits as ‘readable’, which probably means things happen in it. I’m not a fan of stasis.

3) Will Self Umbrella. Loved Great Apes. Got a sneaky crush on the man himself.

Welcoming all recommendations / thoughts though – anyone else snobbing it up with me?

*Oh goddammit, alright, can I just say that I can’t wait to read Zadie Smith’s NW and am amazed that her first offering in almost a decade didn’t make it on… and that I can’t imagine any of the novels above bringing me  more delight than Stephen May’s Life! Death! Prizes! did? But then I didn’t just trawl through the 147-strong pool of nominations, so I suppose I can zip it right there.

Strange Bedfellows? CALL FOR BLOGGERS.

THIS IS A VERY SPECIAL POST.

For the last six months or so, I’ve been working with two friends (Ben Madden and Ryan Hanley) to plan a project that we’re running over the academic year 2012-2013. The project, which will be based at the University of York’s Humanities Research Centre, is called “Strange Bedfellows?: Creativity and Analysis in an Age of Austerity”. You can read all about the project on our brand spanking new website, http://strange-bedfellows.org/ . Briefly, it seeks to explore and analyze the relationship between the analytical and creative processes, and to identify ways in which the creative and academic sectors can work together in the face of recent political decisions that deny or downgrade their importance in today’s cultural landscape. You can read a one-page rationale for our project  here (SB Project Rationale July), which makes it clear why we think these issues are important and why, at this precise moment in time, they’ve taken on particular urgency.

The inspiration for the project comes from a number of different places – Ben, Ryan and I all have different stories to tell about why we thought it was necessary to set up such an initiative. For me personally, the impetus for the project derived from the fact that – as readers of this blog will be aware – I’m constantly trying to balance the creative and analytical activities (fiction/PhD) that are important to me. I’ve become frustrated at my inability to do so as efficiently as I would like, and I can’t help but feel that if there were a more developed critical language, and range of codes and practices accessible, then these activities could not only exist together but actually reinforce one another and make me a better writer and critic. I’m interested in the ways that various sections of society take a view on the relationship between creativity and analysis – the language and taboos that we use when talking about ‘genius’ or ‘influence’; the proliferation of Creative Writing degrees in universities and how they interact (or don’t) with English Literature departments; emergent schools of literary thought and practice such as ficto-criticism or cognitive science.

These are the sorts of areas our project will address. We’ve recently been awarded funding by both the University of York’s Humanities Research Centre and its Centre for Modern Studies to carry out our first strand of the project, which is a speaker series that will run over the course of the next academic year. Alongside this speaker series, we want to run an exciting blogroll on our project website, which will feature ten bloggers who think they might have something interesting to say about what the creativity / analysis relationship means for them. You may be a literary student, academic, or critic, and you use your studies or professional activity to influence your own creative output. You might be a filmmaker with an interest in theory, or philosophy, or the plastic arts. Or perhaps a musician inspired by poetry, or a poet inspired by music. Or something completely different. Please see our Call For Bloggers (call-for-bloggers-july-2012) for more information about what this involves. If you’d like to take part, drop us an email at strangebedfellowsproject@gmail.com – we’d love to hear from you.

Do check out our website to find out more about contributors, have a look at our forthcoming events (more to come), and read more about the project in general. Twitter and Facebook accounts coming soon!

Please do spread the word about Strange Bedfellows – if you know anyone who’d like to be involved as a blogger or kept abreast of events, point them the way of the website.

Excitedly,

Sophie