Thursday, 19 November 2015

Literary Deathmatch: Jilly Cooper v BS Johnson

I went off to a sixth form college yesterday to run a 'taster session', designed to enthuse some teenagers about a) taking an English degree and b) taking an English degree at The Hegemon. I got the gig mostly because I briefly attended said college and I have a certificate proving I'm not a danger to young people…at least not in the narrowly legalistic sense the law means it. But no doubt the Prevent strategy plus the increasingly conservative discourse surrounding academia these days means that before long I'll be kept in a box.

The conundrum at these events is how to avoid doing a sales pitch, while organising a session which is meaningful and engaging despite the students being complete strangers and without having had the opportunity to send them something to read in advance (I may be dumb, but I'm not naïve). This time I hit upon the hoary old idea of doing the High/Low Culture face-off which might be familiar enough to seasoned HE academics but may be relatively new to A-level students, with some added stuff nicked from Cultural Studies.

So I brought along two books:

The first is of course self-explanatory, though I took along an even trashier edition without the faux-classy typography. The second is BS Johnson's The Unfortunates, a novel-in-a-box. The first and final chapters are fixed in place, but all the other pages are loose and you're meant to read them in any order. The students were quite impressed with this, and we discussed at length whether a reader would or should try to impose order or plot to 'make sense' of it, or whether she should abandon linearity entirely and surrender to the random flow of impressions. This led to the question of whether literary fiction like this is a rebellious philosophical blow against the conservatism of realism and familiar modes of fiction which encourage us to think of art and life as having purpose, meaning and trajectories, or whether it's a clever male intellectual game. We looked at the book as an object, the author's name (why BS and not Bryan Stanley?) and the rest of the metatextual artefacts that declare it Literature rather than just a novel. 

Then we looked at Riders. As with the Johnson, nobody had heard of it, but they all knew what kind of novel it was from the cover alone. So we talked about design again, and where these books were meant to be read (bedroom, sites of transit – hence 'airport novel'), and even the pagination and typography. They discussed whether texts like this were reactionary old tosh designed to maintain the status quo (the novel works very hard to ensure the reader fears and distrusts lesbians and academics, and especially lesbian academics) or whether it's as radical as The Unfortunates…after all, a 900 page novel aimed at a female readership requires that she sets aside the domestic and work duties which might interrupt sustained engagement. Is it a feminist act to run a bath, light some candles, lock the door and plunge into a massive book even if that book is explicitly anti-feminist? 

So that led into a discussion of the supposed masculinity of certain areas of human experience such as philosophy and classical music composition, and what happens to women who produce such work, and the class became a discussion of Life, the Universe and Everything - hugely enjoyable. Whether it will result in any students opting to spend the next three years in my company, I'm not entirely sure. But at least they spent an hour considering the political implications of pubic shaving in Riders. If that doesn't contribute to employability, nothing will. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"a clever male intellectual game"

One which quite a few women (Nathalie Sarraute, Christine Brooke-Rose, amongst others) were able to play.

"(why BS and not Bryan Stanley?)"

I think he originally wanted to be "Bryan Johnson" but there was already an author using that name. Incidentally, the "Initials Only" style of name was popular with female academics in olden times, as a way of avoiding male readers making casual dismissals. The idea is persisted by "J.K.Rowling".