Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Home…and away.

Apologies – if any are necessary – for absence for the last couple of weeks. It's been the end of semester, so I've been marking presentations, organising all the dissertation marking and second-marking, tidying up the end of teaching and seeing lots of students, all while the threat of redundancy hangs over academics, administrators, technicians and now (it transpires) all the directly-employed student support staff. From henceforth, students will have a disability support budget to administer themselves, from which they are meant to select and contract agency or freelance staff because it's perfectly reasonable to expect students with plenty on their plates already to add 'employer' to their CV and make judgements about contracts.

Still, as a cynic observed, shifting a lot of hourly-paid, low-wage women off the books will help with the 26% gender pay-gap. Will the cleaners and catering staff be next?

However, I have managed to get away from the misery for a bit. An article I co-authored with one of my PhD students was published in the online version of the Journal of Popular Culture (in print next month) which was pleasing because I rarely get to juxtapose Oliver Goldsmith and cat-sex erotic fan fiction in the same piece. The short version is: fan fiction is structurally conservative; ideologically quite neoliberal; often very weird; sometimes socially maladjusted, and people have very divergent attitudes towards cats.

I went up to Keele University for a fascinating half-day conference organised by the always excellent Nick Bentley on Metamodernism, which is one of the competing terms for literature which may also be knows as post-post-Modernism. It all depends on your definitions of modernism and postmodernism. As we discovered throughout the extremely learned and fascinating papers, these are not yet uncontested terms. My one-sentence, reductive and probably expert-infuriating definitions might go as follows: Modernism – the tortured fragments of previously stable and recognisable literary, artistic and musical (bye bye tunes) forms which reflect the collapse of coherent social, political and psychological models which came in with Freud and Co., industrialisation, class war, fears of miscegenation and working-class uprising, world wars, urbanisation and the decline of authoritative monotheistic religion. Postmodernism: art, music and literature which isn't concerned with coherence and its disappearance, and decides instead to have fun with form and influence without worrying too much about the 'real' world.

Metamodernism, in several of the papers presented, seemed to suggest that there's a post-9/11 literary movement which merges playful, postmodern style with a new ethics or political engagement with the 'real' world – Zadie Smith's name came up repeatedly, for instance, as did her attack on the irresponsibility of 'lyrical realism' in her essay Two Paths For The Novel. Not being an expert in the field, I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but wondered (out loud) whether the working-class and Celtic authors of the 1930s-50s had already had the debate about the tensions between literary forms and social engagement: certainly Lewis Jones's novels Cwmardy and We Live were criticised from the left for being melodramatic rather than Socialist Realism, and from the right for being Socialist Realism rather than 'properly' literary, while Gwyn Thomas struggled with the tension between fury at the state of his community in the Hungry Thirties and the novel form, eventually exchanging absurdist satire for knockabout comedy. I think too that Raymond Williams's novels address this tension too, not always successfully. Perhaps it's just the turn of a bunch of very interesting but also rather privileged English novelists to discover that their secret garden has some gaps in the fence through which reality sometimes intrudes. Certainly Welsh and Irish authors in Welsh, Irish and English have always addressed social concerns in a variety of forms while fending off English accusations of sentimentality, loquaciousness or over-Romanticism, and have often developed a kind of hard-boiled terseness in response.

A couple of days after that I headed off to my favourite conference of the year, the Association for Welsh Writing in English, held at Neuadd Gregynog in mid-Wales. It's a big concrete Victorian stately home which provides austere accommodation, school dinners and beauty amidst which we discuss Welsh literature (in both languages), culture and society. The numbers were high, the papers were superb, the creative events were fascinating and in some cases wonderful (please, please buy Alys Conran's book Pijin – the Welsh-language version or Pigeon – the English version and look out Dignity, which is coming soon) drinks were quaffed and books were purchased. I didn't attend as many sessions as usual because the month's exhaustion hit me and I retired to bed for one afternoon with a splitting headache, but I chaired a session, helped out with the sound for a two-person performance of a play about the Ladies of Llangollen, and presented a paper of my own. I should apologise for that actually: I was the rude person who, despite chopping several pages out of my 22-page script, went on for far, far too long. In my defence, it was an analysis of excess (relating to food) in writing by Richard Llewellyn, Gwyn Thomas, O.M. Edwards and Rachel Tresize. I'm just greedy.

I learned an awful lot as always, and it's just lovely to catch up with new work in the field, old friends and colleagues, and of course indulge in some group therapy. Institutional life is so damaged now that any gathering of academics is a chance to rock backwards and forwards exchanging horror stories of managerial and financial woe. The bright spots are, as always, new ideas and students, those who still attract any to their courses…

I didn't get out with the camera as much as usual, but I took a few photos, which can be seen here. Below - some favourites.

Sarah and Kirsti: Queens of AWWE

Bee off with you

Audience participation in a creative keynote…

More audience participation 


Blue-tipped butterfly
Alys Conran being introduced
An oblique view of Gregynog
Some other delegates
And now it's back to marking, REF meetings, PhD supervisions, admin and ironing…

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