Monday, 16 January 2012

Back of the net…

Speaking strictly for myself, I'd have to say that the last couple of hours were amongst the most enjoyable I've had in a classroom for quite some time. What my vict students thought about it, I wouldn't like to speculate, but the fact that the vast majority repeatedly spoke must say something.

I also found it quite educational. It was the first in a series of workshops on the connection - if any - between literature and social class. From next week, we'll be reading a couple of texts per week to discuss their approaches to the subject, but this week I wanted to situate them as classed readers in the literary marketplace. We discussed whether 'doing English' makes you middle class, whether particular genres are associated with certain classes, how class affects the resources you need to read (we didn't get round to discussing the claim that proletarian writers produced short stories more than novels because of their industrial work-patterns), how canons are formed and re-formed, the impact of the literary establishment - which they felt was dead other than educational institutions, especially as they don't read newspaper review sections, book design, misery memoir readerships, book clubs, uses and gratification theory, the commodification of literature, Arnold, Leavis, canon formation, whether poetry is hopelessly compromised, and a range of other subjects.

Very bravely, they each gave me a list of the books they read for pleasure - a category we picked because they do genuinely feel that course material is often picked coercively, even though they do enjoy many of the texts chosen. We discussed them in terms of their marketing, socio-economic position, genre and anything else that came to mind. It was very interesting to argue about why one vampire novel is Literature (Dracula), whereas Twilight (a very popular choice) is 'trash'.

My students' recent reading choices:
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science
Robin Ince, The Bad Book Club (which I intend to purchase)
Linda Lovelace, Ordeal
Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives

Khaled Hossaini, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Stephenie Myers, Twilight

Bali Rai, Killing Honour

Charles Bukowski, Post Office
Raymond Carver, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation.

Nicholas Sparkes, Safe Haven (apparently a romance with a 'weird' twist
Laurie Viera, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict
Tate Hallaway, Tall, Dark and Dead.

JK Rowling, Harry Potter.
Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic
Jacqueline Wilson, Girls in Love
Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Terry Eagleton, After Theory
Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint
T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems.

'I haven't ready anything for pleasure since being on this course'. We discussed the institutionalisation of reading and criticism here, which was quite useful.

J K Rowling, Harry Potter.
Running from the Devil, which could be this one about childhood mental health problems, or this one about childhood sexual abuse: we didn't find out, though I (erroneously) speculated that it might be a supernatural thriller.
Lizzie McGlynn, I Forgive You, Daddy. Another misery memoir. I did get some cheap laughs from discussing the way they're marketed and produced, but we did talk seriously about their place in the literary culture and why people might want to read them. Hopefully the anonymous student who's reading these books doesn't feel ridiculed.

Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, The Naughty Girls' Guide to Life.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Myers, Twilight.

Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (good discussion about whether this was 'trash' or 'literary fiction')
Karl Pilkington, An Idiot Abroad
Bram Stoker, Dracula.

All in all, a fascinating list, as individual books and in the way students are reading them. It's pretty easy to work out that most of the students are female, mostly anglophone, outward-looking and fairly young (oldest is mid-30s), but other than that, there's a range of genres and period represented. Genre fiction is clearly popular - something we discussed - as is young adult/teen fiction. Entertainment is clearly important, and there are signs of a move towards non-fiction: Ince and Goldacre are doing a good job.

One of the interesting things was the discussion of the growth of misery memoirs, their readership and the marketing tactics. Do publishers demand more misery, as the market becomes saturated. Do the covers (of which the one below is exactly representative) tell you all you need to know? Are they read to exercise one's empathy, for personal recovery and empowerment, or for entertainment? (A question I floated but deliberately didn't follow, to avoid causing potential pain).

The session was largely about one's position as a reader, so here's a question I meant to pose to them, but ran out of time. Perhaps you can answer it in the comments section.

What books would you be pleased to be seen reading on public transport? And which ones would you/have you concealed?

With the advent of the Kindle and e-books, the opportunity to play this kind of game is disappearing. Poor Peep Show Mark won't be posing with Friends of the British Museum as a prop for much longer, and a little corner of public culture will have disappeared. No more literary conversations or flirtations - you could be reading anything from Zizek to Megaboobs on your black plastic square, and nobody will ever know. 

What a fascinating discussion we had - the kind of session which makes everything else worthwhile.


Ewarwoowar said...

I can't recall the last three fictional books I've read, which is really appalling.

On the public transport thing - when I'm on the train I either read United We Stand, an MUFC fanzine, or I read Private Eye. When I've finished with the latter, I always leave it on a train seat, in the vain hope someone later on will sit down, pick it up and educate themselves on the sheer horror of it all before vowing never to buy a red-top ever again.

I feel like I'm performing an admirable act of decency, and I'd urge everyone reading this to do likewise.

Artog said...

The only time I've given any thought to how my reading matter might look to my fellow passengers led to me leaving a copy of Hegel's Introductory Lectures On Aesthetics in my bag.

In my experience crossword puzzles have been more of a draw on the flirtation side of things, with attractive (and only slightly drunk) young ladies complimenting me on my prowess.

Oldgirlatuni said...

Thank goodness for the Kindle. My reading lurches between true-life stories of murderous women (preferably of children), Foucault (aaarghghhh...) and the latest journal articles on Equity. That wouldn't impress anyone. In all fairness, it doesn't impress me.

Even alone, in my flat, late at night, with the doors securely bolted, I'm still embarrassed to be reading Mein Kampf. With a little Engels for light relief.

The Plashing Vole said...

I always leave newspapers and Private Eye on the train too - I see it as a public service rather than littering.

I read whatever I've got on the go, but I must confess to a tiny bit of egotism if I'm reading something obscure, which is truly pathetic. I always try to see what other passengers are reading too.

Anyone remember when Mark Corrigan in Peep Show used 'Friends of the British Museum' as a 'prop'?

Ellesar said...

I remember that scene - first series I believe.
Really interesting stuff here. I have read quite a few 'misery memoirs' from a professional perspective (therefore UK ones are most relevant) the way they are marketed is pretty dire, and I am guessing that the market is well meaning girls/women 14+ who have a sub consciously slightly salacious interest in other peoples problems. They vary enormously in quality and some of them are questionable in extremis.

My public transport thought is: I do not like to be seen with a very long book 500+ pages if I have just started it. Otherwise I do not care.