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
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.