MA Semester Two, Week Three.

Hot on the heels of week two comes week three; thrills aplenty here, I promise, before week four comes along to trip me up.

First, as usual, we had Contemporary Fiction on Monday morning; in week three we looked at bestsellers, authorship, and celebrity culture, and the novel we focused on was Zadie Smith's third book, On Beauty.  I'll be honest - as many of you know, I'm not a huge fan of Ms Smith's fiction.  I do like her non-fiction - her essay in the New York Review of Books in 2008 on Tom McCarthy and Joseph O'Neill was superb, and I fully intend to get her recent book of criticism, Changing My Mind.  But the novels - meh.  On Beauty is very readable, but the style - the authorial winks to the reader, the over-intricate dialogue, the constant italics - it doesn't press my buttons.  Most of the class, though, liked it fine, and it was a really good launch-pad for the discussion.

So, bestsellers: we started by looking at what defines a bestseller (other than sales) - media coverage, genre, prize-winning status, and so on.  I'm not sure about the terms of the debate: genre/coverage/prizes won't necessarily result in a title shooting onto the best-seller lists, though they certainly help.  These things don't define a bestseller - only the lists can do that.  Everything else is contingent and unpredictable.  Then we talked about the convergence of bestsellers and famous authors; we agreed that not only do the two not always go together, but that the notion of a 'famous' author is a debatable concept.  There's fame, as in a recognisable name, brand, or even face, and then there's celebrity, which is how we'd normally think about fame - where the life and doings of the author are as well-known, or even better known, that their works.  This is where we might place Zadie Smith - the story of her early signing is perhaps more well-known than some of her actual writing.  The likes of Martin Amis and Will Self are recognisable media figures, and Amis's personal life is well-documented, but they enjoy middling sales, so it seems that fame doesn't necessarily equal bestsellers.  On the other side of the fence are bestsellers like Nora Roberts and John Grisham - instantly recognisable names, but they could walk past me on the street and I'd miss them, and I know nothing about their lives.  Interestingly, our lecturer revealed that the shortlisted authors for last year's Booker won membership to London's exclusive Groucho Club, indicating that writers are being actively encouraged to become more 'celebrified', as she put it.  Weird.

We talked a little then about reading groups; why people join then, what they get out of them, whether or not they work against what might be termed the 'solitary pleasures' of reading itself.  On that last point, we all disagreed: as literature students, we could hardly fault people for wanting to congregate to discuss books.  Also, as one guy pointed out, you still read the book on your own, no matter how many people you then discuss it with.  The consensus seemed to be that the social aspect of reading groups was the most important aspect: of those of our class members who've been in reading groups, most of them had joined to make friends when moving to a new area.  Others felt that it helped them stay in touch with literature, post-university.  I pointed out that the social aspect alone could be usurped by fashion: in my old neighbourhood in Birmingham, I knew nobody in a book club, but plenty in a knitting club, and the demographics matched, I think, that of the book clubs of which my classmates had, in the past, been a part - 20s to 40s, educated, predominantly female.

We ran out of time before we could really get into On Beauty in any detail, but the issues we touched upon were Smith's use of the American setting; the multiple characters, may of which could be seen as the 'main' voice; the role of the title of the novel; her use of Rembrandt; her use/homage/copying of EM Forster's Howard's End.  Um - discuss amongst yourselves....

In the early afternoon, I'd scheduled a meeting with our new writer in residence, Nick Laird.  I'd sent him a chapter of my work in progress, and I was really delighted to discover that he liked it.  I'm still rather up in the air regarding the structure of the novel, but he thought my writing, in itself, was good, and that's the most encouraging thing, because it's easer to fix the rest.  I think.

Then, to make sure I had the most draining day of my MA career to date, I got workshopped and got back some of my marks from last semester.  (One essay still outstanding.)  The workshop went well - the other girl went first, with a short story which was really well recieved, despite her doubts, and the tutor loved it - and the class were very positive about my chapter, though the tutor said to me afterwards that it was somewhat lacking in tension.  I think I can add tension later (fingers crossed) - I just want to plough on and get the first draft hammered out now.

So - onto week four soon!  On Monday we've got DBC Pierre coming to do a reading, and, on Tuesday, a workshop.  My classmate Matt has written a damn good preview of the event for Creative Tourist.  Tuesday night also brings the launch of issue three of Bewilderbliss magazine (I'm the fiction editor) - if you're in Manchester, it's in Cord Bar in the Northern Quarter, kicking off at 20:00.  Exciting times.  

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