MA Semester Two, Week Two.

This is spectacularly late - almost two whole weeks late, in fact, and I don't even have an excuse, so I'm just going to skip quickly ahead to the nitty-gritty.

Contemporary Fiction.  In week two, we looked at John Banville's Booker Prize winner, The Sea, in the context of literary prizes and book reviews.  Split into small discussion groups, we looked at issues including whether or not we need literary prizes, the functions such prizes might serve, and the types of books that tend to win particular prizes.  We wondered to what extent literary prizes are symptomatic of a wider cultural fascination with scandal, celebrity, critical disagreement and judgements of taste.  We talked about the fashions of the Booker - its rush to incorporate the margins (homosexuality, post-colonialism) - and the notion of sponsorship - Booker as a suspect colonial company claiming back some cultural currency, and also the prize as a new form of patronage. 

One issue that didn't really get raised is the value of the prize to the individual writer - as a solitary occupation, without pay-scales of promotions of bonuses or corporate retreats, the prize does act as a carrot, especially for those 'literary writers' who probably wouldn't ever otherwise achieve huge sales.  But this particular seminar course is split between the creative writing students, like myself, and people studying contemporary literature and culture, a more traditional lit-crit degree, and so the balance seems to go to the reader/critic rather than the writer. Ho hum.

When we turned specifically to Banville's work, the class was divided - many found it overwritten, verbose, and pompous, while some liked the lyrical wordiness of it all.  I found myself straddling both camps.  I read The Sea before it won the Booker, and I remember really enjoying it, and I even bought my mother a copy, which indicates that I must have considered it a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.  Typically, though, when I reread it, I found I had little recollection of the actual language, though I knew that had been what impressed me in the past (seeing as the plot is pretty flimsy).  This time, I found it somewhat overbearing.  I think a judgement like that is often dependent on what else one is reading at the time, and perhaps I'd been immersed in Hemingway for months and loved the change, whereas I'd just finished reading some pretty wordy stuff this time round, and maybe needed a breather.  Who knows?  I can't remember what else I was reading back in '05; I didn't, at the time, keep a note of my reading.  Anyway, we'd been told to research reviews of the book, and I'd pulled two from the New York Times, reckoning that the Irish and British press would probably have erred on the sycophantic side.  Of my two reviewers, one was full of praise, and the other thought it was overrated and wordy.  (This was the wickedly scathing Michiko Kakutani. She's brilliant.  It's worth reading the NYT book pages for her reviews alone.)  The selection of reviews was interesting from the standpoint of what our lecturer termed 'the markers of literariness' - the aspects that the reviews focus on indicated the elements of the text considered serious or worthy or important in a work of 'literature', or a prize contender.  Reading the book with the knowledge of its mostly favourable reception and the Booker logo stamped on the cover must effect how people approach the text.  I was more critical the second time around: is that because the intervening five years have made me a better or more critical reader (and I read plenty back then at twenty-five) or because the Booker stamp of approval gets my hackles up and I want to be contrary in my response?   

In the afternoon, we had our fiction workshop, where we looked at two people's work - a novel chapter and a short story, which was in fact the first piece of historical fiction anyone in our group has submitted.  That sparked off a discussion about language and anachronisms, not to mention the ins and outs of dancing plagues.  Ahem.  Later on we had the launch of Martin Amis' latest book, and I've already gone on about that; the podcast of the event, as promised, is available here, part of the excellent Manchester Review.  I haven't read the book yet (God forbid I get my mucky paw-prints on its lovely crisp pages) but I'm reliably informed that I'll recognise large chunks of it from the seminars we had with Martin last semester.

Coming, ALMOST AMAZINGLY SOON - week three! 

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