Contemporary Fiction this week was all about realism, experimentalism and the 'new postmodernism', or post-postmodernism, and the set text was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. We started off talking about what we reckoned might be the key characteristics of postmodern literature, who might be considered postmodern authors, and whether we might now have moved beyond regular postmodernism into a phase of post-postmodern literature/authors. That makes it sound all calm and rational-like - in fact it was more of a ranting debate about whether there's any purpose to labelling anything postmodernist at all, whether it was too vague, too difficult to distinguish from modernism, whether calling something 'postmodern' meant it got analysed at a 'playful' surface level to the detriment of other aspects of the prose. I thought there were some decent points raised, but that although any labelling is reductive in part, it's useful to be able to lassoo texts or theories together for purposes of comparison or assessment, and you're never married to such a designation - you can always re-examine it and re-analyze it from whatever perspective you choose. Of course then I had to ask the tutor what she meant by post-postmodernism, which seems to be a nebulous category they've invented in the interval between my BA and MA, and all she could tell me was that it hadn't been properly defined, which didn't especially help.
Next up was the notion of realism versus experimentalism - we asked what was meant by each, whether a distinction can be made between the two and if such a distinction is or would be useful, and what the advantages of each approach might be. The discussion revolved around verisimilitude, lyric realism, mimesis, and experimentalism as a structural technique; the key point we focussed on was that experimentalism is often used to further the cause of realism - finding new ways to better portray the human experience. Then to Cloud Atlas, and the group was divided between those who thought it was a master-stroke of parody and structural innovation, and those of us who found it gimmicky, contrived and condescending. I'm half afraid to admit I'm in the second camp, given how people adore this book, but it's my least favourite of Mitchell's novels and I fail to be convinced that his linked stories thing here is especially innovative, that his use of genre is all that clever, or that many of the individual sections, analysed independently, are anything but mediocre.
(Now I'm ducking to avoid the hailstorm of Mitchell fan mail whilst screeching, dudes, seriously, I still like number9dream and Black Swan Green...)
The workshop in the afternoon was two novel extracts - a world-war two tale and a fantasy novel - and then our tutor talked for a while about Robert McKee, we looked at the opening chapter of a sci-fi novel about carpets (!) and talked about how to reveal information to the reader, and we got a handout on the dos and don'ts of flashbacks.
Afterwards we went to the pub and had a very intellectual shouting debate about healthcare, the minimum wage and immigration. It was like our very own Question Time; I wanted to run out and find an election to vote in straight away, but I settled for dinner and a double-bill of Six Feet Under.