MA Semester Two, Week Six

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.


Steph said...

As I was reading your post, I wondered whether your tutor knows anything at all about post-modernism to begin with, let alone post-post-modernism. It came as no surprise to read that she dismissed the debate with a 'it hasn't been properly defined'. I guess she never read the works of Jean Baudrillard (or Slavoj Zizek, for all that matters), and perhaps may also ignore that critical theories do not quite 'get' defined but define 'themselves'. I think this is very much the problem with some people who teach creative writing: they seem to lack such a basic understanding of critical theory that they often make me wonder what, exactly, they can teach. I think that nobody should be talking about post-modernism without first having read, and at least tried to understand, Baudrillard's work in its entirety.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

She did mention Baudrillard, Steph - though not Zizek - I ought to add a caveat to these summaries of mine - these are intense two-hour seminars and I'm only brushing the surface in my blog posts for the benefit of people who are interested in the course. I do err on the side of flippancy, because this isn't a serious critical theory blog, and I'd end up out of my depth anyway.

We talked quite a lot about how theories are or can be established/defined/critiqued/dismissed and some of the students were focusing particularly on the blurring of the boundary between modernism and postmodernism, and how that's reflected in the postmodernism/post-post-modernism thing - and how most of the attributes you might tend to assign to a particular paradigm or whatever, can be seem to feature on plenty of other movements too, so it's not clear-cut, etc.

The tutor does certainly know her stuff, and she's not actually affiliated with the creative writing department - she's a proper qualified theorist lady in the English department. All our non-workshop classes are led by critically-trained lecturers, not stand-alone CW teachers - not to say that our particular CW teachers don't know their theory, because some of them most certainly do. This particular seminar is a cross-MA group - the CW students are mixed in with people studying on other programmes in the School of Arts Histories and Culture, and most of them are very well versed in critical theories - much more so than the CW students, to a large extent. The debates are mostly student-led - if anybody's deficient in Baudrillard it's us rather than the teacher. She goes into much more detail than I do here - and I've got reams of notes and handouts and reading lists weighing down the school bag to add to the load.

I don't want to get especially heavy on the theory in the blog - like I say, I'll only show myself up - and I wouldn't want anyone to think that what I post here is the entirety of any debate or conversation we have on the course - some MA that would be. This is like comic-strip reportage compared to the real thing.

Mea culpa: teacher=good, Valerie=flippant

Steph said...

Ah I see! Well, never mind Valerie. I like flippant, you know? It's fun to write and to read.

Valerie O'Riordan said...


PS: I like the sound of your new short story comp!

Jenn Ashworth said...

The more I read about this the more I think that we took totally different courses, Valerie. Yours certainly sounds much more demanding in terms of reading and theory than mine was... I'm not all together certain that you need to learn all this theory in order to be a better writer, or that CW teachers should be critical theorists too (I'd rather be taught by a publishing, working writer than a theorist any day - although I know you get the best of both on your course) although paying £3k+ for a course and getting it accredited by the university has got to involve some hoops to jump though, I reckon.

I don't know what conclusion I'm trying to draw - mainly that I disagree with Steph when she says she wonders what creative writers can teach if not theory (um - how about creative writing itself?) and that your experience seems much more demanding and in=depth than I was, and I was wondering if you felt the theory was as useful to you as the workshopping and the tutorials (practicals?)

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Hey Jenn,

I've been talking about just that with some of my classmates. It's a really weird issue.

My reply to Steph, of course, was to defend the professional integrity of the woman that co-teaches that particular class - she's not a CW teacher and theory is her bread and butter and she's good at it. I don't think CW teachers have to be theorists - just good writers and good teachers - and if, running the course, you want the students to have a theoretical background, you can ship in a theorist, which is what they've done here. I'd hate to have her run the writing workshops! Give me a non-academic writer with a solid publishing record any day.

But as to whether we need to be taking that class at all... Well, my own personal standpoint on the matter is that I much much much prefer the practical end of the course - the workshops, the visiting speakers (like you!) the readings, and the fact that writing writing writing is the main thing. The theory classes come totally second, for me. I think it's good to know that stuff - no such thing as too much knowledge in my book - but it's not as beneficial to the actual writing as the other elements of the course. Plus, of course, I did a very good BA in English and philosophy and I feel like I've done my theory time, and this is my writing time, dagnammit!

Interestingly, we've had two theoretical courses over the year (and the two workshops.) Last semester's course, Forms of Fiction (run by Ian and John) was optional, though by default most of the fiction writing students took it, as you had to go to some lengths to arrange an alternative. This one, Contemporary Fiction, is compulsory for fiction students (poetry peeps do a poetry equivalent, I think). Now, and I think most of my classmates would back me up here, Forms of Fiction was theory, but it was geared towards the writing of fiction rather than the reading of it. We looked at POV and time and unreliable narrators and the mechanics of these things - great for a reader, but doubly great for a writer. And this was taught by two practising, though well-trained in academia, writers, a poet and a novelist. I found it massively helpful - it made me look at certain aspects of writing in whole new ways, and it definitely made me a more astute critiquer and, I hope, writer. Big thumbs up for Forms of Fiction!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

This semester, we've got Contemp Fiction, which is effectively a standard lit-crit MA level course, and is taken by students across the department. It's heavy on the theory, and taken as such it's a good course, but it's without a doubt aimed at students who want to go on and study for an English PhD - it's not geared towards the actual writing of fiction. And this is the compulsory theoretical element for us.

As I say, I think it does no harm - and it's interesting - and Valerie the utter geek says LEARNING=GOOD - but still, it's the odd man out of the courses I've taken so far this year. I think they've bumped it on because they want to produce graduates who can hold their own, critical-vocabulary-wise, with the other MA graduates from the department, and perhaps they're thinking of people who want to go on and do a PhD and will have to write a critical paper to go along with the prose. I reckon there's a large element of university hoop-jumping. I did a course in film production years ago which had the exact same thing - we had to write a theoretical dissertation even though it was a hands-on film-making course, because the uni didn't take it seriously without some hard-core theory tacked on. I guess, too, there'll be some people on the course who've not studied English before, and they want to make sure they're not releasing graduates who haven't heard of post-structuralism or whatever in case it'll reflect badly on the School. But, devils advocating aside, it really feels like a drag at times - like there's a division between this half of the course and the 'real', writing half.

I'm rambling a tad. I guess my half-thought-out Saturday morning answer is that I don't think the current theoretical element is as useful to me personally as the workshop stuff. I've got a pretty theoretical background already, and now I want to just get on and write. The best theory was the writerly theory we got before Christmas. I'm here to do a CW MA, not an English Lit MA. But there's often something to take from each class, regardless, and some other students might get a real kick out of it.

What interests me, actually, is how much they must have changed the course over the years. What classes did you have?

Jenn Ashworth said...

Now that is interesting. I'd like to know more about theory for it's own sake, because I sometimes find it interesting, but I'm very dubious as to whether it would make me a better writer, and I'm of the opinion that the theory element in creative writing MAs is there to appease the uni rather than benefit the student writers.

Our course had two contact times per week - a three hour workshop class and a one hour fiction session, which was the discussion of the novel that we'd read that week - led by the students. There were evening talks and visiting writers / agents etc but not too much about industry, publishing, prizes that you've described - which would have been useful - or theory - which would have been interesting, if not handy.

I wonder why they changed it? Seems like you have loads more contact hours than I did, although because I was balancing full time lone childcare, I didn't go to anything that wasn't compulsory.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

The basic week is just the four hours - two hours theory, two hours workshop - the rest is as-and-when, probably much the same as it was for you, and yeah, there's a lot of people who can't make the extra stuff because of kids or work or where they live. Of course, last term we had another two hours every fortnight for Martin Amis's seminars. (Almost forgot about them!)

So it looks like they've shaved off some workshop time and plonked it on theory - we've got a novel to read each week too but it's always linked to the theory classes - though in Forms of Fiction it was much more of a free-flowing student-let chat than we get this term. Plus we have short stories and Paris review author interviews to read and discuss in the workshop sessions if there's time. We had 12 students in each fiction workshop group before Christmas and now because of people studying part-time, the other group has dropped to seven people. We thought we were getting stung here, as each student gets three goes each at being workshopped this semester in their smaller group, and we just get two - but apparently our class works better because there's a better flow of discussion. Swings and roundabouts...

I reckon they've got more media attention now, with the Amis thing, and the university wanted the course to sound 'serious', hence the greater theoretical element.

I also think universities haven't gotten their heads around how to deal with practice-based courses at post-graduate level - they prefer to deal in essays and exams and the rest seems frivolous. Andy's doing a practice-based PhD in fine art in Leeds and he's met a few senior academic types who view the practising artists as less serious than the art historians, and one of them even said as much to Andy in his viva to upgrade after the first year. He was furious. It's ridiculous. Especially considering that the theory all depends upon somebody writing the books / making the sculptures in the first place. Bah! But I reckon that's what it comes down to, like you say - it's mainly to appease the uni because they can't take you seriously as an MA student if you're just making things up. The horror!

Jenn Ashworth said...

You have to do reading for the workshop sessions too? We spent the whole time work-shopping writing, so there was nothing additional to the extracts handed in.

It certainly sounds like a more rigorous course - maybe they want more PhD students?