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Instant Nostalgia: Your Favourite First Term Texts

Remember that time back in university?  Classic.  Remember your first term, and how naïve and young you were, and how you really hated Wolf Hall/ doing laundry at unearthly hours/ trying to remember the difference between yog and thorn/ packing to go home?  Good times, eh?

Right, you may have only had a single term at Nottingham, but we’d like to invite you to get nostalgic.  Look back over the sepia-tinted weeks of Autumn and fall into a reverie of literary recollection.  What was your favourite text?  Why?  Whether you liked it because the story was terrific, or because it opened up a whole new area of English Studies to you, or because you thought it was impossible but you conquered it in the end, or simply because it rhymed in a nice way, we want you to write us a quick blog piece.  (It doesn’t even have to be on the Studying Literature course – we will even listen to your strictures on medieval and dramatic literature…)  It could be anything from 300 words upwards.  One thing Nottingham English students aren’t short of is opinions.  Send us yours!

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Wolf Hall and Our Duty to the Dead

Amidst all the ideas flying round Studying Literature seminar rooms this week, one particularly struck me.  Which either means it’s important, or that I should learn to duck when first years are carrying copies of Wolf Hall…  We talked at length about how Mantel has incorporated historical research into her novel, and deliberately written against our assumed view that Cromwell was a conniving thug, whilst Sir Thomas More was a great man making the most in a difficult time.  One student make the excellent point that we were all talking as if this was a virtue in and of itself.  But what if Cromwell was a genuinely awful person?  Why do we immediately applaud a work of art which “humanizes” a subject and shows them in a rounded, psychologically sympathetic light?  We might argue that the novel, as a form, tends to reward any writer who presents credible and sympathetic characters, but why should we as readers consider that an absolute good?

The discussion turned to the ethics of historical accuracy in fiction.  Is a novel morally flawed if it deliberately misrepresents people’s actions in the past, presenting good actions as evil or vice versa?  From one point of view, it is not.  After all, in Thomas Paine’s aphorism, “it is the living, and not the dead, who are to be accommodated.” People in the past no longer exist, and cannot be injured by our words.  If there is some value for us in misrepresenting the past – whether for entertainment, to arrange a more intellectually satisfying story, or even to teach a moral lesson – then we should take it.  From this purely utilitarian perspective, the past has no value in and of itself, only in so far as it affect us in the present and future.

The other point of view was put with the inevitable Godwin test case: how would we feel about a novel which depicted Hitler as a heroic, kind and moral person?  We can talk all we like about moral relativity and the fact that the past is simply a collection of textual traces from which we can make and remake contrasting narratives.  But when it comes down to it, we insist that the past has some sort of moral claim on us.  It seems wrong somehow to libel people who aren’t around to defend themselves, as shown by the recent furore over the Daily Mail’s article about Ed Miliband’s father.  Many religious systems ground their beliefs on particular historical events, whether the revelation of Allah’s word to Muhammad, the birth of Jesus, or the history of Israel.  Much secular morality also insists on the importance of representing the past accurately and fairly, as shown by the laws which some European countries have passed about what it is acceptable to say in public about the Holocaust.  Historical relativism appears to go only so deep in our attitudes to the past.

So what do you think?  What are the ethical and aesthetic risks of writing historical fiction?  Do we have to duty to get the past as right as possible?  Or is it just a free-for-all, where anything which makes a good story goes?  Tell us what you reckon in the comments.

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The Literary Smorgasbord: Liam Knight on Studying English

This piece is in a response to our post What Are You Doing Here? about the reasons for studying English.  Liam Knight is going into his second year of the subject, and gives us thoughts below.  If you’d like to do the same, do get in touch by email – jem.bloomfield@nottingham.ac.uk

 

“Welcome to the University of Nottingham’s School of English! Our waitresses will bring you your plates after taking your drinks orders. The buffet is just around the corner, what was it that you’re after, sir? Prose? Poetry? Drama? Yup, we’ve got it all. Do you have a particular taste at all? No? Well, we’ve got some gothic delicacies over there, a whole variety of 16th century courses on the first table, and for the really brave, some experimental dishes in the far corner. Oh, and did I mention that the food we have on offer here is award winning?”

In my opinion, a good book is like a good meal. You take your time over it, savouring each morsel, everyone has different tastes, and after a particularly large one, you want to go to sleep. Exploring new tastes is exciting, and that is exactly what this course has offered: exploration. After all, why go to an international buffet if you’re only going to stick to pizza? In the first year – or, first trip up to the buffet, if you prefer – you pile your plate high with various cuisines that are on offer. Admittedly, there were some items that I devoured in an instant and others that I nibbled at tentatively – “are you sure this is food?!” – but in the end, I felt nourished. This nourishment, whether it is physical or mental, is why I found myself in Nottingham. The exploration and variety on offer certainly adds to this feeling too, and whilst there may be some items of food that I know I won’t be touching again, at least I can say that I’ve tried them!

These feelings of exploration and nourishment are definitely some of the most important ones that I’ve taken from my first year in Nottingham. Soon, I’ll be going back to the buffet table for my second plate, and I’ll be piling it high my favourites both old and new. I know that all this will be of benefit to me and my fellow students in the future, whatever it is we end up doing. Stepping away from the food metaphor, I can definitely say that my eyes have been opened up to many avenues within literature that I had not witnessed, nor even considered, beforehand. My end goal is to be a published author, and I know that my current writing is much better than it was a year ago, thanks to the literary exploration, and I can hardly fathom where it will be after another one-two-three years.

And that, I guess, is why I’ve found myself in Nottingham.

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What Are You Doing Here?

Welcome to Nottingham University’s School of English.  Good to have you here.  I know the journey here has taken quite a few years, and involved a lot of intensive examinations, so have a sit down if you like.  Or don’t – maybe you’d like to wander round and explore a bit.  That’s fine, too.  We would ask that you don’t annoy the Vikings, or upset the Romantics, without good reason.  Either will result in me having to mop up afterwards, and whether it’s blood or tears I really don’t have the time, what with term about to start and all.

I realize you’ve only just arrived, but I’m afraid this blog post is going to ask you a rather rude question.  What are you doing here?  We’re delighted to see you, but introspection is sort of par for the course (if you’ll pardon the lousy pun) round here.  So why are we here?  What’s the purpose of studying English at university?  Or maybe “purposes” would be a better word.  (Get used to pluralizing, by the way.  As you may know, it’s big in the humanities these days.  Histories.  Englishes.  Feminisms.  No-one ever failed an exam by making any given noun plural, just to be on the safe side.  Sorry: safe sides.)  There are a few that spring to mind, which I’ll outline below, and maybe you’ll find them persuasive – but I’m actually more interested in your thoughts on the subject.  Leave a quick comment below the line, or if you fancy scribbling something more substantial, email it to the blog.  It’d be great to start this year with some posts explaining why you came to university to study English.

 

Fun

Fun may be the aspect of our subject which brought the largest number of us to it, at least initially.  Being excited or intrigued by literature, in whatever form, is a big part of our common experience.  Looking out at a lecture hall full of a couple hundred students, I’m always comforted by the thought that most of us have shared that feeling you get from a great book.  It’s a paradoxical sharing, of course, because we’ve shared it whilst isolated from each other.  Curled up on a sofa, stretched out under a tree, huddled in the corner of a pub, luxuriating in a hot bath; we’ve all had that experience of being lost in a book.  Fun is less a justification for English as a subject of university study, and more a cause for gratitude that we’ve managed to con the rest of society into regarding our private game as a legitimate pursuit.  And get degrees out of it.  We might do English simply because it’s pleasurable.  There are enough things to be frivolous about in this world, but pleasure is not one of them.  It’s a serious matter.

 

If you love books, you’ll feel at home here. If you love lamp, things may get more tricky.

 

Transferrable verbal skills

It’s a less immediately attractive term than “fun”, but it’s another reason for doing what we do.  The academic study of English involves taking apart the working of language and rhetoric, to see how they function. It also involves the continual practice of rhetoric, as you try to persuade someone of your point of view in an essay, articulate your vision of a play through direction and set design, or demonstrate your reading of a text in a verbal presentation.  People claim that English doesn’t train you for any career, unlike Medicine or Law.  On the contrary, a vast proportion of the working world is made up of English students’ skills.  Writing reports, presenting ideas persuasively, picking out the important details from a letter, rephrasing an email so it fits the intended audience perfectly: these are skills you might pick up without even noticing during your time in the School of English.  It helps that you’ll be reading thousands of pages of the finest stylists in the language, and then reading literary critics who are themselves mean rhetoricians, before composing your own thoughts in carefully honed prose.  Style rubs off on you after a while, and the English course reading lists are the mines of style.

 

Cultural literacy

You may find pleasure a little flimsy as an excuse, and verbal skills a bit bleak.  What about cultural literacy?  This is the ability to navigate the world of literary symbols and references which saturate our culture.  Literature doesn’t stay where it’s put, it seeps out into adverts, into political speeches, into slang terms and newspaper editorials.  We continually borrow the plots of films and the characters of novels in order to interpret and explain the world around us.  Being an expert in the source material allows you to appreciate the images which underlie the media landscape.  It also enables you to rework those images to your own advantage: to cap a Shakespeare quotation with a better one, to see through a glib comparison or take apart an analogy.  It’s like looking at a website, but seeing the code which animates the images and embeds the links.  Studying Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens – not to mention Batman, Frankenstein and Twilight – lets us understand the root of the images we see around us every day.  And helps us reshape them for our own purposes.

 

Cultural literacy might help explain what this meme is for…

 

Just a few ideas.  You may find they chime with your own reasons, or maybe you have a totally different motivation.  Either way, we’re eager to hear – please do leave a comment below, or send us an email if you’d like a write a quick post of your own explaining why you’re studying English.  Incidentally, if any of our students from last year’s Studying Literature course are reading this, we’d also love to hear the reasons which brought you to the School of English, and how they might have changed over the last twelve months.

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Shame about Wide Sargasso Sea…

In many ways, Wide Sargasso Sea and Shame are trying to accomplish the same things. Both are trying to give voice to previously silenced histories, and both narrators are doing so from the point of view of someone other than themselves. (Rushdie as a female narrator… but yes I admit I am assuming Rhys doesn’t have the same experiences of attic life as Bertha …although with my dating history who am I to judge?) Yet both authors try radically different ways of doing this through their writing; whilst one evades and slips, the other foreshadows and provides concrete evidence and justification. One tries to depict the personal through the collective, through multiple memories, whilst the other concentrates on individual interpretations. Which works for you? For me, to take someone else’s trauma, or someone else’s story and try to recreate it is fraught with potential disasters…what if you don’t do it properly? What if you cause more damage by misunderstanding the situation? What if you perpetuate the myths and problems that caused the issues in the first place? And of course there’s the age old charge of daring to turn someone else’s voice into a commercial product to be consumed by the same people who have commoditized and used them in the past….
But then again, can we really say that only certain people have the right to tell certain stories, and what does an “authentic” story even mean? Rushdie shows us that the process of telling stories, of sharing them and them becoming common currency, is a way of bringing people together.

“stories were the glue that held the clan together, binding the generations in webs of whispered secrets…in the sanctification of her tale lay initiation, kinship, blood.”
Perhaps then these books can be viewed, rather than being the definitive alternative voice, as the opening of a conversation, one in which we can all become incorporated. We can critique and adjust them, as we become part of the conversation ourselves. After all, isn’t that the point of what we do every day? There’s no such thing as a one way conversation after all. They always rely on someone writing back.
Emma Wilde

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Reading and Royal Bodies: Mantel Most Misunderstood

There’s been something of an uproar recently around one of the authors from the Autumn semester of Studying Literature: Hilary Mantel.  No, she hasn’t capped her nearly unprecedented run of prizes and awards by being nominated for the vacant position as Pope.  Instead she has become the centre of a tabloid firestorm which led to her being condemned by the Daily Mail and the leaders of both major political parties.  It’s a curious story, and one that I think should concern us, as it presents us with some sort of parable about reading itself.  An activity which you all carry on every day, but which seems to be oddly absent from a public row about a novelist.

To begin at the beginning, Hilary Mantel published an essay in the London Review of Books, based on a talk she gave to their podcast series.  It’s not a magazine of huge circulation, it’s the sort of book-based publication your tutors have a subscription to.  It’s like The Guardian but with more literary emphasis and slightly less left-wing politics.  (I also recommend it thoroughly: fascinating stuff about the sort of subjects you didn’t know you wanted to know about…)  In it she considered the way royal female bodies are the subject of scrutiny and interpretation, how they are recreated by people’s perception of their role.

This would have caused very little stir, perhaps.  After all, not everyone scrutinises the LRB each fortnight.  But the Daily Mail was incensed by some particular remarks Mantel had made about Kate Windsor, and trumpeted that she (Mantel) had called her (Windsor) a “plastic princess designed for breeding.”  We wouldn’t usually link to the Daily Mail at Ask Bunbury, but it’s worth having a look at their piece, if only to see how they framed the issue.  Indeed, they “framed” it in more than one sense, since the sidebar of pictures attached to that article might be seen as supporting Mantel’s point about the scrutiny of women’s bodies in public life.

As you will have noticed if you followed that link (and welcome back), the matter didn’t stop there.  David Cameron was asked at a press conference what he thought of Mantel’s comments, and he made a public statement saying he thought she was “totally wrong and misguided”,  It’s unclear whether Cameron or any of his staff had actually read the essay in question, as he seemed to take at face value the Daily Mail‘s description of it as a “venomous attack”, or The Sun‘s account of it as a “bizarre rant”.  The same appears to be the case for Ed Miliband, who issued a statement stressing the great job Kate Windsor does.

Whatever one’s politics, it does seem remarkable that neither statement attempts to understand what Mantel’s piece of writing was actually saying.  Either neither leader could spare a researcher or intern for the time required to read the essay, or they thought it would be politically damaging to try to put Mantel’s comments in their context.  I’m not sure which possibility should concern us more, but the question of reading – and interpreting – a text is at the heart of this public row.

One (ex)-politicians was keen to assure us that they were familiar with the original context of the comments, however.  Louise Mensch tweeted that she had read the whole piece “in five minutes”, causing the columnist Hadley Freeman to point out that it was about 6000 words in length and wondering if this qualified Mensch for the X-Men.  Again, an intepretative dilemma: should we see Mench’s tweet as a hyperbole, reflecting her feeling that the essay was easily digestible, or as conclusive proof that she had not in fact bothered to work her way through it?  Since Mensch writes novels under her maiden name Louise Bagshaw, she is herself unusually dependent on the time people are willing to take in engaging with an extended text for its own sake, rather than extracting zingy quotations.

So, a curious affair of reading, (deliberate) misreading, not-reading and possibly lying about reading.  If nothing else it underlines the way the discussions we have within Studying Literature are part of a wide network of arguments over what texts mean, which can quickly enmesh the most famous people in the country.  And it’s up to you to perform your own reading of this contested text: here’s a link to the original essay: “Royal Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

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