Sunday, 26 August 2012

Book of the week: Possession

I have always been fascinated by books in which the reader knows more than the characters. I mean, through the end, so that the poor characters never reach the solution of the mysteries. I find it disturbing, but it is perhaps the point. The book I remember best in this respect, probably not worth remembering at all, is that old bestseller Forever Amber that we girls all read as teenagers. It is easy to forget because there is so much happening in the book, but there is a prologue from which it is clear that Amber is not a simple peasant girl but the daughter of noble parents. Not that it changes anything, but she never learns it, and nobody else knows it except the reader.

In one of the marvellous books by the contemporary Russian mystery novel genius Boris Akunin, there are parallel plots, one in the 16th century Moscow, the other in our time. The reader knows where the treasure is hidden and how to find it, but the character misses the final clue.

A S Byatt's Possession is brilliant in tons of manners that I am sure critics have written about. I cannot imagine how I have managed to neglect it until now. It keeps the reader in tension throughout: will the characters find out what the reader has been given privileged knowledge of? Yes, they do, take a deep breath – and then comes the epilogue, and everything is upside down again, and the characters are left in ignorance.

I am a Bear of Very Little Brain. I like books that leave me frustrated.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Academic footprint

Some time ago Julia sent me a link to a radio programme and said I had to listen to it. The name of the speaker didn't ring a bell, it didn't feel urgent, and the message got lost among dozens of other messages. Tonight I was sorting old emails, found it and listened. A young woman was talking about her first evening literature class, many years ago. She talked at length about the uncertainty of being in a university classroom with lots of strangers, and then she finally revealed what it was: Fantasy and Horror. I was in that classroom of her memory, in front of a horseshoe arrangement of desks she described so vividly. She was looking at her classmates, and she was looking at me. I don't remember her, but she remembers me, although she didn't mention my name. I might remember her final paper. Her writer career started that evening in my class. I must read her books.

I've had many weird experiences with former students. Someone sitting opposite me in the underground would suddenly start talking to me about this class in Young Adult Fiction. Or the young bartender, who asked Staffan to tell me, sitting at a corner table waiting for my beer, that my class in Text Analysis was the best he had ever taken. (Sadly, it didn't get him a better job).

The most gratifying episode was when I had an induction class for masters students, talking about planning a thesis and considering your topic and doing the bibliography correct from start. To flesh it out, I asked some students to share their topics. A young man said he was writing his masters thesis on Spanish female poets. After class, as he was leaving the room I couldn't help asking him how he had come up with this idea. "In my first year, he said, you did an introductory lecture on feminist criticism".

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Why I don't go to IBBY conferences

There is a huge international conference in children's literature in London these days. Once upon a time I would have been there. Once upon a time I went to anything that had to do with children's literature. Of course, in those days there were fewer choices. If you went to all children's literature conferences today you'd go twice a week all year round. There are at least two other major children's literature conferences on right now.

But all those years ago, there wasn't so much, and I went to a conference in Umeå (where I first met Aidan Chambers), and to many other events just to listen, and then to give papers, then invited to give talks. Eventually I started to notice the difference between academic and non-academic conferences and book festivals and reading-promotion events and library workshops. It was great fun to visit all of these, but you can't attend everything, and you start to focus. IBBY- type conferences are the first to dismiss if you are an academic, because they are about writers and publishers and reading. It's tremendously important, but it is something different from what I do. If I had more time... but I don't. I may have mentioned this already: people often ask me whether I go Bologna Children's Book Fair every year and get disappointed when I admit that I have never been to Bologna and have no intention to go there. Book fairs are about books. I am not particularly interested in books. (I am still less interested in children).

IBBY congress in London is about books, reading, writing, writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, translators, librarians - all wonderful people without whom my profession would not exist. But I am not directly engaged in any of their activities. I like to meet writers and listen to them every now and then, bit it is not essential for my work. These days, I am sorry to confess, I don't even have to have a physical copy of a book. I am perfectly happy to have an electronic version. I still love the touch of a real book, but it is separate from work. A simple pleasure. For work, I don't need to have met the author, the illustrator, the publisher, the translator. They have all done their job, and I am doing mine.

Maybe I am just funding lame excuses for not going in London.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Do as you teach

I have been doing two things lately: editing my own book and reading student work. I don't know which is more frustrating. With my own text at least I know what I want to say. With students' texts, I usually know what they want to say, but good pedagogy is to make them realise what they want to say and then let them say it.

I am a vicious supervisor. I learned it from my own professor many years ago. She made me shed many tears, but her editing was brilliant. I make students delete sentences that repeat the previous sentence with a slightly different wording. I make them delete all “In my opinion” (because everything not referenced is supposed to be their opinion), all “It would be interesting to consider” (because it is an empty phrase), all pairs of synonyms (“problems and issues”), all “as such”, “moreover”, “indeed” and “in fact”. Then I start editing my own text, and all these faults come over me in a deluge (except “in my opinion” - I learned to avoid it when I was a postdoc).

The best training in succinct academic writing has for me been writing for encyclopedias. If you have five hundred words for an entry you have to be economic with words. You need to squeeze tons of information in these few words, so each word must be chosen carefully. You don't want to waste your precious word count on “moreover” and “in fact”. I admit that occasionally such small words can be useful, but mostly they are garbage. It's incredible how much better a text becomes when you prune it from 735 words to 499. When you have learned that, cutting from 7,000 to 5,000 is child's play. Writing encyclopedic entries should be mandatory in doctoral training.

It is illuminating to look at your own text after having read other people's theses. Reading theses, I wear my evil assessor's eyeglasses and notice all the minuscule repetitions, inconsistencies and circular arguments. I need to be like that toward myself.

Guess how much I have pruned this post.

Monday, 20 August 2012

British places

I have finally seen this amazing exhibition.

I don't know what expectations I had, except that I have the absolutely wrong, outdated association of "library exhibition" = boring. The whole concept of museums and exhibitions has changed so radically in the past twenty years, and any exhibition is nowadays a total experience, with words, images, lighting, colours, sounds, touch - but not smell, thank you (this exhibition would smell horrid). I enjoyed listening to poets reading their poetry (when did you last listen to T S Eliot?). I very much enjoyed the way it was arranged spatially. I spent an hour and a half in this quite limited space, and I know I could have stayed longer and learned more.

For someone who does not know much about Britain and British literature, it's a great introduction. For someone who knows a lot, it's a wonderful reminder. It just so happens that I have recently re-read a vast number of British classics, from George Eliot and Thomas Hardy to John Galsworthy and D H Lawrence. Meeting their books and manuscripts, and maps of their real and fictional places was like going to a school reunion.

I missed some good friends, though. Wouldn't The Secret Garden fit nicely together with Wuthering Heights? But The Wind in the Willows was there, and Water Babies, and Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. And even Enid Blyton (but no Arthur Ransome among Lake District poets).

Afterwards I talked with my companion about whether there is indeed something special with landscape and British literature. In the short video at the exhibition, all famous people said that British literature's obsession with landscape was unique. My companion who is writing her PhD on landscape and identity in Canadian children's literature was not convinced, Neither am I. Swedish literature is obsessed with landscape. Russian literature is obsessed with landscape. American literature is obsessed with landscape. All literature is obsessed with landscape, because this is where humans exist. What makes British literary landscape unique is that it is British. That's enough for me.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Do it yourself

I have published a book. And it wasn't the first time either. It is only a co-edited volume, but a book is a book. As opposed to - say, online journal. It has my name on it. Second, in alphabetical order.

It is three years since I have published my last book, but it seems that the world of publishing has changed completely. I have always been good at advertising my own books: bringing flyers to conferences and such. But today this is not enough. Today you are supposed to do all the marketing yourself. Publishers have huge marketing departments - what do they do? As an author of an academic book, I am supposed to have a profile page on amazon, to blog, tweet, share on fifteen social networks, link to this and that, and ask my friends and colleagues to write "an honest customer review". Amazon has dozens upon dozens of pages with advice on self-promoting. Madness. This is an expensive hardcover book, and it will only be purchased by libraries. All my blogging and tweeting and Facebook sharing may possibly raise the sales by five copies. You, My Dear Reader, are you going to buy a book for £52 just because you are reading this? No, you won't, and I cannot blame you. I won't either. I'll get my free copy.

And yet, I have shared the link on the social networks I belong to, I am obviously blogging about it, and, believe me or not, I have created an amazon profile. As an example of an author profile page, amazon suggests Neil Gaiman. I am afraid mine isn't that impressive. Half of my books are not available on amazon. Too bad.

I know you won't buy the book, but if you really want to help me promote it, write an honest 3-sentence customer review. I'll do it for you next time.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Book of the week: Slated

WARNING: spoilers!

After Divergent I promised myself that I would never read another Young Adult dystopia. Yet for some reason I got enticed by Slated, partially because I have met the author, but also there was something in the blurb that made me curious. Perhaps because I have been reading so much about the brain. I bet Teri Terry has read a lot of the same sources.

Opening the book I saw three features that normally make me want to close it again immediately: first-person narrative, present tense, italics to mark a dream. Still I usually give a book a chance of twenty pages before I throw it away in rage, and I didn't. For once, the present tense is justified. The protagonist/narrator has had her memory obliterated; she lives in the present. First-person perspective is counterbalanced by the dreams (well, in italics, but you can't have everything right. I am almost sure the editor insisted on the italics. Editors always think their readers are idiots). It creates heteroglossia. Counterpoint. Tension.

Scores of literary texts have dealt with the unreliability of memory; in fact I think most literature does it some way or other. I like Terry's take on it. It does not feel artificial, which it easily could have. The gradual and painful remembrance is piercing. I am with the character. I want to know more about her. I want to know what the chip in her brain makes her do and whether she will cope with it. I am so engaged with her that I don't care about minor inconsistencies that felt irritating on the first twenty pages. The novel takes place in 2052 (unnecessarily spelled out). The world has changed dramatically in the past forty years, but forty years from now Terry believes that it will be more or less the same. What her protagonist has gone through has been done, perhaps with less technological sophistication, for years and years. The family structure is the same, the school system is the same, and as a step in socialisation, a sixteen-year-old girl is sent off to put a letter in a mailbox. Mailbox in 2052? And a letter to whom? Well, never mind. It's all background noise. I want to know what happens to the character. I want to know how the author manages the impossible. Killing off a number of secondary characters, including the object of the protagonist's romantic interest, is a good strategy.

What I cannot help thinking about and what the author definitely did not think about is that what she describes as a dystopia was once a fact. People who read 1984 as science fiction have not lived in a totalitarian country. Millions of children during the years of Communist terror in the Soviet Union were separated from their parents and had their brains slated, with or without technical assistence, given new names and new histories so that they would never remember who they were. Kyla's identity number is around 19,000 – the fictional government has been extremely inefficient in their slating project. Reality always surpasses fiction.

The ending clearly prepares for a sequel. It seems unavoidable these days. I will not read the sequel. I am not interested in exactly what happened to Ben or whether Kyla's new teacher is her biological father. I hope Kyla does not join the terrorists to avenge Ben, because I don't believe there is any justification for terrorism, anytime, anywhere. Not even in fiction.

For me Kyla's story is finished, in the perfect fusion of past and present tense and of her split selves, and no more italics. The author has done a marvellous job portraying a maimed, incomplete mind with the sadly inadequate means available, our human language. Any sequel will merely be adventure.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Special expertise

Once upon a time during summer vacations I was for some reason sitting in my office at the Department of Comparative Literature when a call came from the University phone exchange. "Someone from the press, they said. Asking whether there is any expert in fairy tales at the university. We tried your department. You were the only one in". The press had reached the right person for fairy-tale expertise, but the question was weird. An American movie star was having an affair with a "simple" Swedish girl. Everybody was talking Cinderella story. The press wanted to know exactly what the Cinderella story was. Next morning I was quoted in 300,000 copies.

Apparently they kept my name on the file because when princess Diana died and everybody was saying she would become a myth, the press called me, bypassing University phone exchange, to inquire what exactly a myth was.

It's strange how you can become a dedicated expert on journalists' files. What obscure things haven't I been asked to comment on! A couple of times I was on hold when the Nobel Prize in literature was about to be announced, in case it was a Russian. Even now, four years after I have left Sweden, Swedish media call me every now and then, and I can never guess what they might want this time. A recipe for Russian pancakes or a comment on Lord of the Rings?

When BBC called me yesterday I had a quick rush of thoughts: Olympics? No. Has some important children's writer died? Hope not, too many have died this year. Ahh, Fifty shades... No, I haven't read it. My instinct of self-preservation keeps me away from it. I had to read Twilight and Hunger Games and Divergent for professional reasons, but thank goodness I am not an expert on Mom porn so I don't have to read Fifty shades. Not even Forty-nine shades. Still, could I please say something..? About the phenomenon... marketing... social media... reader engagement..?

For a moment of weakness I considered getting the book on Kindle. Then I decided that life is too short. Ars longa vita brevis, as we used to say when I worked as a film researcher, and a long and boring film was screened.

I had done my homework by the time they called again, as well as some contemplating, and I referred confidently to Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds, much to the reporter's surprise. (Where have all the thorn birds gone?)

Although I could not help thinking about the old evil times in the Soviet Union when all sorts of people said or were forced to say: "I have of course not read Solzhenitsyn, but he is a bad writer".