Journal 15 May 2017

I’ve been presumptuous and arrogant. It’s impossible to study Literature ad hoc. Nobody can wing literary theory. A student must engage with a reasonable selection of Literature’s primary fictional and interpretative texts if she or he really wants to get to grips with what the tradition is all about. Such a course may serve as a prelude to studying one or more particular literary or theoretical movements, including fantasy fiction and its related fields (romance, romanticism, gothic, science fiction, Arabian fantasy). And in turn, one need not export every theoretical concept from the literary to the fantasy domain – even the much derided fantasy genre now boasts a tradition of critical theoretical writing. But one must embrace something of the breadth of interpretations, ideas, techniques, and language of the core tradition before one can take a closer look at one small part of it. To rush it is to risk running through the clouds only to find oneself standing on air.

What to do? I perused my introductory texts to Literature and surveyed a handful of preliminary reading lists aimed at students starting a BA in English Literature, and from these, I selected one hundred exemplary literary texts from the Classical to the postcolonial/postmodern, from Euripides and Ovid to Angela Carter’s Wild Children (1991) to Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2007). I similarly collated a list of theoretical works pertinent to my scope of interest, including Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), and Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics (2002). As a travelling companion, I’ve already acquired (at only nominal cost) a slightly dated copy of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Together, they will, I hope, function as solid foundation for my precursory exploration of literature, insha’Allah.

Reading: D. Cavanagh et al [Eds.], The Edinburgh Introduction to Studying English Literature: Second Edition (Edinburgh University Press, 2014); Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh (Profile Books, 2005); Amanda H. Podany, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013)

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Journal 06 May 2017

There are a couple of reasons why I’m starting off my studies by reading Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle’s An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Routledge, 2016). But there are plenty of reasons I shouldn’t be. Speculative fiction is what busts my book buckle, not literary fiction. There’s some overlap, but out of Bloom’s famed list of 26 canonical authors, only 11 make mine: Dante, Chaucer (great storyteller), Shakespeare (of course), Samuel Johnson (Rasselas), Goethe, Wordsworth, Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey is a direct response to the rise of the gothic novel), Dickens, Virginia Woolf (Orlando), Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges. A few hang around the pitch edge, hoping to get picked: Cervantes, Milton, Emily Dickinson, Beckett, etc. and although I’ve a passing acquaintance with them all except Cervantes, they don’t fit in with my team plan. I’d never heard of Pablo Neruda or Fernando Pessoa until I looked them up. Pablo wrote prolifically in green ink. He was murdered, probably on Pinochet’s orders. I love the thing Pessoa had going on with his heteronyms. Sad to say, neither are right for what I’m trying to do.

So why read Bennett and Royle? Reason number one relates to further study. Literary theorists who write about speculative fiction sometimes allude to ideas from literary criticism. I’m already familiar with literary theory from my study of the philosophy of sociology, so once I’ve read Bennett and Royle, I hope to have enough of a grasp of literary ideas and concepts to make reasonable sense of any spec-fic theoretical stuff.

Second off, some literary ideas are directly relevant to speculative fiction, such as ‘the sublime’ and ‘the postcolonial’. I’ve already know quite a bit about postcoloniality, but it’s always helpful to revisit a topic and I plan to read more about both these concepts as part of my research. Oh, and that reminds me: I’m decided to focus on storyworlds.

I don’t think there’s much about this topic specifically in Bennett & Royle. But then I don’t plan to take a strictly literary approach here: having already examined some of the pertinent literature in narratology, and found it too distant from my writerly aspirations, I’ve decided to start instead with Mark J.P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (Routledge, 2012), a work of media studies. Sooner or later, I always end up back doing Cultural Studies! C’est postmodernité!

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Journal 05 May 2017: Book Review

Short review: Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, & Mark A. McDaniel (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press)

Back in the 1970s, when I was a struggling through my ‘O’ levels whilst dodging those pupils whose overweening ambition it was to bog-flush my head, one of my science teachers, a Mr Gottesman, would repeatedly remind us that learning is not a fixed ability; if you want to do better, work harder. But can a student work smarter? Following the biggest review of learning research ever undertaken, Peter Brown and his colleagues believe we can. I’ve summarised key facets of their advice in a mind map posted on my website. However, their findings have a qualified application to my own research.

The prevailing assumption in Brown et al’s study is that learning is predominantly the retention and reproduction of discreet units of information. Perhaps this is true for scientists – at least those who are technicians rather than theoreticians, but not so much for writers: we’re more concerned with the development of complex ideas and skills. On its own, memorizing Strunk & White verbatim is unlikely to turn someone into a proficient writer. Reading high quality literary texts and regular writing practice can.

Factual learning is important in literature: it’s not easy to talk about a work of fiction if you can’t remember the names of the characters or details of the plot. However, I believe two other concepts bear reflecting upon as a prelude to any literary research: narrative and creativity. In Brown et al, narrative is primarily referred to as a barrier to learning: our ‘hunger for narrative’ can lead us to see connections where there are none, and may obfuscate our ability to consider new ideas. Yet stories also tell us who we are and provide us with the mental models of what we know. The problem is not narrative in itself, I would suggest, but unyielding narrative. This is why creativity is vital to learning.

When we’re being creative students, we acknowledge learning is a dynamic process, one which involves building knowledge, understanding, and skills through comparison, critical analysis, application, and other forms of active interrogation. We try out new ideas in discussion and debate. Sometimes they make sense and sometimes less so. We recognise that, over time, these ideas are open to review, revision and refinement. We should be similarly reflexive with regards to the hows of learning as well as to the what.

My thesis, then, is that effective learning is much more than the acquisition of a set of techniques. A good literature student is creative and reflexive, and that reflexivity should apply equally to the ideas and practices that constitute the learning process.

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Journal 02 May 2017

There must have been a point in time, although I can’t remember it, when my spiritual quest came to an end. There was nothing else to search for, no expectation, no hope. There is no God, no Tao, no love, not really much that is good anymore. The truth belongs not to Mahatma Ghandi, but to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Humans are stupid, myself included. The only personal transformation I strive for now is a rear-guard action against death: eat sensibly, take exercise, keep your mind active, wait for next pale of shit to punch you in the head. Then again, at least I’m free to make fun of this existential folly. In some parts of the planet, mocking the powerful still gets you a bullet in the brain.

Only I’m not free. Not really. My autistic son’s in social care: if I were to train my satirical sights on the agencies responsible for looking after him, there’s a good chance he might come to some harm. I know, I tried it, once. My tenancy agreement includes a gagging clause, as did a contract with a previous employer. Whether they hold any legal weight is a moot point, but they shout up that a great deal of malice might fly my way, were I to decide to go public about the shit I’ve suffered. The end point might not be hot Ruski lead, but the life expectancy of a homeless person in this country is about thirty years below the average. The gobs of flesh on the razor wire are there to scare the sheep from jumping over, just as much as the armed feds and the media with their terrorism tales.

The bottom of the well is a dark place. I want to restart my growth and re-begin my rebellion. And so I’ve come to Clagsborough College, to learn, and to write.

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