Monday, 17 September 2012

Conference Called


What We Didn't Quite Look Like (except in spirit)
(photo source)

A few of you asked if I'd feed back on the conference I attended last week, and I'm more than happy to do so.  It was called Space and Place in Middlebrow: 1900-1950, mostly organised by Kate Macdonald whom you may know from the podcasts Why I Really Like This Book.  When you see that her most recent podcast is about E.F. Benson's Queen Lucia, you'll sense that we were in the right hands to enjoy a wonderfully middlebrow conference...

I didn't speak at this conference (although had given my first proper conference paper at the equivalent conference last September, on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes and Edith Olivier's The Love-Child.)  This was a mixed blessing - I enjoyed being able to sit back and relax, and just listen to the fascinating papers, but I also got to the end of the two days wishing I'd contributed something more.  But when the call for papers came out I couldn't think of anything to submit, since I was busy writing up what I'd spoken on in 2011.  Oh well - I certainly had a really amazing couple of days.  If all academia was like this, then I would jump on board wholeheartedly.

I think different specialities attract people akin to their topics.  I've heard that conferences on the 18th century have banquets and are a bit formal.  People studying the middlebrow seem to be so relieved that other people know what the middlebrow is, and have read some of the same authors, that we bond delightedly over tea and cake.  It was lovely to see people I knew from last year, including blogger Tanya/20th Century Vox who gave a brilliant paper on E.M. Delafield's The Suburban Young Man, and it was an especially fun surprise to meet Nick of A Pile of Leaves, since neither of us knew the other would be there.  Amusingly, he came over and asked if I were Stuck-in-a-Book (as it were) entirely based on someone pointing me out as a Simon who owned too many books.

The papers were deliciously middlebrow, of course, and great fun to listen too - as well as thought-provoking and scholarly.  Finally, after three years, I have got enough confidence to ask questions and join in conversations - a shame it didn't come at the beginning of my DPhil, but better late than never!  It was a very positive experience to feel like I might have things to contribute to discussions, and some knowledge about the subject.  Last year people were really supportive of and interested in my paper, but I was a blur of nerves for a lot of it.  This year I could hear the papers without worrying about my upcoming contribution.

I shan't reveal much about people's arguments in their papers, because of intellectual property etc., but I imagine a few of you will be drooling enviously at the knowledge that topics covered included: views of the English Riviera in Rebecca; women writers in Elizabeth Cambridge's Hostages to Fortune and Angela Thirkell's High Rising; national identity in Agatha Christie's novels; the middlebrowness of Woolf's literary pilgrimages; bedrooms in Jeeves and Wooster novels; alternative rooms of one's own in Lettice Cooper's The New House and Stella Gibbons' Bassett; middle-class uncanny in Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost; Elizabeth Bowen and the suburbs... and that's only a selection of the papers I thought most interesting! Last year's conference had quite a few topics which were really only on the peripheries of the middlebrow, so it was joyous to have so many papers slap-bang in the middle of the middlebrow.  Can you imagine people not only having read these novels, but having original, exciting arguments to put forward about them? I was on cloud nine!

There was also a very entertaining discussion by always-hilarious Erica Brown and Chris Hopkins about a new venture at Sheffield Hallam University called Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950.  They've collected together nearly 1000 books (of various 'brows', but lots of middlebrow titles) from those fifty years, and as part of the project have got book groups reading their way through them and producing reports.  It all sounds very like something the blogosphere could support - watch this space to see if things open up to the wider world.  In fact, watch this space, because that is their blog, and has more info etc.  They're also looking for further donations (in the form of books) to the collection, so if you have anything going spare... well, check out that blog or this website.

All in all, a wonderful couple of days!  In November I'm speaking at a conference on The Marginalised Mainstream, which seems to have a somewhat wider remit, but will hopefully be as interesting.  Oh, if only this conference could have gone on for months and months!

22 comments:

  1. Ah yes, Simon, the concept of Middlebrow. Perfect comfort zone, and perfect word, at last, to describe my kind of reading.

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    1. If you've not read Nicola Humble's book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, Susan, then I recommend you get a copy! You'll have enough delightful suggestions ahead of you to last years.

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  2. A truly splendid account of a truly splendid two days - and the accompanying photo is pure genius!

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    1. I was pretty delighted when I stumbled across it! It certainly conveys the spirit of the days :)

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  3. What fun! Nothing like a good conference with papers after your own heart and lots of friends, new and old. What are you going to talk about in November?

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    1. "The many metamorphoses of Lady Into Fox" - about the change in its reception over time. I think I might even use my first Powerpoint presentation!

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  4. OVW (AKA Curator of Reserve Collection)18 September 2012 07:42

    'Simon who owned too many books' - how I laughed!

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  5. Lovely conference report - I'm just writing my own from the Iris Murdoch conference at the moment! At ours, we bonded over piles of books to buy, excellent cards of Murdoch characters, and that blur of nerves. I managed to ask a question in a panel (which I did last time) AND one in a plenary (get me! But it did feed right into my research interests so wasn't too challenging). Glad you had such a lovely time.

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    1. I would love to go to a conference devoted to a single author - I wish I'd gone to the Rose Macaulay one, but it clashed with something. It must be such fun to know that everybody loves the same lesser-known author.

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  6. I’m glad to hear the second day was as good as the first – and it was a real pleasure to meet you! There was a lovely atmosphere to the day, particularly during the Sheffield Hallam panel, which emphasised the curiosity (sometimes rewarded, sometimes not) behind academic interest.

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    1. Wasn't that panel fun! I love the moments when the academic face slips a bit to reveal the avid readers.
      So nice to meet you :)

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  7. Simon, I may have said this before, but I hope you realise how lucky you are, reading, and researching,and collecting books, and attending conferences where you have 'original, exciting arguments' about books. It sounds an idyllic existence!

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    1. Ha! I'm sure it sounds like it... no, I do realise that I'm lucky, but sometimes I long for a 9-to-5 with people around me... If the whole experience was like this conference, though, I'd be on cloud nine all the time!

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  8. Hi Simon, I'm glad you enjoyed our talk. I will treasure being described as 'always hilarious'. I hope I will I be able to keep it up!

    I will have ways for the readers of the blogosphere to contribute to the reading project posted up very soon!

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    1. Ha! You'd better, Erica - if you ever slip from being hilarious, I'll be onto you....

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  9. Your conference sounds like such fun! It reminds me of the seminars I took in college (American here, so that would be "university" to you).

    I'm looking to expand my horizons and want to read a book from your "50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About (in no particular order)" list. Other than Evelina, which I have read, I haven't even heard of any of the other titles. Would you have a recommendation of where to begin? I wouldn't want to jump into something without being properly prepared to read it.

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    1. How lovely, Courtney! Where to start, where to start... it's like picking from my children! I dearly love them all, but some probably have wider appeal than others. Katherine Mansfield's short stories are so beautiful that I think everyone should try them, and my favourite two books on the list (and, indeed, just my favourite two books) are Miss Hargreaves and Diary of a Provincial Lady, so I recommend starting with them! Let me know how you get on :D

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  10. Oh it's wonderful when a conference really hits the spot and you find yourself in the right 'family'. I have spent way too much of my time nicking off to go shopping in conferences where the papers were dull and worthy. This sounds like a lot of fun! And I know that feeling all too well of being unable to hear a thing because I have to get up and speak next. Every time I thought, I'm going to die, why am I doing this? But like hitting one's head against a brick wall it was very pleasant indeed when it was all over!

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    1. I've been very picky with the conferences I've attended, mostly because for the first two years the idea terrified me too much, so I've only gone to ones which sounded very much up my street.

      And is hitting your head against a brick wall pleasant afterwards?!

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    2. What a great conference report and photo! It was indeed a fabulous conference made up of great people and I came away with so many suggestions for exciting books to read!

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  11. Great conference report and I love the photo! It was indeed a fabulous couple of days, made up of people who genuinely love a good book. I came away with so many suggestions for exciting books to read!

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