Review of the CWWA’s 10th Anniversary Conference: ‘Legacies and Lifespans’

 

By Jessica DayScreen-Shot-2015-07-07-at-18_55_56

On Saturday, 17th October 2015, the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association welcomed an international audience of academics, writers, and postgraduate students to the University of Brighton to celebrate their 10th anniversary conference aptly named ‘Legacies and Lifespans.’ Whilst considering this thought-provoking theme in relation to contemporary women’s writing, the delegates explored the evolving spirit and concerns of women writers from the 1960’s and 70’s onwards through a range of interesting topics, genres, and theoretical analyses. Featuring not only three keynotes from leading scholars Professor Mary Eagleton, Professor Lucie Armitt and Patricia Duncker, but also the launch of The History of British Women’s Writing, 1970-Present (2015) and seven panel sessions, the diversity and insightfulness of the conference was truly beyond measure – and, so too were the stimulating discussions which were generated. Now, with the impossible task of capturing the full breadth of activity that the conference emanated, I will focus this review on the keynotes and overall sentiment that the conference inspired.

For those eager delegates that were able to arrive a day previous on Friday, 16th October 2015, this is when the initial considerations of the legacies and continuities of contemporary women’s writing began. Having received a warm welcome and opportunity for delegates to acquaint themselves with one another, Professor Mary Eagleton proceeded to introduce the conference with her paper ‘Chance and Choice: the Literature of Women’s Upward Mobility.’ Whilst analysing the implications of using the terms ‘chance’ and ‘choice’ in relation to the mobility of the ‘Scholarship Girl’ (a term formulated by Eagleton in order to accommodate for Richard Hoggart’s lack of attention to the ‘Scholarship Boy’s’ counter-part) Eagleton examined the transition of women in higher education since the 1950’s. It soon became apparent that, for women, the neoliberal ethic of the “self-made effect” relied upon a sociology of gambling, as well as upon the notions of choice, hope and serendipity, more than it did on the prospect of choice. Eagleton’s historical account of women’s upward mobility continued until the focus became the situation of mobility in today’s society, and concluded by drawing on Lauren Berlant’s notions of ‘cruel optimism’ and ‘depressive realism.’ Which, considering that much work from the weekend focused on writing in an age of crisis, were certainly themes that lingered in the minds of delegates the next day.

At first glance, the agenda for Saturday’s programme looked not only impressive but also rather fast-paced. So, following a relaxed introductory tea and coffee session, the energetic and animated tone with which the programme demanded of the day was quickly realised. Yet, this lively momentum in no form took away from the dazzling success of the conference, as instead it only matched the passion for the subject matter at hand and led to a continuous flow of spirited discussions to fill the day until the very end.

Patricia Duncker was the first keynote speaker to initiate this vigour, as her enthusiasm for contemporary women’s writing was discussed from her position as both academic scholar and novelist in her paper ‘Historical Figures and Fictional Lives.’ In reflection of her own fiction, particularly her recent novel Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (2015), Duncker examined the traditions, rules and customs of creating historical fiction. To example but a few of the many areas that Duncker addressed, the main thinking at the heart of her paper stimulated from a critical examination of the implications and possibilities of “playing” with historical time; the dichotomy between what is myth and historical fact; as well the role of paratexts in historical fiction. Duncker interlaced this critical insight of the genre by looking at the self-imposed limits of fiction from her perspective as a writer, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the broader traditions and situation of women’s writing in the last few decades.

Having received such an engaging introductory paper, the delegates then began to disperse to the various panel sessions that took place for the majority of the morning and early afternoon. With panel sessions focusing on topics such as ‘Legacies and Dis/continuities’ or ‘Popular Fictions and Cultures’ right through to ‘Social Institutions and Feminist Strategies’ it was apparent that there were few aspects of contemporary women’s writing not accounted for and discussed. As for the panels that I attended, there was certainly an identifiable echo amongst the papers in that most not only engaged with how the legacy of contemporary women’s writing had developed in the last forty years, but, more predominantly and specifically, questioned what may define contemporary women’s writing in the future.

Following on from these seven panel sessions, as well as an exceptionally poignant presentation by Jane Anger (one of the co-founders of Silver Moon Bookshop) on Women’s publishing, Professor Lucie Armitt was the final keynote and speaker of the day. Despite being proceeded by such a varied array of work, Armitt’s keynote on ‘Unspeakable Seas: Flooding, Climate Change and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ could not have produced a more fitting manner with which to conclude the overall sentiment of the conference. The true interdisciplinary manner of Armitt’s paper accentuated to what degree contemporary women’s writing is produced from and should be assessed through an innovative, experimental, and speculative lens. Her paper pushed the analysis of contemporary women’s writing into new territory, almost literally, by examining the encroachment of the sea upon the British coastline as an area for twenty-first century Gothic Literacy exploration. Thus, not only did the audience leave questioning ‘the role that twenty-first century literature might play in helping us negotiate our shared cultural anxieties about encroaching seascapes’ from a geographical and literary point of view, it emphasised the imaginative and innovative essence of contemporary women’s writing itself.

It is in the process of writing this report and in reflection of the conference’s success that I wish to say a huge thanks to the CWWA for organising such an insightful, diverse and beneficial event- especially, from my perspective as a PhD student in the early stages of their research- thank you.

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EVENT: Feminist writer Erica Jong talks sex, ageing and her new novel – Fear of Dying

Erica Jong – Fear of Dying

Erica Jong

With readings by Sandi Toksvig, Meera Syal and Gemma Cairney; chaired by Southbank Centre’s Jude Kelly.

1 November, 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall.

Hear readings by Sandi Toksvig, Meera Syal and Gemma Cairney as Erica Jong introduces her new novel, Fear of Dying.

Erica Jong changed the way we look at love, marriage, and especially sex.

Her revolutionary 1973 best-seller Fear of Flying celebrated consequence-free, casual sex at a time when women weren’t supposed to have it, and the book quickly became the ultimate symbol for female sexual liberation.

Now, over 40 years later, Jong returns with Fear of Dying – the story of an older woman who never wants to give in to fear – including that of sex, as her mortality becomes a reality.

These two novels, separated by four decades, show a generation of women as they age in real time. But how much has really changed for them, and the women around them?

The evening begins with Sandi Toksvig, Meera Syal and Gemma Cairney reading from both Fear of Flying and Fear of Dying.

The event concludes with Erica Jong exploring our enduring fascination with ageing, sex and death in conversation with Jude Kelly, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director and founder of the WOW – Women of the World festival.

For more information and to book tickets see: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/

CFA: ‘Werewolves: Studies in Transformations’

 (abstracts: 30th November 2015, full submissions: 31st March 2016)

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Dr Janine Hatter and Kaja Franck, ‘Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural’
contact email:

j.hatter@hull.ac.uk / k.a.franck@gmail.com

‘Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural’ is a peer-reviewed, online journal looking at the supernatural, the uncanny and the weird. Revenant is now accepting articles, creative writing pieces and book, film, game, event or art reviews for a themed issue on werewolves (due Autumn 2016), guest edited by Dr Janine Hatter and Kaja Franck.

Werewolves have been a consistent, if side-lined, aspect of supernatural studies. From medieval and Early Modern poetry, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ fascination with the occult and the exotic, to contemporary depictions of werewolves in new media, these adaptable, mutable and ever resilient creatures have continuously transformed body and meaning to reflect social, cultural and scientific anxieties of their period. This special issue of Revenant seeks to examine werewolves from an all-inclusive interdisciplinary angle to allow for the fullest extent of these creatures’ impact on our cultural consciousness to be examined. Articles, creative pieces and reviews may examine any aspect of the representation of werewolves within the context of worldwide literature, drama, fan cultures, film, television, animation, games and role playing, art, music or material culture from any time period. We welcome any approach, but request that authors minimize jargon associated with any single-discipline studies.

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

technological metamorphoses, folklore & mythology, allegory, symbolism, aggression, humanity & bestiality, romance, monstrosity, hybridity, lycanthropy, transformation, nature versus nurture, the environment, natural/supernatural, the abject, hunger & desire, teeth & biting, infection & transmission, possession and/or mind control, split personality, disability, power, death & killing, burial rites, occult, religion, superstition, culture, philosophy, psychology, politics, gender, queer readings, sexuality, race and class.

For articles and creative pieces (such as poetry, short stories, flash fiction, videos, artwork and music): please send a 300-500 word abstract and a short biography by 30th November 2015. If your abstract is accepted, the full article (maximum 7000 words, including Harvard referencing) and the full creative piece (maximum 5000 words) will be due 31st March 2016.

Additionally, we are seeking reviews of books, films, games, events and art that engage with werewolves (800-1,000 words in length). Please send a short biography and full details of the book you would like to review as soon as possible.

Further information, including Submission Guidelines, is available at the journal site: www.revenantjournal.com.

Please e-mail submissions to j.hatter@hull.ac.uk and k.a.franck@gmail.com. If emailing the journal directly at revenant@falmouth.ac.uk please quote ‘werewolf issue’ in the subject box.

Thank You & Goodbye

The PG CWWN are saddened to be bidding farewell to two of our steering group members. Our longest serving member Laura-Jane Devanny is stepping down in order to focus on the final stages of her PhD. Since joining the network at the end of 2013, Laura-Jane has been a hard-working and enthusiastic member of the team, and her contribution to all areas of the network will be greatly missed. We are also saying goodbye to Joanne Ella Parsons, who since joining in February 2014 has been key in providing an online presence for the network across a variety of platforms, including social media. On behalf of our members, we would like to wish both Laura-Jane and Jo best of luck for the completion of their research, and every success for the future.

Call for Steering Group Members

We are looking for a new member to join our team!

If you are interested in joining then please send an email with a cover letter outlining why you would like to join the steering group and what you think you can bring to the network, as well as a current academic CV, to info@pgcwwn.org by 11th September 2015.

Please distribute widely. You can download the full call below:

PG-CWWN-Call-for-Steering-Group-Members

Ruth Rendell: CFP for a Special Issue of Contemporary Women’s Writing on Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Edited by Ruth Heholt, Fiona Peters and Gina Wisker.

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Ruth Rendell, who has recently died, was one of the most prolific and important female authors of the C20th/21st centuries, achieving many literary awards and honours, plus a Labour peerage. Her literary output, both as Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine, transcended generic boundaries and conventional assumptions about character, the police procedural novel, class and gender, amongst many of her other concerns.

Rendell’s output can be divided into three categories, bearing in mind that these overlap, shift and change over time: The Wexford series (beginning with From Doon With Death in 1964 up until No Man’s Nightingale in 2013), the stand-alone Rendells, and the arguably more psychologically driven Barbara Vines. Running through all her work, certain themes emerge, including gender, sexuality, crime, poverty, origins, pathology and deviance (especially in the domestic, often suburban sphere), fate and inescapable hereditary, both psychological and physical, and human relationships. Val McDermid notes: ‘Never content with mere description, she illuminated the human condition in all its obsessive complexity in a style that was invariably clear and compelling.’

This special edition aims to mark Rendell’s death with a selection of essays which celebrate her achievements and unique talent – as a writer who never shied away from complex or difficult issues, but who instead shifted the entire focus of the crime fiction genre into a complex study of human beings and their interaction with social and psychological forces.

We invite proposals for articles on any aspect of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s work. CWW seeks to publish essays that reach beyond a reading of a single text in order to challenge existing thinking or extend debates about an author, genre, topic, or theoretical perspective and relate literary analysis to wider cultural and intellectual contexts.

With this in mind topics may include (but are not limited to):

Gender, Class, Age, Family, Marriage, Violence, Death, Authority, The Police, Detection, The Psychological, Race, Homosexuality, Obsession, Poverty, Deviance, The Domestic, The City, The Suburbs.

The deadline for abstracts is 1st September and completed essays of 8000 words will be due on 1st Feb 2016. All essays are subject to peer review and as such publication is not guaranteed.

Please send 300 word abstracts and a short bio to: ruth.heholt@falmouth.ac.uk, f.peters@bathspa.ac.uk and g.wisker@brighton.ac.uk by 1st September 2015.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby

Review by Ishita Mandrekar

all together nowThere seems to be an unspoken rule when it comes to writing any piece of fiction about choirs – stick to the formula. Usually, the plot comprises of a rebel protagonist who, after being coerced into joining the choir, miraculously gets their act together and steers them towards a happy ending.

In All Together Now this protagonist is Tracey Leckford, a single mother with a dark past and a tongue stud, who goes out of her way to live a hermit life. The choir in question is the Bridgeford Community Choir – most of whom, in Tracey’s words, are ‘ancient’ and ‘certifiable bonkers.’ There is the interfering Annie, who usually takes responsibility for things that no one wants to be responsible for – namely cleaning up and coffee; Lewis, Tracey’s affable albeit slightly bossy neighbour who can’t sing but shows up simply because the choir brings a smile to his daughter’s face; Katie, Lewis’ daughter who is confined to a wheel chair after a car accident; Maria – the fun- loving, hip – swaying carer, and then there’s Bennett, the slightly clueless love interest who starts off on a slight antagonistic note with Tracey but sings like an angel, along with a cast of other odd-ball characters.

The choir is in trouble – the County Championships is around the corner, their leader is in the hospital in a coma and they need a star act to win the competition. Anyone who has watched Glee or Pitch Perfect can more or less guess the plot of All Together Now. This is not a book that wins points in the authentic plot department. Hornby sticks to the formula, choosing to create a variation instead of creating a whole new plot altogether. Perhaps it is a credit to her writing then that she still manages to engage her reader, even when the reader has more or less guessed the plot by page three. Hornby has a knack for finding the beauty in the everyday, and she brings out these details in the lives of the various members of the Bridgeford community. The depiction of small town life is vividly sketched out for the reader, and brings to mind Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy in that respect.

It is no mean task to juggle a large ensemble of characters and their relationships with each other, and Hornby does both beautifully. Depicting the intertwining relationships and various social dynamics at work with intricacy and honesty. The parent-children relationships are perhaps the best examples of this. The father-daughter bond between Lewis and Katie, the friendship Tracey shares with her son Billy, or even the relationship between Bennett and Araminta. Hornby drills to the heart of social appearances and give the reader characters that are both selfless and flawed at the same time. It would be unfair to categorise All Together Now as a feel good book, for despite its flaws in plot, the book gently encourages its reader to take a closer look at everyday life. The kind of life we all live and not notice.

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Review by Carly Robinson

girl at warNović’s debut novel is a stunning account of how the horrors and atrocities of war creep into everyday life and slowly tear apart the world of a young girl. Nović skilfully portrays how the effects of the Yugoslav civil war permeate into Ana Juric’s family and home life, affecting her everyday existence, the fabric of her relationships, and resulting in a shocking event which changes the shape of her life forever and sets her on a completely different trajectory to the one she had imagined.  Set in early 90’s Croatia against the backdrop of the atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, as Ana learns about herself, her identity and what she is capable of withstanding she also learns about the human condition, its capacity for love and kindness as well the darkest forms of torture and genocide. Ana has a lot to deal with from a young age and Nović imbues her protagonist with the best response to the fight or flight dilemma that she is faced with, going above and beyond the self preservation instinct to survive.  Serious feminist icon her character may be, but as she struggles to come to terms with her experiences growing up within her adoptive family and country, Nović subtly traces the unresolved internal conflict which threatens to damage Ana’s hard built outer exterior.

Although the conflict in the Balkans is relatively recent history, you don’t need to know anything about the Yugoslav civil wars to appreciate the war commentary of the novel. This is a story rooted in historical fact, written with the intensity of what feels like personal experience and a deepening knowledge of the human psyche, all from the perspective of a young girl. That’s no mean feat.  Nović deftly explains the racial tensions within Ana’s tight knit community of Zagreb, from the subtle changes in the way neighbours interact with other, to the wider landscape of the shifting Croat/Bosnian borders and the harsh reality and shocking realisation that a surname could mean the difference between crossing the border or dying there.

Ana’s search for her family and friends upon her return to Croatia years later keeps the reader gripped, but Nović does not feel the need to wrap everything up neatly at the end of the novel and this is what makes it sing. Ana has come to terms with what happened but it will always still haunt her. Nović has that rare ability to write stark uncompromising prose about war crimes from the raw view of the victim without letting the narrative dwell in morbid and morose self-pity for her protagonist. She draws out the contrasting experiences of living with war, both in terms of the quotidian food rationing, bombings and blackouts compared with the distant idea of what it means to Americans who have never experienced its harsh reality. Her use of shifting time sequences to engage the reader and almost allow the story to run as a mystery, with the switch in time and place to New York, leaves you reeling from the stark contrast of the previous episode in Croatia. Girl at War has been marketed as a coming of age story, but with its war commentary, diasporic explorations of notions of identity and home, and an insightful exploration of how the father-daughter and mother-daughter dynamics shape the character of Ana throughout the traumatic events that befall her, it is ever so much more.

Resistance is Futile by Jenny T. Colgan

Review by Catherine Paula Han

ResistanceIsFutile_R.indd“Jenny T. Colgan boldly goes where no author has gone before” states the tagline of her latest novel, Resistance is Futile. Coglan has an established reputation as the author of numerous “chick lit” novels, of which the best known are Meet Me at the Cupcake Café (2011), Christmas at the Cupcake Café (2013) and Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams (2012). She has also written the Doctor Who tie-in novel Dark Horizons (2012) and a Doctor Who short story “Into Nowhere” (2014). Combining these seeming disparate genres, Colgan’s latest novel claims to be “Bridget Jones meets Independence Day”.

A hybrid of science fiction and chick lit, Resistance is Futile features a mathematician heroine named Connie MacAdair who has recently been awarded a prestigious fellowship at the University of Cambridge. At her arrival, Connie realises that something is distinctly amiss when she discovers that all the top figures in her field have also been gathered together.  The eccentricities of these mathematicians are a source of gentle humour throughout the novel, with many jokes relating to the shy but attractive oddball Luke Beith.

Eventually, Resistance is Futile reveals that the university has summoned Connie and her colleagues to solve some mysterious mathematics that have flummoxed the astrophysics department. After weeks of work, Connie realises that the numbers are some form of communication from an alien species. Her discovery, however, occurs at the same time as the revelation that this extra-terrestrial presence has started committing murders on Earth. Complicating the matter, Connie has fallen in love with Luke who has turned out to be a wholly different person than he initially claimed.

Because of its combination of genres, Resistance is Futile could be an interesting example or case study for any researchers interested in contemporary chick lit’s experimentation with its own boundaries and conventions.  Caroline J. Smith groups Colgan amongst other writers who “began to experiment with the conventions of chick lit, particularly in terms of expanding the target audience for the texts and in straying from the previously established narrative structures of these texts” (136). Early on, numerous chick lit writers experimented by featuring protagonists of different races, nationalities and ages. Since then, “writers from all genres have been capitalizing on the chick lit trend, adding a chick lit spin to their narratives” (Smith 2008: 137).  Consequently, we could position Resistance is Futile as part of larger trend in contemporary, genre-blurring chick lit.

Resistance is Futile’s science fiction element does add an unusual spin to the narrative, particularly the romance between Connie and Luke, which does not conform to the expected paradigm of “girl-meets-boy”. Indeed, certain scenes invite a queer(ish) reading and the courtship plot has an unconventional ending. This aspect also means that an undercurrent of darkness runs throughout the novel beneath Colgan’s trademark humour. Though the novel derives much comedy from the threat of an alien attack, Resistance is Futile also repeatedly compares imagined, off-planet wars with real, Earth-bound military conflicts. Though these analogies remain under developed, Resistance is Futile adopts a slightly broader perspective than the often de-politicised, “feminine navel-gazing” associated with chick lit (Whelehan 217). To say that Colgan has “boldly go where no author has gone before” would be an overstatement but Resistance is Futile does exemplify interesting developments within contemporary chick lit.

Works Cited

Smith, Caroline J. Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Chick Lit. London, New York: Routledge, 2008.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Landfalls by Naomi Williams

Review by Rebecca Gibson

landfalls

It isn’t hard to find a way into Naomi Williams’ debut novel Landfalls, even if you know next to nothing about voyages of exploration or French history, or even if you’ve not read much historical fiction. The novel is based on the true story of the La Pérouse expedition, which left France in 1785 with two hundred men and the great ships Astrolabe and Boussole, only to run into copious hardships and tragedies in its attempt to circumnavigate the globe for the glory of France.

Williams juggles a large cast of narrating characters with ease and has a glorious ability to make you feel connected to them within a few pages, much like Hilary Mantel. I never once got confused over characters’ identities, despite a lot of similar names and roles – after all, pretty much everyone in this book is a French sailor to a lesser or greater degree. All her main characters are so well individualised that it wasn’t a struggle to remember them, and her descriptions of the far off lands travelled by the expedition are so vivid that I remembered the route with little trouble when prompted, despite the sigh I uttered when I saw a map at the beginning of the book (I’m not great with directions). Williams has a light but firm touch, and her awareness of how history can be moulded to the concerns of those who write it makes for a very interesting read.

It is customary to express sympathy and shock when confronted with natural disasters that fell large numbers in the news these days, but they rarely touch us like they would if we knew the dead personally. The numbers are just too big, the loss too much to internalise. I was struck by the way Landfalls brings the reader close to the victims of such a disaster, long before the end arrives. It’s impossible not to empathise with these men, stuck living together in cramped conditions on a dangerous voyage of discovery, who nonetheless bond together tightly, developing close personal ties that reach much deeper than the respect of colleagues. Williams shows us not just the grand ambition of these men but their personal foibles, their small triumphs and their regrets, and in doing so makes the weight of their sacrifice impossible to forget; it’s men like this who made it possible for us to map the globe, and eventually to travel across it in a matter of hours. That privilege had to be earned, Williams shows us over and over again, and at a heavy cost.

My only real complaint about Landfalls is a distinct lack of female voices. Women crop up here and there, but they play unimportant roles and are inevitably defined by their relationships with men, even the chapter narrated by a native Alaskan girl of twelve (the only female narrated chapter in the book). Williams wrote on Twitter that she considers Landfalls to be a feminist work, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. She herself may be a feminist, but perhaps out of necessity considering her subject matter, female representation was lacking in this novel, as thoroughly enjoyable as it was in other respects.