Volume Five, December 2004

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1. In A Mood for Reading: the Oxford Manifesto or Never Alone Again
Like many an academic’s routine, reading is by definition a private, solitary activity. It takes a world-within-a-world of co-creative encounters (chance or otherwise), enactments and potentiality for it to develop into a full and widening experience. The ingredients of this commixture responsible for the becoming whole of the process of reading will be unquantifiable, ineffable attributes that do not come together all that often. Articulating itself in one such happy marriage of inspiration, graceful planning and the ineffable, the 19th Oxford conference on the teaching of literature, ‘Reading Worlds,’ was able to transform in the one intense week of 2-8 April the at times loneliness of the long- or short-sighted ‘book worm’ into the community feeling of the exchange-driven academic.
A lot deserves to be said about the skilful manner in which the conference chairs, Sean Matthews and Claudia Farradas-Moi, in concert with the event consultants John McRae and Alan Pulverness, and Director Margaret Meyer, succeeded in bringing into being this potentiality. To invite and allow for, indeed aptly turn on the taps of the ‘overflowing fountain’ of dialogue without mention of the word ‘creative’ takes a particularly generous co-creative conception and design. In the capable hands of the Oxford ’04 ‘reading worlds’ engenderers, the planned and the free-flowing blended with the kind of pedagogic tact, aptitude and panache guaranteed to leave participants brimming with enthusiasm and the desire for more.
Perhaps one of the most rewarding ensemble effects of this year’s edition was the sense of connection generated in the conference, with great promise of continuation and realisation in its ‘afterlife.’ Placing their emphasis on what our dealings with literature share rather than how they differ, on the (at times forsaken) benefits of talking together rather than to and for ourselves, the orchestrators of this uncommon colloquy, moved from the conventional format of individual paper-giving panels toward that of seminary, collaborative sessions. In the engaging space created by these, the constant reminder, whether in the form of dialogic plenaries or that of late-night group readings, was that it takes an interlocutor to dialogue hence the special role played by feedback and re-action in the strategising of the conference’s progress. In this, as well as in the admirable ‘risk-taking’ capacity of the chairs and their ability to incorporate and reverberate anew the generated input, Oxford ’04 proved a conference in the etymological sense of the term ‘to confer’, i.e. of ‘bringing’, ‘consulting’ and ‘adding together.’ To the participant, this fluid and adaptive, in-progress chairing, resulted in a liberating impression of partaking of an enriching experience, of ultimately having a share in the knowledge and acumen of the other, again a felicitous return to etymological roots. Thus made cognisant of those taking part with you and the worlds that they inhabit, one inevitably rethinks one’s idea of reading in partnership with the other. Indeed within and across the panels, the debates in the event were primarily about refreshing one’s professional practices, about disturbing and stripping away one’s ‘sense of knowing’ and being prepared to be surprised time and again.
The principal instigator of this constantly unsettled horizon of expectation, Sean Matthews, ingeniously extemporised in a diversity of writing-reading registers, to make a very eloquent case for how readers and audiences matter. Staging a variety of literary acts in their interplay, the bilingual performative reading by Claudia Farradas-Moi and Sean Matthews from Julio Cortázar’s Continuity of Parks which opened the conference, set the tone for a vivid inter-animation of forms of reading and writing creatively, the frameworks ranging from conversations or actual workshops with writers to ‘plenary-made tracks’ exploring the guiding, breaking or boosting of creativity. The sessions departed therefore from the standard analytical activities and “theories of the creative” toward a more integrative, practically-minded angle ready to meet the analytical and the creative.
Of an abundant body of issues and areas of investigation that emerged, the ones that appeared to surface with regularity were interrogations of the nature of ‘good writing’ and the possibility of confluence of opinion on what ‘good writing’ is among critics and writers themselves; writing and culture politics; critical reception and textual in(ter)vention and their role in canon formation; degrees of permanence and change in the canon; the status of New Writing in relation to the present and the rewriting of the canon; absolutes and ‘universal themes’; the inevitable value judgement at work in evaluating literature; the ‘natural marriage’ between creative writing and contemporary literature; author events and the readers’ expectations of these; the dangers in the over-professionalisation of writing and of the publishing industry; appreciation, types of examining and the operation of assessing literary competence.
Informed by the principle of constructing a flexible forum of debate to enable the most interaction between delegates and writers, the author events in the conference proved anything but formal readings, which rendered Oxford ’04 yet another distinctive character. Working panels in their own right, these occasions broke the old academic stereotype about writers being elusive, ‘uncompanionable’ figures, abstract entities with little non-textual reality. Indeed it broke down the aura of canonicity and ‘death’, of unreality surrounding writers, a spectral condition from which some traditional literature events are yet to liberate themselves. One cannot praise enough the presence of mind of the chairs in their thinking out of these author-profilers to accommodate and foreground such a broad array of writing hypostases. Thus, while the protagonists of ‘Reading the Contemporary,’ Diran Adebayo and Jane Rogers raised questions about judging aesthetic value in literary texts, writing for performance and writing ‘for the page,’ in ‘New Readings in English,’ Jill Dawson and Toby Litt, in a dialogue convened with sparkle and great intellectual finesse by Sean Matthews, looked at the position of the contemporary novelist between critical theory, intuition and self-reflexivity, the series of conversations with writers building toward an electrifying grand finale, featuring a stunning A.L. Kennedy as no doubt the author-event climax of the conference.
Striking a deep chord in the delegates, Richard Hoggart’s reading announced itself from the start as the cultural highlight of the conference, only to turn into a historic moment in both ethical weight and personal resonance. At a time so defective in universal humanist value, Hoggart’s powerful statements on academic and critical practice as sites of fundamentals, of meaningful ‘last things’, on writing as a daring and enduring mode of leaving footprints, spoke of the virtues of simplicity. On Palm Sunday, in the atmospheric Rainolds room of Corpus Christi College, the voice of the writer and academic reminiscing on the Chatterly trial or reading from his new book, Old Age, had a somewhat prophetic resonance to it. Reverberating in his musings was the evocative power of writing, above all, writing as a form of moral resistance and endurance.
From emulative polemical lectures, veritable ‘plenary duels’ on critical reading practices such as the one conducted in great style and contagious verve by John McRae and Ron Carter, to the dazzling exercises in genres and text types designed by Rob Pope and Jane Spyro, the kind that would make the least inspired of ‘scriptors’ look ‘creativy’, ‘Oxford ‘04’ almost had it all. In the multiplicity and novelty of the reading-writing aspects brought to the fore by the organisers, the event set out to recuperate a sense of the fullness of the process of literature, each session illustrating, in its own way, the profoundness and uniqueness of acts of literature. The success was therefore very much in the resourcefulness and unconventionality of the endeavour as well as in the team spirit that all those involved proved willing to deploy. A great deal of credit is due to the conference manager, Alison St Clair-Ford for putting together a highly profitable and utterly enjoyable event, and setting up a discussion group, the ‘Oxford 2004 Smartgroup,’ to help perpetuate the Oxford projecting appetite and flair. All credit to the conference chairs for a charismatic guidance toward best practice and a sharable mood for reading. To leave one conference with the feeling of having belonged there is unusual these days; to do so with the gratifying sense that you are not miserably isolated in your enterprise, that the public and the private arenas occasionally come together in academic work, and in the process, build relationships, is even rarer. Herein lies the substance of the Oxford 2004 fellowship.

2. Re-presenting the Present: an Afterthought
As a medium of resonating with and situating oneself in the cultural present, interpreting contemporary literature is becoming increasingly synonymous with a moral provocation. Beyond disseminating images of the contemporary, the levels of resonating with the present that ‘Reading Worlds’ instigated suggested that whereas ‘being in the present’ may be an ontological impossibility, being contemporary-minded is an ethical responsibility. Not all contemporary writing is contemporaneous or even ‘contemporal’ in the degree in which it commits itself to the task of writing the recent present. Different imaginings engage the present and make it alive differently. Still, whether it is the pastness of the present or its presentness, the now or the merely recent, the preoccupation with the contemporary in the sphere of Academia imposes itself as a growing moral necessity for, to end with Richard Hoggart’s forward-looking reflections, ‘if universities are to stand for something, it’s for a substantial social morality.’ Making sense of and constantly negotiating our share of the contemporary is inextricably a part of this.

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