A FAMILY SNAPSHOT: LITERATURE IN THE 39TH AEDEAN CONFERENCE

Last week I attended the beautifully organized 39th AEDEAN (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) conference at the University of Deusto, in Bilbao. The association has about 1,100 members–quite a substantial number–of whom about 200/250, depending on the year, present work at the conference. I always say that the conference’s strong point is networking and PR: it functions very well as a meeting point for colleagues who joined the ranks of the field long ago and for newcomers to get a first taste of academic life. This year I have indeed enjoyed excellent work by doctoral candidates, and have approached them to offer congratulations (after being told by one of them, an ex-student, that younger researchers feel shy to approach senior researchers, which I certainly am after 24 years).

My post today aims at offering a (family) snapshot of what AEDEAN offered as regards Literature. My initial hypothesis concerns not just this conference but what I believe to be a general trend in research in the field of literary studies: while contemporary literary authors remain a stable object of interest (whether canonical ones or new names), the so-called popular or commercial novelists are being abandoned in favour of TV and cinema. Paradoxically, this is a side effect of the liberation from canonical constrictions that Cultural Studies started introducing 20 years ago in English Studies in Spain, a trend in which I myself was a pioneer. Younger generations read fewer novels and watch more series, with the result that in some fields (perhaps particularly SF), the so-called ‘popular’ novels are practically unknown and the audio-visual version of the genre is assumed to be the ‘real thing’. Of course, the AEDEAN conference is just a sample of the whole field and, as you will see, it turns out I’m not quite right–but let this post act as a call for young scholars to re-integrate the ‘popular’ novel into their field of research. And also to get an overview of what our colleagues are reading.

Briefly, this is a map of the authors dealt with (for full details, you may refer to the book of abstract, still available at https://aedean2015.deusto.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Book-of-abstracts-39th-AEDEAN-Conference.pdf)

PLENARY CONFERENCE (by David Río), “Renovating Western American Literature from an Urban Perspective: Contemporary Reno Writing”, dealing with Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed and local authors Willy Vlautin, Tupelo Hassman, Claire Vaye Watkins, etc. Note this deals with the representation of Western America, not with the genre of the ‘western’.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE: authors studied include James Joyce, Graham Greene and José Luis Castillo-Puche; T.S.Eliot and Anna Akhmatova; Robert Bringhurst; Charlotte Brontë; Eugène Labiche and Sydney Grundy; Wallace Stevens and Harold Rosenberg; Charles Sedley (17th C) and a selection of other 17th C theatre.

CRITICAL THEORY: authors and titles dealt with, leaving aside the papers raising theoretical issues, include disability memoirs by Christina Middlebrook, (Seeing the Crab: A Memoir of Dying Before I Do) and Harriet McBryde Johnson (Too Late to Die Young); fiction: Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, Michèle Roberts’s Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta, Linda Grant’s Still Here… and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

CULTURAL STUDIES, yes, also offers its good share of fiction studies including Fifty Shades of Grey, Marita Colon’s The Magdalen, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace; SF authors Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Leguin were also dealt with in a paper considering women’s art.

The FILM STUDIES panel included two papers on dystopian films, some of them adapted from novel series such as YA SF Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent but the focus, of course, was on the films. I believe neither paper was actually presented.

GENDER AND FEMINIST STUDIES offered papers on literary novels (Camila Gibb’s Mouthing the Words, Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930) and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Mary O’Donnell’s The Elysium Testament), short stories (Alice Munro’s short story “Bardon Bus”, Téa Obreth’s short story “The Tiger’s Wife”, Angela Carter’s revision of Cinderella) and drama (Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play). Here some popular fiction could be found (crime fiction): Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE: with papers on A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, Imogen Robertson’s The Paris Winter, Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter, Sara Stockbridge’s Cross my Palm, Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Charles Yu’s short story “Standard Loneliness Package”; also authors Walter Scott and Irish playwright Marina Carr. A paper dealt with the intersection in popular fiction of two favourite topics: vampires and the Salem witches (Her Dear and Loving Husband by Meredith Allard, Jonathan Alden: The First American Vampire and Salem Lost by Frank R. Godbey, Jr.). The round tables mentioned Niall Griffiths’s Grits, Louise Kehoe’s In this Dark House, Lisa Appignanesi’s Losing the Dead and Linda Grant’s The People on the Street, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-pool Library and The Line of Beauty, among others.

In POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES authors and novels dealt with included Arthur Phillips’s Prague, John Beckman’s The Winter Zoo, Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ama Ata Aidoo’s short stories “Nutty” and “About the Wedding Feast”, Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa. I need to highlight, of course, the round table on postcolonial crime fiction chaired by Bill Phillips.

SHORT STORY panel: authors dealt with include Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Elizabeth Gaskell, Angela Carter, Helen Simpson, Janice Galloway, A.S. Byatt, and Jeanette Winterson.

Finally, US STUDIES offered work on drama (Edward Albee’s The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia?, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart); the novel: Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘hybrid’ novels, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (really!?) and 10:04, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Toni Morrison; short fiction: Poe, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming in Fine Just the Way It Is, George Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries’ (Tenth of December 2013)” and non-fiction (Perry Miyake’s 21st Century Manzanar). Saunders’ story is SF, as is the novel by Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants, also dealt with in this panel.

The surprise came for me from the PRAGMATICS AND DISCOURSE ANALYSIS panel, which included work on the most neglected popular genre, romance – the paper “Discourse types and functions in a corpus of popular romance fiction novels (work in progress)”.

What does the snapshot show? First, that TV has not found yet its way into the AEDEAN conference… despite the round table on The Wire (in Film[?] Studies). Second, that there is a refreshing, up-to-date awareness of current trends, with many novels published in the 21st century and many new authors. Some classic authors remain (Carter, Morrison) but the field of research is fast expanding, specially as regards American authors of non-white ethnic backgrounds. Third, that only two popular genres (detective fiction, SF) are present in the panels, the former more consistently than the later but neither quite a strongly visible genre (both use the umbrella provided by other labels). Fourth: you may use this list as a very attractive reading list for 2016…

Is this representative or accidental? Yes and no. Take my own case: I’ve been devoted mostly to SF this past year but have presented a paper on two films with gay protagonists, Brokeback Mountain and Gods and Monsters, both adaptations of American authors. This is part of the research on masculinities produced with the group I’m currently working with and typical of what I tend to do, yet at the same time not what I am doing mainly now.

So, please, take the map with a pinch of salt… and enjoy!!

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