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Getting academic about David Mitchell

conferenceDavid MitchellUniversity of St Andrews


Academics and book lovers in Scotland are gearing up for the first University of St. Andrews conference on the work of writer David Mitchell, taking place Thursday and Friday, Sept. 3 and 4. Conferences such as this are nothing new -- you can't swing a stick at an academic calendar without hitting one on James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or any number of other major writers -- but this one is unusual.

Because Mitchell -- whose most acclaimed novel, "Cloud Atlas," was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize  -- differs from the likes of Joyce and Woolf because he's alive. He might even be said to still be in the early phase of his career: He just turned 40 this year, published four novels in the last decade, and his fifth is due out in 2010. Yet his body of work is weighty enough to merit attention from professors from across the United Kingdom, France and even UC Davis.

Like other conferences, this one will include a number of panels on the author's work. And as they are at many other conferences, the panels are charmingly arcane. A sampling:

Intertextual Doppelganger: David Mitchell’s "number9dream" and "Japan"

Narratology and the Mitchell Multiverse

"Versed Enough in Antipodese Etiquette": Speculative Fiction as Postcolonial Critique in "Ghostwritten" and "Cloud Atlas"

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, from Postmodernity to the Posthuman

Writing Inside/Out: Genre and David Mitchell’s Paratext

Hypertext, Palimpsest, and the Virtual Text: Tracing the Digital in David Mitchell's "Ghostwritten"

Reading those titles makes me both want to attend and wince with embarrassment. How fun it would be to discuss narratology and posthumanism and text and intertextuality in relation to Mitchell's work! How silly and removed these discussions are from the job of writing and the joys of reading!

Maybe it's better that Joyce and Woolf and other study-worthy novelists are gone. Are these really the kinds of discussions a novelist should be aware of? Ask Mitchell. The sprightly young novelist is scheduled to appear at the conference in person; he'll read and answer questions on Friday evening.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: Random House and the University of St. Andrews

Comments () | Archives (5)

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I can't believe Mitchell is attending this conference. If I were he, I would stay as far as possible from it. (He's probably getting a large check, though).

Admittedly, "Cloud Atlas" is a stunning book.

As the academic organiser of this conference, I am pleased to see that it has gained publicity in such an esteemed publication as the Los Angeles Times. I am disappointed, however, at the disparaging tone of the article. David Mitchell did indeed attend the conference, but not merely in order to perform a fee paid reading at the end. He was in fact paid no fee at all and freely came to all of the papers over the two days, as well as reading from his forthcoming novel in the final session. The topics of discussion of all papers were directly related to the job of writing and the joys of reading, as well as being academically and scholarly informed - these two things are in no way mutually exclusive; it is a disappointing symptom of popular anti-intellectualism that they would be thought to be so. The presence of the author in all papers and the curious and uncanny dialogue this created between reader and author was a new and productive experience for both parties, both of whom learnt much from each other. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that our great authors are dead and gone, this conference valued that at least some are still alive - hopefully more such brave and productive engagements between contemporary writers and readers will be seen in the future.

Ms. Kellogg seems to forget that there are as many ways of reading as there are people who read and that some people do in fact take pleasure in ways of reading that others may find esoteric. Criticizing the topics of these papers on the grounds that they are removed from the joys of reading, rather than being populist or anti-elite, only serves to establish oneself as an authority on how one ought to read.

I was one of the presenters (my title was one of those listed above), and I have to say I'm a bit baffled by this entire posting. This conference was without a doubt the most rewarding and informative I've ever attended, and I know from the many delegates I spoke to that they felt the same way. I am also troubled by the implication that David Mitchell is somehow not worthy of academic study - because he's alive? In response, here is a list of living authors who regularly have dedicated sections on them at literary conferences: Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and A.S. Byatt, and that's just off the top of my head.

I'm dismayed that what is ostensibly a "Books blog" would seek to argue that an academic study of literature is somehow at odds with a love of reading. This anti-intellectualism is exactly why we teachers struggle so much to instill that love in our students today.

As conference sponsor, I would like to point out that a similar discussion is taking place in the UK over at the Guardian. To my mind, however, one of the most frequently overlooked points is that a huge number of high-profile living contemporary novelists attended university, and it is not at all rare that they were, or still are, active as academics. Although academic writing and fiction writing may well be two different things, it should be noted that David Mitchell completed an MA in postmodern literature at the University of Kent. For those interested, his thesis is entitled 'Levels of reality in postmodern fiction' and is available for short loan from the university library.

Link to Guardian discussion: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/sep/09/georgette-heyer-author-conferences


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