I started writing this post in the airport on my way to an academic conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. However, sleep deprivation and thinking better of it, made me wait until after the conference to write this, as what actually happened is likely to be much more interesting than my own anxieties leading up to the conference. I’ve never attended an academic conference before– I’ve attended plenty of lectures but never a weekend devoted to furthering literature in academia. And not only was I attending one, but I was to be a presenting panelist at my first.
For those of you who don’t know, academic conferences consist of students and professors from multiple universities who gather in one location to read papers they have written on a particular subject. (I know that description makes you all want to drop everything and run off to attend such excitement.) Conferences are often organized by theme or literary time period– or even genre– and papers presented follow suit. This particular conference followed the theme of Mardi Gras (most appropriately, given that it is the weekend before said event). More specifically, this conference followed the idea of masks and disguises in literature throughout history. My own paper dealt with how the ideals– and adherents– of the French Revolution crept into England in disguise in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the literary reaction to that. My paper was more specifically concerned with gothic fiction and its use of disguise and subterfuge, particularly as found in this little obscure gothic novel by Isabella Kelly, entitled The Ruins of Avondale Priory, for anyone who might be interested.
I was anxious going into this conference that it would all be theoretical and a bunch of people living and speaking in their heads. There was some of that, to be sure, but there was also a refreshing amount of papers involving the real and concrete. The first panel I attended dealt with literature in Bangladesh and Libya, and how writers in both countries have been forced at times to conceal or censor their own works due to the political climate. In Libya, before Qaddafi fell from power, any criticism of the regime or its ideology had to be masked and disguised because it meant death for the writer otherwise. Similarly, many poets in Bangladesh who publish their poetry through traditional publishers must censor themselves, but they have more freedom with what they write when they self-publish their poems. I was both awed and impressed by the candor of these presentations and by how much they encouraged grounding oneself in reality and making oneself aware of what is happening in the rest of the world.
Whether in academics or just life in general, it is remarkably dangerous to be so disconnected from the reality most people live in, that you make broad generalizations about people, about politics, about religion, etc. In class the other evening, a peer mentioned how Christianity mattered nothing to her– and she barely caught herself when she initially said that it no longer mattered to anyone in the modern world. Though universities may be brimming with people who claim neither Christianity nor any other religion, that is a small slice of society. Even if it were not a fact that a majority of the world still believes in a god of some kind, to disregard the past– and persistent– influence of Christianity on literature (let alone on any other aspect of culture) would be a mistake. It has guided the development of literature over the past few millennia; whether that literature has arisen in support or defense of it, or against it, is not important. It is– whether one likes it or not– foundational to the way literature and culture has evolved. Even modernists must understand why texts they study say what they do about religion– it is in many ways reactionary to all that has come prior, and if we do not understand our links to the past, how can we understand the present or hope to move into the future?
I think my tangent may have just become the main point of this post.
But back to the idea of people living in their heads in academia– the presentations grounded in reality, I enjoyed very much. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on the poetry of Kabir Humayun, as the presenter discussed his pleasure at being able to combine his own creative work with his scholarship (which is generally discouraged, unfortunately). This is not to say theoretical work isn’t useful and important– of course it is– but at some point, I believe it should be connected to reality. Perhaps this is just the pragmatist in me. Every time I found myself swimming in theory in one of the presentations, my mind harkened back to the other conferences/conventions I’ve been to in the past for science fiction and fantasy. Such conventions included panels on the messiest ways to kill zombies, and debunking myths concerning possible apocalypse triggers (as well as which such triggers are nearer to possibility than we might like to think).
Not that all panels should be fun and games, obviously; there are also real, serious issues that literature deals with as well. The same is true– I argue– of genre fiction. Just as genre fiction can be read for for pure pleasure, enjoyment, and as romping good tales, so too can traditionally canonical literature– “classics,” if you will. They can also both address serious issues, though the way in which they address them may vary. For that is what constitutes good fiction– stories remembered and enjoyed long after the pages close. Whether that memory is simply of a bloody good time and/or of truths we will carry with us as we move through our own lives and into other books we read (which, after all, we will always judge by what we have read in the past that has stuck with us– for good or ill): things that have stuck with us, things we have carried, as individuals and as a society.
“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried