Friday, July 1, 2011

David Mitchell's "Critical Essays"

David Mitchell: Critical Essays


David Mitchell

Sarah Dillon [Editor]

ISBN 978-1-78024-004-6

A book review of David Mitchell's Critical Essays.

"Is academic criticism worth reading?"

A lively new study of David Mitchell suggests there's plenty for the lay reader to enjoy


Sam Jordison

July 1st, 2011

When I was at university in the late 1990s, a friend of mine, studying in one of the most prestigious English faculties in the world, was refused permission to write a dissertation about Stephen King. She was told that he wasn't worthy of attention, and that anyway there wasn't enough academic writing about him for her to cite. Ever since I've harboured the belief that – in general at least – English academics are strangely cut off from the reading public and contemporary literature in general.

Recently, however, I'm glad to say that belief has been challenged. I'm told that more and more contemporary literature courses are springing up on UK campuses. It also seems that these are now starting to bear fruit. The first I've sampled has been a fascinating collection of critical essays about David Mitchell (whose first novel was published as recently as 1999) due for publication in July.

This book shows how far things have progressed in recent years - and how far there remains to travel. Sarah Dillon, the editor, told me that while her primary motivation was the simple fact that she loved Mitchell's writing, she also needed to fill a gap. "I added him to a contemporary literature course I was teaching and all the students were coming back and saying 'but there's nothing on him'. And I thought that there should be something."

The result was this series of essays – and a conference in September 2009 where they were first presented. This conference wasn't just unusual in being about a writer who has only achieved prominence in the last decade. It was strange because that writer was present throughout. Mitchell even writes a foreword to the book about himself, in which he agonises, amusingly, about whether recounting what it was like to attend such a conference might "inadvertently suggest an ego trip of Saturn-V proportions". In fact, it sounds fascinating to have sat there and heard discussions about this third-person author, a "David Mitchell who writes books ... a sort of dodgy twin". Fascinating, even if he constantly worried: "Would all these bright people not feel hoodwinked if they found out that Derrida did my head in?" Tellingly, he also noted that it was "the first ever academic conference I'd ever been to".

Equally tellingly, a journalist from the LA Times, Carolyn Kellogg, found out about the conference and slagged it off before it had even taken place:

"The panels are charmingly arcane. A sampling:

Narratology and the Mitchell Multiverse

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

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 silly and removed these discussions are from the job of writing and the joys of reading!"

You can see where Kellogg is coming from. It took me a while even to work out what the last one is about. But Dillon strongly refutes Kellogg in her own introduction: "the essays collected here, 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 by no means mutually exclusive."

Kellogg's argument reminds me of the story of Ted Hughes switching from English to Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge. The nature poet claimed to have been struggling with his weekly essay, when he fell asleep and dreamt that a giant burnt fox approached his desk: "Then it spread its hand – a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him – flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said: 'Stop this - you are destroying us.'"

So does the academy stifle the very texts it aims to reinvigorate? Having read the book, and spoken to Dillon, I have no doubt that there is joy for her and her colleagues. What's more, there will be for plenty of readers both in ivory towers and the wider world. But as Dillon says, "It's a personal thing. There are some people who are happy to use a watch and don't care to know how it works. How this magical thing tells you the time. I'm one of them. But when it's a text, I want to know how it works. Perhaps some people feel about texts the way I feel about watches. As long as you have the emotional impact, you don't want to go further than that, and that's fine. Some people like to take them apart and understand them more and some people want to leave them whole."

There are other reasons that non-professionals tend to avoid academic writing. On Andrew Gallix's recent (and fascinating) post about Hauntology a poster called Ambulant wrote that it's hard to read about such ideas "without feeling that someone is trying to get one over on you". I put this to Dillon in relation to literary theory and she was baffled. "What would the point of it be? Why would anyone want to make it more incomprehensible?"

Certainly for essayists who have as much to say as those in Dillon's book, the idea of being deliberately obscure must seem daft, but I've always had the impression that weaker academics try to hide behind thick layers of baffling theory and opaque prose. On the latter point, Dillon says: "the better academics are the ones who write well. There's a certain value in complexity, because it makes you work harder. I'm not at all in favour of dumbing down. But I think – and what I hope the Mitchell collection shows – is that you can write well about hard stuff, interesting ideas and complex arguments."

In this case, the proof is in the book. The writing in Critical Essays isn't necessarily easy. I often had to stretch back to my own undergraduate days (or resort to a dictionary) to deal with its technical terms ("Meronymy"? "Metalepsis?" If you got them first time you're doing better than me.) I also grew heartily sick of reading the word "Bildungsroman". But the writing here is generally clear and careful – even elegant. Most importantly, it makes sense. Next time I read Mitchell I'm sure I will do so with heightened awareness of his narrative skill and of the games he plays. (To give a simple example, I hadn't realised for instance, how often characters reappear in his various books. I'll be watching more carefully from now on.)

I'm also happy to say I've had many of my assumptions tickled and challenged. One writer, for instance, raises the fascinating point that Cervantes tried out many of the textual tricks that we think of as "postmodern". This book of essays is actually fun – and that's something I'm surprised to write about literary theory.

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