Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Oxford Literary Festival 2008

It was not without irony that Lionel Shriver announced that she would be the first to read “smut” aloud in Christ Church Library. At The Oxford Literary Festival Shriver read two sexually explicit but intellectually charged passages from her latest novel, The Post-Birthday World. Shriver takes a bold stab at what people really think about when making love. As she said, there is a limit to the number of physical combinations of which part goes where. Lionel didn’t blush once, her enunciation was as faultless and subtly nuanced as the most seasoned actress. The stage was set with leather-bound books housed in oak below ornate moldings, an ivory tower out the window.

It made me want to go back and reread her book; I blogged about PBW last May. A review in the Guardian (spoiler alert) claimed this work was her most autobiographical. Shriver left a long term relationship for the love of a jazz musician. Like her heroine and like me, Shriver is an expat American living in England. We were both dressed in black t-shirts and jeans, unlike anyone else in the silver-haired, tweedy audience. I confess to feeling comfort at hearing an American accent again, like finding an old friend.

The PBW has been called chick lit although it tackles deep issues such as the inspiration for creativity and even the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is still quite a change from the disturbing We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her Orange Prize winner was about a school shooter. A hand count showed that I was one of the few that had read her latest; most were Kevin fans and women.

I asked how she managed to defy genre typing and what her next project would be. Shriver was wary of “the women’s fiction pigeon hole” as she cherishes her male readers too. Her claim was that women read more books then men and are just as happy to read broadly. She did admit that her agent was nervous about her next novel: a reflection on the American healthcare system written in a male voice. As long as Shriver continues to write beautifully and honestly about controversial subjects, I believe her audience will only grow.

The Oxford Literary Festival lasts an entire week and is housed in Christ Church which many may recognize from Brideshead Revisited. The events were well worth the £7.50 admission just for the venue alone. I attended one where I sat at high table in Hall. If the space looks familiar, it was the model for the Hogwart’s dining hall in Harry Potter.

Even the entrance to the Hall and other conference rooms was beyond grand.

Of course nothing at the venerable college was accessible, so the panel I attended on "Disability in Writing" was housed across the street. The chair was the academic Tom Shakespeare. Susan Clow, manager of In the Picture spoke first about the importance of including disabled children in mainstream children’s picture books. It’s a more representational vision of reality, and inclusion sends the important message that the disabled are not invisible. Her website has many good tips for illustrators.

Susan Clow, Tom Shakespeare, Mark Haddon and Lois Keith

Novelist Lois Keith listed 3 approaches to avoid when writing about the disabled:
  1. “I wouldn’t wish disability on my worst enemy.”
  2. “He threw his wheelchair out the window to walk again.” (eg Colin in The Secret Garden)
  3. "Show the disabled character watching passively in the corner." (eg sweet Beth in Little Women)

The main draw of the panel was author Mark Haddon. A sharp-eyed reader will note that the chapters in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are all in prime numbers. Not once in the narrative is it spelled out that the engaging narrator with a number fixation has Asperger’s Syndrome. Haddon’s only regret was that the publisher added that information to the jacket blurb. His novel invites you to see the world through autistic eyes, but it is not a book about disability per se.

The Curious Incident is one of the best young adult books I’ve read; my son at age twelve loved it too. Encouraged by Haddon, I have included a disabled character in my novel S.A.D..

I attended the panel on Japanese Historical Fiction just for fun. I’ve always enjoyed reading novels about Japan. One of my favorite authors is Haruki Murakami. My husband teaches Japanese Politics, and my sister-in-law is Japanese.

Ellis Avery was worried that a 21st century American couldn’t understand what it felt like to be a 19th century Japanese girl. I applaud her choice of narrator: an American orphan, adopted by a Japanese family as a servant. The Teahouse Fire is as beautifully choreographed and unrushed as a tea ceremony. What drives the narrative is the complex relationship between the fictional maid, Aurelia, and a real historical figure, her mistress. Shin Yukako rescued the tea ceremony from obscurity in a rapidly modernizing Meiji Japan, just opening to the west.

What is striking about Avery’s story is that it reads like a Japanese novel. It reminds me of Mori Ogai’s The Wild Geese which is set in the same time period and is one my favorite novels. In both we see the attention to detail, the importance of family tradition, the theme of unrequited love and even the slow pace. What enlivens the narrative in Teahouse is a distinctly American feminist perspective, including a lesbian romance. It’s an unusual mix, but it works. I’m missing her voice since finishing the book.

I don’t have as much to say about Lesley Downer’s The Last Concubine because I haven’t read it. Like Avery's novel, it is set in 19th century Japan. Although Downer lived in Japan for 15 years, the only Japanese women she said she could relate to were geisha. She characterized the rest as married at 24, had kids, were gossipy, didn’t know men (even their husbands) and didn’t work. That isn’t the Japan that I know.

At the end of the readings, Avery delighted the audience by passing out Japanese sweets and conducting a tea ceremony. Avery has studied the art of Japanese tea for years. She held her arms as if wearing a kimono and moved with measured grace. Downer was an obliging guest, her role as ritualized.

On Avery’s website I discovered that we share the same literary agent, Jean Naggar. I introduced myself to Avery and her partner, Sharon Marcus; both teach at Columbia University. Oddly enough, they already knew me. They had googled “best tea in Oxford,” found my blog and enjoyed a decent cup of tea and lunch at The Rose. Professor Marcus studies 19th century women journals and said my blog reminded her of the travel journals from that time. Isn’t cyberspace a small world?

Another panel I attended was “Blogging the Classics” which debated book review blogging vs. newspaper literary criticism.

John Carey, John Mullan, Lynne Hatwell and Mark Thwaite

Mark Thwaite, founder of and a librarian by profession, spoke on the value of book blogging as giving recognition to good but unusual titles. He listed 7 words that should be avoided when reviewing:
  1. poignant
  2. compelling
  3. intriguing
  4. astute
  5. craft
  6. muse
  7. lyrical
Uh oh, have I used them all? Thwaite posts a list of about 80 English book bloggers on his website at BritLitBlogs. Too bad there isn’t an American equivalent of this directory. Thwaite pointed out that there are a lot of blogs out there - well over 100 million tracked by Technorati alone. Diversity is a given.

Lynne Hatwell from dovegreyreader was an engaging speaker: modest, funny and forthright. Blogging about books is the way to share her passion. Her blog is a bit like mine, a mixture of reading and personal narrative. It’s more about how she feels about the books than a critical review. She lives in Devon and is a healthcare visitor who did a literature degree in her free time.

The panel’s literary critic was Professor John Mullan. Mullan said his academic training allows him to understand literature better than a layperson. He may know books, but it didn’t sound like the professor was that familiar with blogs. He spoke of people raving, hostility and chaos in cyberspace. The moderator and Sunday Times chief reviewer, John Carey praised the diversity in blogging, but Mullan didn’t recognize its value beyond entertainment.

Near the close of the festival, came the biggest surprise: 3 inches of snow! My kids made a snowman with grape hyacinth hair. Port Meadow looked like a holiday card complete with swans. I felt like I had conjured the storm as I was writing a new cross-country skiing scene for S.A.D. and was having a hard time remembering a Maine winter. I actually got the idea under a flurry of cherry blossoms. My revisions are well inspired thanks to the literary festival and the April snow.


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences from the Oxford Literary Festival. I especially enjoyed the section about Mark Haddon and The Curious Incident...
I liked that book a lot, too.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter One is online!

Bee said...


Here are a series of coincidences:

(1) I randomly clicked on Lionel Shriver as "favorite author" and found your site. This is the third time I've randomly clicked and actually left a comment. (I like to occasionally dip into one of the 100 million!)
(2) Coincidentally, Lionel Shriver was the first thing I read about. What are the chances? Especially since I almost chose Anne Lamott instead.
(3) Happily, I've been meaning to read Shriver's latest -- and your comments on her talk made me even more excited to dive in.
(4) I am also an American expat living in the UK. I live outside of Newbury -- exactly a 30 minute drive south of Oxford. My situation is semi-permanent, though, as I am married to a Brit.
(5) Every year I am sad about missing the Oxford Literary Festival. It always falls during the time I make my annual trip to Texas -- my home state. (I am in Texas now, in fact.) I always read the literary line-up with much envy (for the people fortunate enough to go) and regret (that I'm not one of them).
(6) "The Curious Incident . . ." is also one my favorite YA books -- and I referenced it in a post not too long ago.

Thank you so much for this beautifully detailed post! It made me feel like I was (almost) part of it all.

Sarah Laurence said...

Howdy Bee,

My daughter’s Texan friend here in England has taught me to say that – is that coincidence number 7? Coincidence number 8 is the author Beth Fehlbaum, who left a comment above yours, is also from Texas. I’ve only been to the state once when a friend, Cullum Clark, got married in the Modern Art Museum in Dallas. I had a fabulous time.

Anyway, welcome to my blog! You can click on my label “books” to read other reviews – it sounds like we have similar reading tastes. I liked Anne Lamott's book on writing. I’ll have to check out your blog when I get back from Paris.

Charlotte Agell said...

Sarah: As always, your blog is poignant
Ha! Couldn't resist!

rpkelly said...

Sarah - I loved Curious Incident, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to all ages - it's not just for the YA crowd. And it sounds as if my daughters and I would like the Teahouse Fire. Thanks for attending so much! (Since I had to miss most of it while being out of town, your blog was very welcome.)

Anonymous said...

A friend drew my attention to your blog. Thank you for coming to my event with Ellis Avery in Oxford. Do please read my book The Last Concubine or some of my other books on Japan, such as Geisha or Madame Sadayakko or On the Narrow Road, about my travels in the footsteps of Basho (especially as your husband is a Japan scholar and your sister-in-law Japanese). You’ll see that the Japan I know is more complex than you present it.
I think you rather misunderstood my words. I was trying to present geisha in a different way - as independent feisty women - rather than repeating the tired old arguments of whether they are or are not prostitutes. In contrast - as I mentioned - I recalled the women I knew when I first lived in Gifu (a city way off the tourist track in Central Japan) back in 1978. (My fifteen years in Japan actually began thirty years ago!) They did fit the description I gave and, kind as they were, had little understanding of who I was, as I discovered living there as a single woman. The geisha, conversely, did. Things have certainly changed since then.

Sarah Laurence said...

Charlotte, you always make me laugh.

Ruth, thanks for pointing that out – Curious Incident is a fabulous read for all ages. Teahouse with its strong female characters would be fine reading for a mature teen (it has some sexually explicit scenes.)

Lesley, your books sound fascinating, especially your take on geishas. Thanks for the clarification. It sounds like we both agree that Japan is much more complicated than the common generalizations.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for this article -- I very briefly met you after the blogging talk ...

Just so nobody thinks I'm unfairly taking credit for something that I didn't write, I just wanted to say that "my" list of seven words to avoid when book reviewing was actually just a link I posted on to a piece in the New York Times ( ...

I didn't want to contradict John Carey on the night because I didn't want to look rude or pedantic!

Sarah Laurence said...

Hi Mark,

It was nice to meet another book blogger in person. Thanks for the link source. The list makes more sense with the explanation in that Paper Cuts post. The comments that follow are interesting too.

I’m not one for black-listing words, but it is true that certain words in any discipline can be over-used or misused.

I believe there’s room for both literary critics and book bloggers. I pick books that I think I’ll like after reading reviews (blogs and NYT Book Section) or talking to friends, other authors and my family. Sometimes I just browse in independent bookstores and in libraries.

I also read to understand my genre better and to master my craft. A well-written novel is the best writing teacher.