Just back from our Be Inspired event – ten colleagues each giving a 15 minute talk on a different writer, which will form part of the new material for the Great Writers Inspire project. A really stimulating day – both from the range of writers – from the Beowulf Poet (Francis Leneghan) to J.M Coetzee (Peter McDonald), both of whom turned out to be rather tricksily metafictional – and the range of lecturing styles – (Faith Binckes, how do you talk so fluently without any apparent recourse to notes? and Tiffany Stern, please will you show me how to do that thing on PowerPoint where a frame pops round the most important bit of a picture?). But most thought-provoking were different people’s interpretation and response to the prompt ‘Great Writers Inspire’.
To be honest, there’s been some discomfort with the ‘Great Writers’ bit, and even the ‘Inspire’ bit is perhaps a bit touchyfeely for academics. What today made clear is that it’s actually a really useful umbrella term, which people can shelter under (Blake, for instance, as David Fallon made clear, is a ‘great’ and ‘inspiring’ writer, as well as a provocative and unorthodox one; so too Jonathan Swift (Abby Williams), but not so monolithic that his work can’t be reimagined and recast by contemporary interlocutors.) Catherine Brown gave us an unashamedly clever George Eliot. Jennie Batt admitted that Stephen Duck was not great by most canonical standards, but he was certainly inspiring of other working class poetry in his own time and beyond. We also saw ‘great writers’ in different literary contexts – the magazine culture of Rhythm, in which Katherine Mansfield was so involved (Faith Binckes) and Blast, the Vorticists’ magazine which published Ezra Pound (Becky Beasley), or in the dramatic context of the early modern theatre (Tiffany Stern on Shakespeare). I’ll remember both Francis reading out Old English and Becky reading a Pound canto – and wonder if we should have more of our texts read aloud in the project.
In some ways the most unexpected talk for me was Elleke Boehmer’s on Olive Schreiner: Elleke gave an inspiring talk on how Schreiner’s uncompromising and principled aesthetics inspired her own work – lightly wearing her own credentials as both a creative and a critical writer, Elleke made a case for the usefulness of both ‘great’ and ‘inspires’.
Today’s been a real fillip to the project: all credit to Lisa Mansell, Ylva Berglund, Peter Robinson, Steve Pierce and all the rest of the OUCS team. Sorry you missed the Christmas party, guys. And thanks to all who contributed, including the panel discussants first thing in the afternoon: I’m still pondering that discussion and will blog about it later.