Sunday, 18 November 2018

All Kinds of Conferencing

Literary conferences aren't about making money, and it's just as well. All too often, they make a financial loss - that is the price of trying to bring the work of writers like Sassoon and Owen to a wider audience.
Those who have never attended a conference will have a false impression of what it involves. "Was your conference very dull?" asked a fellow-guest at my hotel in Oxford, as I returned from a satisfying day of lectures at Wolfson College. Did she really think I would be paying to attend something I didn't enjoy? Or did she perhaps assume that I was being forced to attend, for the good of my career?
It's true that many of the delegates at literary conferences in general are academics. However, that is not the case with the annual meetings of most literary societies. Of the nearly 30 people at our recent Marlborough conference, only one could truly be described as an academic, though a few were teachers or librarians by profession. But there were also lawyers, doctors, firefighters, social workers and IT specialists, all interested in Siegfried Sassoon for different reasons. You don't have to be highly qualified to enjoy good writing.
There's a book in the "Thursday Next" series of fantasy novels by Jasper Fforde in which Thursday (the heroine) learns that Pride & Prejudice is to be made into a reality TV show; she pulls a fast one on the producers by telling the characters to "do what you would normally do" rather than acting up for the cameras. The result is a huge number of additional viewers tuning in to find out whether Jane will marry Mr Bingley and what will happen to Lydia. The moral is that good literature is much more interesting than the faked on-screen bitching and "relationships" that millennials seem to find so fascinating.
What's more, most of our talks are not specifically about literature but about many other aspects of Sassoon's life and work. Most SSF members agree that he is more than a mere subject for literary criticism; he emerges in his writing as a three-dimensional human being, not always admirable in his conduct, but certainly always interesting.
Enough of that. It can't be denied that conferences come in all shapes and sizes. The "Wilfred Owen and Beyond" conference at Wolfson College, Oxford, was - sadly - not as well attended as had been hoped. This was partly because the dozens of people who had applied to speak and had their proposals turned down decided not to come along to hear those who had been successful. I believe that this is fairly normal for academics, who are increasingly under pressure to publish research and present at conferences in order to maintain their CVs. That is such a pity. I don't know what proportion of those who submitted proposals were actually in academia, but I suspect it was the majority; certainly there were no speakers at the conference who were not either academics or students, which is in contrast with my experiences at Sassoon conferences.
The "call for papers" encourages younger academics and graduate students to prepare something for a literary conference, and the competition can be considerable, but it is also potentially divisive. Umbrage may be taken by those whose papers were not selected, especially if they are long-standing members of organisations (such as literary societies) dedicated to furthering particular authors or aspects of literature and feel that their enthusiastic ideas have been passed over in favour of bigger "names".
At the other extreme you will find many literary societies that are not in the least highbrow. Come to the Barbara Pym Society's annual conference and you will meet a handful of academics,(and those mostly from overseas). The speaker programme generally includes a few, but it also typically includes people who have no pretensions to "lecturing" in the normal sense of the word. For example, at this year's conference, one of the most interesting talks was given by a member who had set herself the task of attempting to make some of the dishes mentioned in Pym's novels, using contemporary recipes.
The post-centenary ennui that appears to threaten the continuity of organisations such as the Western Front Association and the societies dedicated to the poets of the First World War is only to be expected. I feel as though we have just been on the receiving end of the Ludendorff Offensive and are enjoying one last gasp of success as we celebrate the Armistice.
What next for the Sassoon Fellowship? I look forward to a period when we will give closer examination to the post-war lives of 1914-18 veterans and to the work produced by one of Britain's greatest prose writers between the 1920s and 1940s. I wonder if I will make it to the centenary of the end of the Second World War, and, if I do, how much my opinion of conferences will have changed.

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