Contemporary Fiction and Criticism in the Academy: further towards a manifesto

Following up his talk for us back in October 2013, Chris Witter contributes a discussion of the contemporary in relation to the possibilities open to critical academics. It is a line of thought he is developing from his doctoral work, which he intends to publish as The American Short Story in the 1960s: The Politics of Experiment. 


I’ve just finished reading Robert Eaglestone’s intervention in Textual Practice, ‘Contemporary fiction in the academy: towards a manifesto’ (Dec, 2013). In it, Eaglestone sets out a series of provocative questions about ‘what it means to research contemporary fiction’. Eaglestone summarises his argument, by way of conclusion:

I suggested that disciplines are shaped by questions, and that they reach maturity when they question their own questions. However, the study of contemporary fiction does not even know what its questions are despite the unique complications it faces in relation to periodisation, the archive, authorship, the ‘business’ of fiction, globalisation, genre, value judgements, and form. The risks of not facing up to these issues in the study of contemporary fiction are that we become ‘modern antiquarians’, picking oddities that pique our interest to display to the public, or ‘generic critics’, showing off our honed senses with no focus on the nature of the contemporary. (Eaglestone, 1100)

These are indeed questions worth pursuing. But there was something missing here, for me, which is worth locating.

1. Criticism

What strikes me first of all about Eaglestone’s sub-manifesto is that it is ordered by the desire to shore up a role for the academic critic as entrepreneurial subject. Eaglestone asks: How do we compete with new formal and informal networks of online debate, publication, education? How do we assert a place for criticism in an economy in which publishers can market directly to audiences, and where reading has not only become decoupled from the educative project of ‘cultivation’ (with its many hierarchies and gatekeepers) but increasingly bound up with that particularly spectacular commodity, the ‘blockbuster’? All of this is coded in his opening gambit: ‘what makes a geek [read fan] different from an academic?’

This problem comes more clearly into focus in relation to Eaglestone’s argument, later in the essay, that academics should make their value judgements explicit. For how futile does the figure of the academic look, trying, like a modern Canute, to pronounce upon the mass trash spectacle of the Twilight series, or its prodigious offspring, Fifty Shades of Grey? This futility indicates a broader malaise within literary studies: its marginalisation within society. Literary studies once had a project — however paternalistic and bourgeois — in encouraging cultivation and the development of sensibility. Now there is no project underpinning literary studies, and no place for it in society. ‘Keeping up with the new’ is not sufficient in itself; to imagine that it is is merely to allow research to be subsumed by commodity production.

Either way, we should ask whether literary studies has a social role. If it does, is it one we are consciously creating, or one we’re  acting out despite ourselves? Already it seems we’re seeing ‘fields’, ‘disciplines’ and ‘specialisms’ becoming ways of framing bids for research grants, or else a strategy of pre-emptive marketing. Disciplines are dissolved into the discipline of the market and specialisms into one’s strategic ability to compete in this ‘weak’ market. In this situation, only monotony is nourished by the new; we are increasingly bored by literary criticism because we do not know what we are writing for.

2. Commitment

In a different conjuncture, literary critics and scholars furiously debated the relation of literature to the proletariat, and wrote out prescriptions for ‘revolutionary literature’. At other moments, the relation of literature to emancipation has been at the forefront of writing and its criticism, leading to politically committed magazines and journals, and courses designed to tell histories of struggle in and through literature. In many ways, it was these struggles that opened the way for a more ‘critical’ and ‘open’ form of literary studies.

Yet politics is peculiarly absent from Eaglestone’s provocation. The ‘established categories’ of ‘sex/class/race/empire’ are said to be ‘vital’, but they are by no means placed at the heart of Eaglestone’s discussion, despite weak gestures towards criticality, such as framing the discussion in terms of Rancière’s concept of ‘dissensus’ (Eaglestone, 1093). Instead, the essay considers substitutive political struggles — for example, as to whether ‘open/closed’ operates as a better descriptive binary than ‘literary/genre’.

This is not simply a fault of Eaglestone’s piece. It is a broader symptom of the destruction of left-wing institutions in the UK, and the consequent weakness and marginalisation of a fragmented and disorganised Left. As much as one wishes to be a ‘good soldier’, the possibility of constituting and participating in a left-wing ‘critical’ project looks shaky — if not impossible. It becomes more tenuous as higher education takes on an increasingly reactionary character; the conditions of production of academic work increasingly limit the possibilities of research and teaching being underpinned by a radical project.

3. Contemporaneity

The above points have a bearing on the problem Eaglestone raises of defining the ‘contemporary’. For Eaglestone this has several dimensions. On the one hand it is a temporal problem: when is the ‘contemporary’ period? On the other it is spatial: in a globalised world, how do we address the problem of differing temporalities and multiple modernities? Eaglestone then moves from these temporal-spatial dimensions to discuss the contemporary in relation to production and consumption. On the one hand, the subject is swamped by the flood of the contemporary:

We have in our sub-field not only an open archive but also an archive that is continually proliferating and expanding. […] The issue here is not simply the size of the archive: most disciplines, and most sub-fields within disciplines, have archives too enormous to be processed in a life time. The issue here is that the archive of contemporary fiction is, by definition, continually growing at a phenomenal rate. (Eaglestone, 1091)

Here, history and commodity production become identical, whilst the contemporary becomes a mere ‘snapchat’ shot of this endless flow of commodities, obsolete even as it is produced. Against the flood of history-as-production, the academic appears powerless, their critical gestures becoming as provisional as their critical objects are disposable.

In a not unfamiliar manoeuver, Eaglestone then reverses this, to move from the macro totality of production to the micro level of the dividuated subject:

Put very crudely: what seems ‘of the past’ for a graduate student of 25 seems oddly ‘contemporary’ for an academic of 50 (a question of ‘duration’, perhaps, or of the difference between ‘academic’ and ‘living’ history). (Eaglestone, 1095)

As such, the ‘contemporary’ is understood not in terms of a canon, nor as a specific historical formation, but as a pluralistic modulation of commodity preferences, which is the inverse of the contemporary as the endless flow of production. [1]

If Eaglestone accedes too much to the logic of late capitalism, a more productive discussion of contemporaneity is to be found in Claire Bishop’s Radical Museology (2013). In this short but thought-provoking pamphlet, Bishop offers a resonant critique of ‘presentism’, as:

The conditions of taking our current moment as the horizon and destination of our thinking. This is the dominant usage of the term ‘contemporary’ in art today; it is underpinned by an inability to grasp our moment in its global entirety, and an acceptance of this incomprehension as a constitutive condition of the present historical era. (Bishop, 6)

Against this ‘presentism’, Bishop draws on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history [2] to sketch out a dialectical approach to contemporaneity, which interrogates how the present relates to the past and the future, explicitly politicising these temporal relations:

What I call a dialectical contemporary seeks to navigate multiple temporalities within a more political horizon. Rather than simply claim that many or all times are present in each historical object, we need to ask why certain temporalities appear in particular works of art at specific historical moments. Furthermore, this analysis is motivated by a desire to understand our present condition and how to change it. Lest this method be interpreted as yet another form of presentism with the now masquerading as historical inquiry, it should be stressed that sightlines are always focused on the future: the ultimate aim is to disrupt the relativist pluralism of the current moment, in which all styles and beliefs are considered equally valid, and to move towards a more sharply politicized understanding of where we can and should be heading. (Bishop, 23)

Temporality, rather than being a ‘mundane’ technical problem (Eaglestone, 1093), becomes a vital source of political energy. For temporality is a social relation — a way of organising past, present, and future. As such, the contemporary is a site of struggle.

Following Bishop’s arguments about contemporary visual art, an alternative conception of contemporary literary criticism emerges to that of the entrepreneur or antiquarian, who offers up fashionable categories and concepts in order to corner emerging markets. Rather than conceding our power to shape the present to the market, we might articulate conceptions of the contemporary that search out and construct explicitly politicised constellations of textual and critical practices, in order to explode the ‘eternal present’ of neoliberal capitalism.

Chris Witter


1. See: Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, 59 (Winter, 1992), pp. 3-7.

2. Benjamin’s dialectical conception of history critiques the bourgeois concept of ‘progress’, but remains oriented by a conception of authentic historical progress (emancipation). In the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940) and the Arcades Project (1927-1940; 1982; 1999) he thus constructs a dialectical conception of history and social progress.


Chris Witter is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of English & Creative Writing, at Lancaster University. His research focuses on postwar US culture and society, particularly experimental literature. In 2012 he won the Raymond Williams Society Postgraduate Essay Prize, with an article titled ‘Grace Paley and the Tenement Pastoral’. This was subsequently published in Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, 11 (2013). He is currently working on a monograph titled, The American Short Story in the 1960s: The Politics of Experiment, and a book chapter titled ‘Tillie Olsen: Subaltern Modernism in the Postwar US’, for the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Experimental Women Writers (1900 – Present). He can be contacted via email: c.witter1 at

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Postpolitics and Neoliberalism: Call for Papers

A call for papers for a conference on Postpolitics and Neoliberalism has just been issued that may be of interest to members. From the CFP:

Politics is dead, dying, or changing into something new. The word ‘ideology’ has become a term of abuse, associated especially with the ‘utopian’ old left. Commitment and belief have become ‘tribalism’ and ‘dogma’. Technocracy, pragmatism, and single-issue campaigns are the order of the day. As the public tune out and turn away, politicians perform increasingly desperate acts of self-abasement. Anti-Westminster mavericks are on the rise. Everywhere there are calls to shrink the state. Yet a politics that exists outside the theatre of the state has yet to be imagined.

As the 2015 election fast approaches, this two-day conference will explore the ideological, cultural, linguistic and historical dimensions of the contemporary postpolitical moment, and its relationship to neoliberalism. With participants drawn from academic, writing, and campaigning backgrounds, the conference will bring together a range of approaches in order to grasp the enduring subtext of the all-consuming and all-erasing daily news churn.

  • Are political fragmentation and the apparent demise of left and right part of an inevitable and epochal transformation, or a contingent neoliberal strategy, designed to foreclose any possibility of coherent challenge or change?
  • What underlying meanings can be gleaned from the zombie lexicon of traditional politics in the run-up to a general election? How are its mangled euphemisms and ideological inversions to be interpreted?
  • At a time when the centre ground appears to be shifting ever farther to the right, what is the real nature of the public need for the ‘properly political’, and to what uses is it being put?
  • What is the difference between new forms of popular politics and a resurgent populism?
  • Are new forms of political language – framing, narratives and so on – articulating idealism or repurposing spin?
  • Does the proliferation of grassroots initiatives constitute a new grand paradigm, or unwittingly reflect neoliberalism’s dispersed hegemony?

Full CFP here.


Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy at the Manchester International Festival

Ahead of the fifth RSN on 30th October, I thought I’d re-post something I wrote for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.

It was published on that site first, on 29 July 2013.

Jen Morgan


‘The Masque of Anarchy’ at the Manchester International Festival, 2013

‘The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air’ (Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, i (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1844), p. 208.

Monday 16 August 1819 was a hot day, the weather contributing to the size of the crowd that assembled at St Peter’s Field to attend a political meeting that entered the annals of history under the name ‘Peterloo’. Nearly two hundred years later, around two thousand people a night (12–14 July 2013) braved a heat-wave to gather in the Albert Hall on the site of the Manchester Massacre. In one of the Manchester International Festival’s (MIF) highlights, Maxine Peake, directed by the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom, performed Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy. As a rendition of the poem it was related directly to the concerns of my doctoral research, though it was beyond my period of the early to mid-nineteenth century. If Maxine had been a Chartist performing the poem I would certainly be writing about the performance in my thesis. So I wanted to write about the performance for another forum, and also because I think it deserves a more extended analysis than is possible in a newspaper review.

The tickets for the event sold quickly, at £12 each they matched the standard charge for the limited number of tickets for more expensive MIF events which were reserved for residents of Greater Manchester. Macbeth featuring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, for example, cost £65 but there were some tickets available at £12. Masque was pitched at and attended by local people, many of whom will have followed the routes into town from Ashton, Middleton, Oldham, etc. traced by attendees of the reform meeting in 1819. This aspect of the performance was not incidental, as the intention was to speak to present-day concerns on the site of the event, and I argue that the performance placed the relationship between performer and audience at its heart for a political purpose.

My Ph.D. research uncovers the specifics of Shelley’s presence in Chartist and Owenite socialist newspapers and journals. It has long been a critical commonplace that Shelley exerted a strong influence on these movements, but I thought it necessary to situate their use of his poetry in terms of the development of those movements. If Shelley gave Chartists ‘a better hope and a faith in the future’,[1] then the facts that Chartism went through periods of hope and despair and that the movement ended without gaining what it demanded — the People’s Charter — must surely have affected their relationship with Shelley. I wanted to see whether and in what ways poems like the Mask of Anarchy entered into the political rhetoric of Chartists as well as the poetry columns of their newspapers. One example I found was in a speech by Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor in which he stated that: ‘The only astonishment that now prevails is, that the lion of England has not arisen before from his slumber, and in his majesty shaken the dew from his mane’.[2] The rising of lions from slumber or the working class from political subordination, O’Connor suggested in 1839, was long overdue. Chartists also referred frequently to Peterloo, with one Northern Star article describing a semi-theatrical remembrance of the event on its site and on its anniversary: ‘It has been customary with the Radicals of Manchester to celebrate that important though memorable day, by holding a meeting on the spot where the dreadful tragedy was performed’.[3] The narrator, Edward Curran, was a veteran of Peterloo, and directed his audience’s attention to the scene of action and to its historical meaning:

In yonder window (pointing to a window opposite,) sat a number of magistrates, who read the Riot Act, and who afterwards rioted in the blood of an unoffending and starving people. (Hear, hear.) That scene had passed away; they were then subjected to a temporary defeat, but he hoped they had now sufficient courage never to allow either the sabres of the Yeomanry, or any other weapons drive them from that field again. (Loud cheers.)

Peterloo was to be, as it was so often described in Chartist discourse, the ‘never to be forgotten’ event, the wave of repression that followed was to be only ‘a temporary defeat’, and the only thing that could redeem the blood sacrifice of Mancunian reformers in 1819 was Chartists’ efforts in their own era to obtain political representation.

I thought of Curran’s speech when Maxine performed the poem, for it was a true performance rather than a recitation of a poem on a page. Mask’s dramatic possibilities, all those whispers, shouts, and murmurs, the ventriloquising of the ‘hired murderers’ (60) and the ‘Maniac maid’, were given shape and voice.[4] The poem’s sections were marked out in the way Steven E. Jones described it: ‘two major parts: the first part, twenty-one stanzas of the satiric masquerade, then, after a brief transition scene, the second part, fifty-five stanzas of exhortation’.[5] Masquerade, an aristocratic form of entertainment, was used formally by Shelley in order to invert conventional values: the forces of law and order were actually Anarchy, Murder was disguised as the politician Castlereagh. I thought I detected the use of RP tones in this section, with ‘blood’ rendered ‘blad’ rather than ‘blud’ as Maxine would normally say it, though this may be fanciful. If it was intentional to give the masquerade section an artificial gloss then it made the delivery of the poem’s last exhortative section all the more immediate.

I have always found it difficult to imagine the transition scene, in which change is wrought by the actions of the Maniac maid Hope prostrating herself before the horses of Anarchy. Its indeterminacy seems politically problematic — What, exactly, happens at this point? Who or what is the ‘shape arrayed in mail’? (110) Whose is the voice that speaks words of ‘joy and fear’ (138), ‘as if’ they had sprung from the heart of the ‘indignant Earth’? (139, my emphasis) Mask has been read variously as a call to arms, arguing for political violence in the face of state oppression, and also as advocating non-violent actions. MIF’s slogan is ‘Made for Manchester. Shared with the World’, and this could equally stand for Mask and its afterlife — it has inspired or been used by Ghandi, the students in Tiananmen Square, and Brecht during the Nazi period. My own view is that Shelley imagined, in his recommendations that the next crowd assembled in a Peterloo-like scenario ‘fold their arms’ when threatened, a virtuous circle in which repeated mass martyrdom encouraged more people to join the reform movement until their collective mass was ‘unvanquishable’ by sheer force of numbers. Even if that worked it would require a tremendous commitment to the sacrifice of yourself and your friends, something the Chartists in their frequent rhetorical references to Peterloo rejected. We might reflect here on the great changes in military hardware that does not pitch cavalry and artillery against people armed with guns and pikes, the chosen weaponry of the Chartists, but unmanned drones against unarmed civilians. It may seem incredible that a poem can be taken as having something serious to say about modes of political action, but it seems to me that Mask’s great virtue is not that it describes a particular course of action but that it poses ‘again — again — again’ (371), for successive generations, the problem of the necessity for political action. Not only that, in posing the problem it places decisions on the agenda: Should we act, or not? If we are attacked, what then?


Maxine’s version of the transition scene in the dramatic venue of the Albert Hall’s Methodist chapel gave to the haziness of the images offered by Shelley what I can only think of as bulk and the space to breathe. They were not translated into literal figures (that would have been a loss), but their imaginative possibilities were allowed to occupy the space of the chapel reaching up to its ornate ceiling. She gestured at the ‘clouds [growing] on the blast’ (106), watched the Shape’s ‘step as soft as wind’ passing ‘o’er the heads of men’ (118–19). We were helped to see the invisible, to imagine that which does not exist — this section functioned, as it was meant to, as a representation of political awakening if not a provocation of such an experience. The section had the emotional intensity and indistinct shapes of a sublime dream, offering a contrast that was felt like a shock when it was succeeded by Shelley’s definition of Freedom as the labourer having ‘bread’ (221) and a ‘neat and happy home’ (224).


As the performance moved to the final section of the poem, the ‘exhortation’ as described by Jones, Maxine looked very much like the best political speech maker of her generation. (In the Culture Show episode dedicated to the event, she described herself (in a reversal of the usual story of frustrated ambition) as an actor who wanted to be a politician.[6]) It begins with the lines ‘What is Freedom? Ye can tell/ That which slavery is, too well’ (156–57). Maxine posed the question to the audience directly as a real question, pausing after ‘Freedom’, forcing a moment of reflection. As she took a step towards the audience (I nearly wrote ‘crowd’), the poem turned into a direct address full of immediacy. Stress was laid on words that left us in no doubt of the intention to make the poem relevant to our own time: ‘Such starvation cannot be/ As in England now we see’ (228–29), and ‘They are dying whilst I speak’ (171). RP tones, if they were present in the opening stanzas, were now gone. Food banks were described in a Guardian article in March 2013 as an ‘austerity-era civil society growth industry in the UK’, and the Albert Hall was used as a venue for soup kitchens. All of this was present in the performance; the Chartists would have loved it.


(From ‘To the People’, a passage from Mask reprinted and given a new name in the Chartist publication The National: A Library for the People, pp. 124–26.)


[1] Bouthaina Shaaban, “Shelley in the Chartist Press.” Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin. 34 (1984), 41–60 (p. 47).

[2] ‘Feargus O’Connor, Esq. at Nottingham’, Northern Star, 6 July 1839, p. 6.

[3] ‘Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre’, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.

[4] Line references to Mask refer to the Longman edition. (The Poems of Shelley, ed. by Geoffrey Matthews and others, 4 vols (London : Longman, 1989–), iii: The Mask of Anarchy, ed. by Jack Donovan (2011), pp. 27–63.

[5] Steven E. Jones, ‘Shelley’s Satire of Succession and Brecht’s Anatomy of Regression: “The Mask of Anarchy” and Der anachronistische Zug oder Freiheit und Democracy’ in Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World ed. by Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). pp. 193–200 (p. 195).

[6] ‘Maxine Peake — Performance, Protest and Peterloo’, The Culture Show, BBC Two, 17 July 2013.

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‘What’s Left of Communism?’

A fascinating series of five half-hour World Service radio documentaries, made by Andrew Whitehead in 1992, exploring the Communist movement in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union is available to listen to on Andrew’s website.



Ethel Carnie Holdsworth: A Centenary Celebration

The Working Class Movement Library hosted an event on September 7th 2013 to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s Miss Nobody. Holdsworth’s novel has recently been republished as part of a new series of her works by Kennedy and Boyd with an introduction by Belinda Webb.

Nicola Wilson of the University of Reading introduced the novel, describing the barriers faced by readers and students in engaging with work by working-class writers. As Wilson pointed out, many students graduating with English Literature degrees are likely to complete their studies without having read any work by working-class authors, and even less likely to have come across working-class women writers. This is, of couse, damaging, and contributes to a distorted image of the cultural lives of working people. The practical difficulties of changing this situation, however, are not inconsiderable. Many texts have been lost altogether, or otherwise exist only in specialist archives. (Chris Hopkins has produced a useful case study on teaching out-of-print novels that offers some ways through these problems for academics.) Then there is the fact that when these texts are republished they are often on the expensive side, which is discouraging for students and general readers. Cuts to public libraries restrict access further. Then there are a series of questions about literary value: a critical dismissal of the genres and modes – romance, thriller, melodrama – often employed by working-class writers leads to a tendency to regard their work as having an kind of ethnographic and sociological interest, but of little value to literary scholars, and still less to general readers. At the root of that is, among other attitudes, an assumption that working-class writers are basically uncreative in the forms they use, and unreflectively reproduce the conventions and codes of popular fictions, with their attendant connotations of shallowness, unreality, and so on.[1]

The republication of Carnie Holdsworth’s novels will, it is hoped, intervene in this conspiracy of factors that work to marginalise working-class writers. Born into a radical weaving family in Oswaldtwistle in 1886, she wrote at least ten novels together with a startling volume of journalism, children’s stories and poetry, beginning to write while working in the mills in Great Harwood, Lancashire. Belinda Webb’s introduction the new edition of Miss Nobody identifies three literary traditions that feed into the novel: the ‘New Woman’ novel, the Chartist novel, and the romance. She combined elements of these forms with a language rooted in working-class experience to bring into the remit of the novel the lives of working women. The novel appeared in the year of Emily Wilding Davidson’s death at the Derby, and while Carnie Holdsworth seems to have had connections with the Pankhursts, her work insists on the distinctive nature of oppression faced by working-class women, an emphasis that was not typical of the middle-class dominated Suffragette movement.[2] A video of extracts of the novel read by the actor Keeley Forsyth gave attendees an sense of the humour and grit of Carnie Holdsworth’s writing.

This was followed by three short films by Nick Wilding, a film-maker who has worked to track down and show the 1922 film adaption of Carnie Holdsworth’s Helen of Four Gates, shot near Hebden Bridge. Nick showed a film tracing Carnie Holdsworth’s steps around Great Harwood and the surrounding moors that provided an atmospheric glimpse of the landscape in which she wrote. Nick also showed a film of Dorothy Sutcliffe, who herself worked in the mills in the area, reading Carnie Holdsworth’s poem ‘The Bookworm’. Nick concluded with a film shot in the Working Class Movement Library, in which Nick and Rae Street discussed the comparable lives of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Enid Stacey.

After a break to view to Library’s holdings of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s work, including a very rare copy of The Clear Light, the anti-fascist journal she established in the 1920s with her husband, Kathleen Bell of De Montfort University gave a keynote lecture. Bell argued that examining the reading and writing lives of working-class people helps us to think about what literature is for. Drawing on her research into working-class women writers from the eighteenth century onwards, she noted that it is common in their work to find an idea of literature as a kind of alternative wealth, the ‘treasure house of the intellect’. This is the central concern in Carnie Holdsworth’s ‘The Bookworm’, which imagines the reading experience, the entry into ‘the world of books’, as a way of ‘owning the world.’ This is often attended by anger at the way those with unfettered access to knowledge hoard and squander it. Economic and social conditions affect the reading and the writing experience for working-class people, and especially the lack of leisure time in which to read and write – Carnie Holdsworth described struggling to read two pages in six hours. Bell argued that this experience of time affected both the choice of reading matter and the writing practices of the working class. The need for concentration of effect and strength of plot were identified as primary concerns. Working-class writers were affected by the economics of publishing that meant other working people could not always afford to read their work, depriving them of an audience, but also by prevalent myths of artistic production, such as the romantic image of the struggling and starving artist.

The event was rounded off by a recital of two of Ethel’s poems, ‘Possession’ and ‘On the Road’, set to music by Ethel Smyth in 1913, by Emma Walton and Stuart Overington of the Royal Northern College of Music.

There is of course a long way to go before the reading and writing experiences of working people are treated as other than marginal and peripheral concerns. Discussing the politics of literary recovery, Raymond Williams pointed out that academic and critical attention alone was not enough: ‘Significant recovery begins when at least some of the novels are put into active circulation again, for the readers and the children and successors of the readers among whom and sometimes for whom they were written.’[3] Having Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s novels in circulation once more, available for those who shared – or whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents shared – the life she lived and wrote about is surely a major achievement in this struggle.

A few photos from the event:

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Elinor Taylor

[1] Critical discussions of this assumption can be found in (among others) Pamela Fox, Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working Class Novel, 1890-1945 (Duke University Press, 1994); Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Duke University Press, 1993); Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (Harvard University Press, 2006).

[2] The complex relationship between the Suffragettes and the working class is discussed by Paula Bartley, in ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’.

[3] Raymond Williams, ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist: Problems in some Welsh Novels’, in Gustav Klaus, ed., The Socialist Novel in Britain (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1982), p.110.




Summary of RSN 4

The fourth meeting of RSN on 24 April 2013 featured talks by Nottingham Trent’s Cathy Clay and the University of Salford’s Elinor Taylor.

Elinor Taylor, a final year PhD student at the University of Salford (and RSN co-convenor) gave the first paper, entitled  ‘James Barke and the Popular Front: Communism, Scottish Nationalism, and the Spanish Civil War’.

Taylor’s paper drew on her doctoral research and discussed the relationship between the Scottish novelist James Barke and dynamics of communist politics in the 1930s. In particular, her paper sought to explore how Barke negotiated the ‘national turn’ in Communist politics introduced by the Comintern in the 1935. While for socialist writers like Edgell Rickword and Jack Lindsay the new popular front line opened a space in which to imagine a new Englishness, celebrating traditions of popular radicalism and resistance, the new line presented problems for leftist Scottish writers like Barke.

The discussion focused on two of Barke’s novels, Major Operation (1936) and The Land of the Leal (1939) to consider the differences in their relationships to Scottish history. These differences, Taylor argued, can be related to the outbreak of the war in Spain in 1936, just as Major Operation was about to be published. Overtly, The Land of the Leal seems the more conservative text, with its emphasis on a long history of struggle narrated through the formal paradigm of the family saga, as against the aggressively modern, experimental Major Operation.

Barke’s Major Operation is fiercely anti-nationalist: nationalism is a middle-class affectation figured as kitsch: he describes the ‘city folks’ with ‘their kilts and their bastard Gaelic’ drawing from their ‘peculiarly dull wit, a superficially attractive semi-Celtic tartan ragstore twilight’ (Major Operation, London: Collins, 1936, p.81). The novel does not imagine a national or nationalised solution to the crisis it depicts. Instead, the solution is obviously implied in the novel’s title: a massive and immediate intervention in the body politic: revolution. Taylor sketched the novel’s arguments to this end at the level of its form – the central plot of physical collapse and painful rehabilitation, and the regular figuration of Glasgow as an afflicted beast – and argued that were a sign of the novel’s ‘sustained dialogue’ with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Grey Granite (1935).

Taylor then drew on published letters and unpublished manuscripts held at the Mitchell Library to identify the way Barke’s thinking exhibits an interlocking of two issues: the national turn and the defence of the Spanish Republic. She described how Barke argued that it was against the traditions of Scotland to abandon the Republic at its time of need – a marked shift from his earlier line.

Finally Taylor turned to Barke’s 1939 epic of the Scottish working class, The Land of the Leal, which she described as ‘a history of Scotland that ends in Spain, but also a story of Spain that begins in Scotland’. She described the novel’s positioning of the war in Spain as the latest front in the working-class struggle that was both national and global. This in itself is quite a conventional proposition, and can be found elsewhere in the literature of the period. But what is most compelling in the novel is the way that the text suggests that the war in Spain is also a war for definition, for the meaning of class experience: the communist character Tom senses that:

‘Only now was his life having point and significance. But not only his own life. Now the life of his father and his mother might be fulfilled. They had toiled and laboured from the Galloway fields to the city itself – from one century into another. […] They had been exploited and victimised without ever understanding why and without being able to make any conscious effort to save themselves’. (The Land of the Leal, 1939; London: Collins, 1950, p.596.)

Taylor noted the rather strained, even hyperbolic feel to this passage, but also pointed out that through it Barke is attempting to resolve the contradiction between the national and the international. It maintains a kind of national emphasis: a connection to the land, and to the labouring of the land, in a particular place; and it’s crucially about family, about inheritance, while also accepting that those things cannot be fought for or won on home ground alone.

Cathy Clay’s talk — ‘Eleanor Farjeon’s “Weekly Crowd”: Work, Leisure and Socialist Politics in the Feminist Periodical Time and Tide’ — was exemplary in its handling of poetry in periodicals and the politics of print culture. As a poet Farjeon came into conflict with Time and Tide’s editorial policy on the subjects of socialism and war. For the periodical’s editors, the intersection of socialism and feminism in Farjeon’s poetry was a liability. Post 1922 there was an overt tension between feminism and socialism, which impacted on Farjeon’s position in the periodical. The poetry in her column ‘Weekly Crowd’ advocated pacifism, while its editorial line was that ‘war was the only way out’ of the dispute in Greece between 1919 and 1922. She was, however, extremely popular with readers, with one writing that her contributions were ‘worth the price of the whole paper’.

Another major flashpoint in the relationship between Farjeon and Time and Tide was the General Strike of 1926. The wealth of Lady Rhondda, Time and Tide’s owner, came from coal and the periodical was dependent on this wealth as it did not generate profit. Time and Tide was, unsurprisingly, unsympathetic to strikers and ‘Weekly Crowd’ did not appear in the periodical during the strike. Farjeon’s poems in which she expressed solidarity with the strikers were printed in this period, however, by the British Worker.

Clay’s analysis took into account the formal qualities of periodical culture and poetry. She argued that ‘Weekly Crowd’ functioned as a liminal space in Time and Tide with Farjeon’s poetry introducing a nineteenth-century oral aesthetic associated with radicals and the working class that was in tension with the editorial line. Changes in the periodical’s title banner, with the icon of Big Ben being reduced in size to make way for the depiction of a crowd on Westminster Bridge but later shifted back to prominence, reflected Time and Tide’s politics.

The Radical Studies Network will reconvene after the summer break with a seminar scheduled for October 23rd, when we will be hearing from three postgraduate researchers. Full details will be published soon.


‘Even the dead will not be safe …’

Chris Witter, who will be speaking at our next RSN seminar in October, recently contacted us with a Call for Papers for an event at Lancaster University entitled ‘Fragments of Time’. Taking its cue from Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, the conference promises to ask searching questions about memory, commemoration and the cultural production of the past.

Fragments of Time Conference CFP-

Facebook page here.


Call for Participation: Issues in the Digital Humanities

Call for Participation: Issues in the Digital Humanities: A Postgraduate and ECR Training Event

June 20th & 21st, Working Class Movement Library, Salford

This is a two-day, AHRC-funded skills training event for postgraduate researchers. Day One (June 20th) will deliver a bespoke training course, designed by the Digital Preservation Training Coalition. The course will introduce participants to key issues in designing and managing a project to digitise archive materials (books, manuscripts, and other documents). Issues covered will include selection of materials, selection of equipment, copyright, and project management. Materials from the Library’s collection will be used as case studies.

Day Two (June 21st) follows on from the first day’s training, with the hope that a better understanding of the way that digital resources are produced will help us to use them more effectively.

  • Keynotes by Dr Helen Rogers (LJMU) and Dr Jim Mussell (University of Birmingham). Helen will be speaking about the Archive of Working-Class Autobiography and the Writing Lives research project, and Jim will address the methodological issues arising from use of digital resources in research.
  • Four short position papers around 15-20 minutes long on any aspect of participants’ use of digital resources in humanities research.

We invite abstracts (up to 300 words) for these papers. Such papers could offer advice or models of best practice that speakers have developed in their own research. Alternatively they could discuss an ongoing problem that digital resources present for their research, inviting feedback on methods of tackling it.


  • If you would like to give a paper, please send us an abstract for consideration. If you would like to attend but do not intend to give a paper, please send us a short statement (up to 200 words) which indicates your use of digital resources in research. We would prefer for participants to attend both days.
  • The event is free, but places are very limited. In the event that applications exceed the number of places available, the organizers will assess applicants’ statements and offer places to those who demonstrate research interests relevant to the WCML’s holdings, experience in archive work, and/or engagement with issues in digitization.

Deadline for abstracts and applications: May 16th 2013. Email:


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