UEA India in partnership with St. Hugh’s College, Oxford
“Literary Activism: a Symposium”

Time: Friday, 16 October 2015, 10am to 6pm

Venue: Maplethorpe Building, St Hugh’s College, Oxford

This day-long event is free of charge and open to anyone who is interested in thinking further about the current context of literature and how it is valued. Neither a celebrity-driven literary festival nor an academic conference, the symposium will bring together a range of writers, critics, publishers and scholars.

The different sessions of the symposium will be initiated by a series of talks and debates. Participants include novelist-critics Tim Parks (IULM University, Milan), Amit Chaudhuri (UEA), and Kirsty Gunn (University of Dundee); Peter D. McDonald, Elleke Boehmer, and Michelle Kelly from Oxford University; Jon Cook, Stephen Benson, Clare Connors and Philip Langeskov from UEA; and the publishers, Sam Jordison (Galley Beggar Press) and Ursula Owen (Virago).

9.30 am -10.00 am Registration

10am: Session 1 Tim Parks: Globalization, literary activism and the death of critical discourse.
The paper will argue that sophisticated literary style and convincing critical discourse depend on the existence of a community that shares the same language and traditions. The loss of cultural and linguistic context that occurs when national literatures are pooled in a globalized market, undermines critical literary discourse leav-ing the field open to the crudest literary activism.
11.15 am: Coffee
11.30 am: Session 2 Publisher’s Panel (Philip Langeskov, Ursula Owen, Sam Jordison. Chair: Michelle Kelly)

In this session we will discuss the current state and future pros-pects of literary publishing in this country, looking in particular at the role that small presses can play.

1.00 pm: Lunch
2:00 pm: Session 3 Peter McDonald ‘What about criticism?’: Blanchot’s Giant-Windmill
‘Maurice Blanchot first asked this question in French in 1959. He then repeated it via Leslie Hill’s English translation in 2000. What might it mean to ask it again in the context of the current debates about the university, the status of academic criticism, and the public value of literature?’
3.00 pm: Tea
3.15pm: Session 4 Creative/Critical Panel (Clare Connors, Stephen Benson, Elleke Boehmer. Chair: Jon Cook)
The distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ writing is often fiercely guarded. In this session we will question what is at stake in this distinction and how it might be challenged or redefined.
5.00 pm: Session 5 Amit Chaudhuri and Kirsty Gunn in conver-sation: ‘Making Sense of it All’
A great deal of time has passed since Chaudhuri published his first novel in 1991, and Gunn in 1994. Both writers witnessed the re-writing of the ‘literary’ at close quarters. Gunn did so in a domestic setting, even, being married to David Graham (formerly managing director of Canongate), who, along with Jamie Byng, released Yann Martel’s Life of Pi into the world. To try to make sense of these changes is to redefine one’s relationship to them and to the ‘literary’ dispensation that came into existence by the mid-nineties.
6.00 pm: Close
Literary Activism is the subject of an ongoing project initiated by the University of East Anglia in India. An earlier meeting was held in Calcutta at the end of last year and this meeting is the second in a series which will continue over the coming years. Its organizers want to engage as wide a constituency as possible in considering the different forms that literary activism might take and how it might encourage new directions in the writing and reading of contemporary literature.

The idea of Literary Activism is international in scope and embraces the work of writers, critics, translators, and publishers. It is a form of activism undertaken on behalf of, rather than through, the ‘literary’; although the distinction necessarily breaks down. It does not seek to undermine but, nonetheless, distinguishes itself from the dominant form of ‘market activism’ (a phenomenon named and defined by Amit Chaudhuri in his mission statement: which has had such a powerful influence on li-terary culture over the last few decades. Market activism generates excitement by various means, including equating literary value with market value, through, for instance, the size of the advances given to celebrity authors. As Chaudhuri points out, it colonises the language of literary value in a very particular way, hailing brand new works as ‘masterpieces’ or ‘classics’.
Its energies are heavily invested in the novel as the canonical li-terary form. Chaudhuri’s interpretation of the project ascribes a certain value to an ambivalence of ambition: ‘Unlike market activ-ism, whose effect on us depends on a certain randomness which reflects the randomness of the free market, literary activism may be desultory, in that its aims and value aren’t immediately explicable.’


The next international symposium in this series will take place on January 8- 9 2016, New Delhi. Its theme is ‘De-professionalisation’.