Old School

First, a brief questionnaire to assess your eligibility for this book:

1. Do you have a wickedly dry and deadpan sense of humour?

2. Do you appreciate gentle, even whimsical satire?

3. Are you fond of British novels from the 1930s?

If the answer to two or more of the above questions is yes, then congratulations, you may proceed to the review!

Because seriously, this is a novel that will only work with the right sense of humour. If you like to take your fiction at face value, if you enjoy melodrama and gutsy emotions, then you will be left bewildered and somewhat out of sorts. If, like me, you have a deep fondness for slightly daft, old-fashioned comedy set in grand educational insitutions, you will love it.

penelopeThe eponymous heroine of Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel is a freshman embarking on her Harvard career. She leaves behind her (as far behind as she can force her to go) a mother who is full of good advice about meeting people, being normal and eschewing her favourite topics, like confessing she used a car seat until fourth grade. For Penelope is an original, an awkward young woman who does not fit neatly into the ideology of the young, though she wishes fervently that she could. Penelope is committed to the path of least resistance, and it’s wishful thinking that leads her to believe it will eventually join up with the superhighway of life. She’s a nice person! She means no harm, ever! And yet she is disappointed to discover that ready agreement with everything that is said to her does not win her friends and influence people.

The people around her, however, are not exactly easy to win over. Her room mates are Emma, a rocket-fuelled over-achiever with a starry social life and a medal in emotional manipulation, and Lan, a genius misogenist who only likes her illegally-kept cat, Raymond (Penelope is allergic). Upstairs lives Ted, an eager to please young man with a disconcerting fringe that makes him look (not in a good way) like a Roman centurion. It’s clear that Ted does like Penelope, but that Penelope instinctually senses they are too alike as uncertain misfits ever to risk being a couple. Penelope’s desires all tend towards the enigmatic Gustav, a student whose worldliness and impeccable pedigree impress her as much as his three-piece suits and his complete indifference to his studies. This makes him stand out in a community where exams are the principle topic of conversation: ‘Homework was like a North Star that everything turned to.’

If you’ve ever been to a sightly hysterical institute of learning, and failed to make friends or fit in, then there is much that will be utterly familiar about this novel. Harrington gently pokes fun at the obsessive-compulsive traits of dedicated students and their grandiose ambitions and opinions, whilst at the same time tapping in to the insecurities of teenagers the world over – the flailing about in search of an identity that constitutes socialising at that age. Harvard is mercilessly satirised, with the constant refrain rising from its ranks that here’s where you’ll have ‘the best conversations of your life’, which are of course never in evidence, and its lacklustre traditions, like the Harvard-Yale football game: ‘The crowd was generally old and clad in fur coats. There were current students at the game too, but they seemed to be a constantly fluctuating, less vocal maroon number, like a small, sad, consumptive sister to the robust alumni of yore.’

Not a lot happens. Penelope scrapes through her classes, fails to make lasting friends, gets involved in a hilariously turgid drama production and does not find true love. But it ain’t what she does, it’s the say that she does it. The narrative is littered with wonderful observations, like Penelope’s experience of the ‘feeling in her stomach that occurs when you realise that your time enjoying composure is rapidly coming to a close’, or the description of the football stadium that was ‘a late Victorian replica of the Coliseum that was both imposing and wholly devoid of irony.’ And I would have loved the book for one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time, when Penelope turns an ardent Gustav away from her door: ‘Suddenly Penelope could not remember why exactly she had said good-bye to him at the door. It had something to do with fear, but she hoped it would be mistaken for strategy.’

I thought this was a delight, a charming romp with an ascerbic edge and a taste for the absurd, and if that sounds a bit heterogeneous, well you’re right. Penelope does bring together the old and the new, the funny and the dreadful, the ditzy and the sharp. And if that’s your sense of humour, sit back and enjoy.

And if you enjoyed this book, you might want to consider a couple of other possibilities from Shiny New Books:

The Following Girls by Louise Levene, a brilliant novel set in a girls’ school in the 70s

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson, in which a womanising professor is given a beating heart transplant with strange consequences. (I’ll be reviewing this myself in a few days time.)

Critical Theory; A Life

Early in October 1988, I rocked up to the inaugural lecture of the modern critical theory paper, a module I’d signed up for because it sounded new and exciting. Cambridge agreed. The lecture hall was packed out, with most of the English faculty crowded into the front rows and, quite shockingly, my own lecturers and supervisors hogging all the seats at the back. I had never seen the grown-ups, as it were, attending undergrad lectures before. The handful of modern linguists who were actually going to sit the paper, myself amongst them, were submerged by a sea of interested parties. Cambridge had toyed with theory for a while, famously inviting the French Daddy of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida to give a guest lecture, in which he infamously spent the hour discussing the white space between the title of a work and its first lines. But this was the first time that the university had decided to create a syllabus, teach the theory and examine it. For a place that in its Tudor infancy spent a couple of hundred years dedicated to the works of Aristotle before moving onto anything else, this represented swift progress.

It was the Modern Languages faculty that sponsored the paper because theory, as we were about to learn it, had exploded out of the Left Bank of Paris at the end of the 50s. In 1958 the literary journal Tel Quel was founded, and over the next 24 years it attracted a swarm of cultural and literary theorists. Postmodernism, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, postcolonial theory, reader response theory, these were the ideas setting the intellectual world alight.

At almost the same time in Cambridge (1959 in fact), the biggest ever fight between the sciences and the arts was taking place. In the red corner was C. P. Snow, who criticized the ‘snobbish’ culture of intellectuals for holding back the progress of science and technology, which he believed were about to change the world. In the blue corner was literary critic F. R. Leavis, who laced up his gloves and declared that literature was the place where everyone got to discuss what was actually happening in the world, unlike the sciences which belonged exclusively to those with advanced degrees. Everyone could read and have an opinion on the new books by Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis, but only a handful of people could understand the latest developments in quantum electrodynamics.

There was no clear winner to the debate, but over the next 25 years science and technology gained the upper hand in the cultural imagination. Scientists were increasingly seen as the saviors and pioneers of Western society, literature a leisure pursuit for a minority. Hardly surprising, then, that theory, the closest literature would come to a science of its own, should look so enticing as a way of perking up any flagging interest in the arts.

But theory was exciting, too. I loved the ideas in it, and how audacious and challenging they were. I enjoyed the process by which those ideas went from being ludicrous at first glance to naggingly plausible. Psychoanalytic and feminist theory were the areas that interested me the most. I was intrigued by the challenge the feminists faced to represent a group of people who wanted above all else to be seen as individuals. After centuries of an imposed identity as sweet, nurturing, charming, useless creatures, women longed to be different, but not instantly shoved into another set of adjectives: strong, competitive, dynamic, resilient, whatever. It’s an issue that, as far as I can see, has never yet been resolved. Women still get trapped into a ‘story’ by their cultures and forbidden from diverging from, or subverting, the party line. In my psychoanalytic studies, I was fascinated by the notion that a book, emerging from the mind of a writer, had the same characteristics as that mind: there was an evident surface meaning to it, but also an unconscious one, hidden in the shadows and ambiguities of the writing. Just that idea alone put paid to the belief that authorial intentions were the most important way to view a story. The author had as much chance of seeing his intentions come to fruition in narrative as he did making them come good in real life.

There were so many ideas thrown at me in that course, and I found it fun to play with them. I learned that theory was at its best when being applied to a book. Theory and practice struck sparks, and I grew adept at hunting down the places where they contradicted one another, or created a strange paradox. This was the point of theory for me – if it fit perfectly over literature and life, then we would be robots and our stories nothing more than a vast instruction manual. It was the very places where theory and practice buckled and fought one another that showed up what it was to be human, and how slippery and strange and surprising art could be.

My career at the university lasted as long as the modern critical theory paper did. It was retired a year or so before I stopped teaching, though it continues to this day to be part of the graduate syllabus. A couple of years after that, I noticed the tide turning and a surprising amount of hostility being directed against theory, as if it were in some way responsible for spoiling the field of literary criticism. The anger seemed to arise from the way some theory texts were written, essentially those heavily influenced by the discourse of philosophy. This was a bit unfair, given just how much theory there was available, and how much of it – including all my chosen areas of psychoanalysis, feminism and reader response theory – was perfectly accessible. Books by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva suffered from being read in translation; I always found them much better in French. And then I think in the States, theory was taught in a vacuum, outside its historical context and away from its natural interaction with literature, which can’t have helped.

But it was hard to get away from the feeling that people were upset with theory because it made them feel stupid. Which says more about the stranglehold of insecurity than it does about theory (and more about the stranglehold of the grade over the notion of an education). I mean, I loathed algebra, which certainly made me feel stupid, but I didn’t believe it wasn’t useful to someone, somewhere. Without those decades of academics working on literary theory, we wouldn’t have the canon of women’s writing we do now, nor literature written by oppressed people of colour, both championed by intellectuals, studied in universities and finally merged with the mainstream. Political correctness wouldn’t exist, and our understanding of history would be infinitely poorer. Hundreds of novels and films and buildings and pieces of music and adverts wouldn’t have been inspired or influenced by theory.

But I wonder whether the ultimate reason for the anger against theory lay back in that debate between Snow and Leavis. Leavis had argued that literature was for everyone in a way science was not. Literature has the power to bring us together to discuss what is happening in society, and maybe we are wired up to want that. We don’t seem to mind the inaccessibility of science, but we do mind if stories get talked about in ways that seem exclusive. If that’s the case, then it’s up to the general reader to keep the discussion going.

A Chance Encounter

Just the other day I was stopped at traffic lights when I noticed a man with a bike at the side of the road, adjusting the chin strap of a very silly hat – the woolen kind with ear flaps that Sherlock Holmes might have worn, had he ridden a bike on a cold day. As I looked at him, so he turned to look at me, and the ‘Well, whaddya know’ expression on his face was terribly familiar. He started to raise his hand in greeting, the lights changed, I attempted to both shift gear and wave back, and his tentative wave gained purpose. Then I was halfway down the road and the moment had passed. I realised it was my old therapist, who I hadn’t seen in three years. I could see him now, framed in my rear view mirror, watching my car as I drove away.

I found I was relieved and also surprised that he’d waved at me. The manner of my leaving therapy hadn’t been easy or comfortable, and I remembered very clearly his response to me when I’d asked in the course of a session whether one day we could be friends. He’d said it wasn’t possible, because the relationship was such a delicate and particular one, it might alter too many things inside my head to shift its foundation in such a drastic way. I did understand; the relationship with a therapist is so unlike anything else, simultaneously intense and indifferent. And this therapist had been so keen on being a screen for me, not allowing himself to intrude on the space between us, which was bizarre at times because he practised from his home.

There’d been the long months when he was having an extension built and the noise of drilling and hammering had been a real irritant, and then other times when his young sons did their piano practice in the next room, or occasionally exclaimed to one another ‘That is so cool!’ which always made me laugh. I thought he was a good therapist, but the psychodynamic approach was the one part I never appreciated. I wanted there to be a real person opposite me, letting me know what he thought, giving me some emotion to work with. I often wondered whether he actually liked me, which I knew was not a question ever to pose to an analyst; it provokes such a tiresome fuss about why you need to know you are liked, when it’s a perfectly ordinary human desire that can be let alone. Still, it made it all the more surprising when I wanted to leave therapy and he was dead set against it.

He was not my first therapist. The first was a woman in her 50s, a gentle, fluffy sort of person who always dressed nicely in soft, expensive-looking fabrics. She had a hesitant manner of speaking that I was put off by, until I realised it was a typical therapy voice, one that writes into every word a great deal of de-energised flexibility so as never to get in the way of the client’s feelings. I came to therapy because I had not recovered from an awful illness I’d suffered two years ago, and now, with a new job as a lecturer and a five-year-old child, I really didn’t know which way to turn. I felt I’d been run over by a truck. And then crawled to my feet to be run over by a truck coming from a different direction. And then… well, you get the idea. I was also very interested in therapy. All my research had been into questions of identity and I had read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory. This made me a difficult client, I knew, over-informed and too self-aware. But I didn’t think of therapy as an admission of failure – I thought it was something everyone should do, given the chance.

I was under the illusion, however, that its purpose was some sort of acceptable chastisement: I had lost all grasp of myself, after that series of overwhelming life changes, and I was afraid I was to blame; someone else would have relished the challenges of my life while I was mostly exhausted and alarmed by them. I felt that my inability to recover from the illness was in some way my own fault; and as such I was making the mistake (much encouraged by society) of confusing illness with moral weakness. I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.

I grew very fond of my first therapist, who was warmly and tenderly supportive. And it was a relief to have an hour a week that was about me, when the rest of my life was jam-packed with dedicated service to others. This was something else I felt I should manage without a qualm and any resentment on my part was a selfish inconvenience. So I did my best to take it well when my therapist told me she was moving to Australia to be with her sick sister. Surely I’d had enough therapy to set me on the right path now?

Well, eighteen months later I started therapy again. I now had a demanding contract with the university as well as with college. My health was still bad and I was in the thick of pretending that it wasn’t. But unable to keep up that pretence at home, my marriage was in difficulties after the sheer strain of the past few years. I didn’t think we’d make it. My career success was balanced on a knife edge with looming personal disaster, and I seemed to have nowhere to put my burdens down. It was at this point that I began work with the therapist who would mean the most to me. He was a funny-looking man, tall and thin, all teeth and glasses with a wild corona of brown hair that danced around a bald spot like a monk’s tonsure. The first time I met him and poured out my tale of woe, he managed to make me laugh about it within the first five minutes. I have always been a sucker for anyone who makes me laugh and my sense of humour was the one thing that felt strong enough to hold me together. I loved the way he would talk so clearly and forcefully to me, his words a firm bridge on which to walk across the chasm between what I wanted and what I thought I ought to want. I felt safe with him, I suppose. And when I least expected it, I fell into transference, which I’d read all about, only the reality was very different to the theory.

Transference is a fancy name for what inevitably happens when you tell your troubles to someone who really gets you. But it’s undercut by the artificiality of the relationship, the cheque at the end of each session. He got me through a very difficult time and I was beholden to him, but I knew we were not united in any meaningful way. My mind loved him, but I suppose my heart didn’t. Or perhaps it was the other way round, these things are hard to judge. In any case, when he told me he was giving up counselling (he’d had a bad break up with his wife and felt it was affecting his ability to help others) I found I had tears falling silently down my face. I was astounded; I’d given up crying at that point in my life because it took more energy than I possessed. Then, astonishing myself again, I walked out of the session and never went back. It did feel like a love affair of sorts had ended.

So by the time I began work with my third and final therapist, several of the plates I’d been spinning so diligently on the end of their long sticks had fallen. I was off work sick, and had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue. But my marriage had not split up and we were working on it. I also had a chance now to be with my son much more, and that felt right. At best I could say I had chosen my family over my career, but I was very angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to have it all. Therapy felt like picking over the aftermath of a tremendous battle, and this therapist was a somber, serious man and our sessions had a melancholy tone. In a sense this was appropriate as I was mourning the loss of my ideal self. Though when I looked at that ideal, and the standards I’d held for her, and the sheer number of boxes I’d had to tick even to meet my minimum requirements, I could see why she hadn’t been feasible. For the first time, my life was quiet enough for me to actually focus on myself, and I made by far the most progress now. Though I knew I was holding myself back, having been the kiss of death to two therapists already. He often said to me, ‘I’m not going anywhere, you know.’ But one day he also said, ‘I do worry that I’m just not a warm enough person for you,’ and I knew there was truth in that.

Therapy is a strange thing; you bring your deepest feelings up to the surface and magnify them, so you can see what’s really going on, but once there they tend to look disproportionately large and take up too much oxygen. When I knew I wanted to leave, I had the mantra running round and round in my head: ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ In a sense it had taken all those years for me to reach this point – where I recognised that failing to be perfect in every way was not a desperate flaw in my character, but the result of normal, human limitations. And therapy was only adding to my sense of being someone who needed to be fixed and brought in line with ‘normal’ people. I’d felt so ashamed of myself for being ill, and now it was time to draw a line under that kind of thinking. It was time to live the way I wanted to, which was admittedly an unusual way. But now I had my longed-for wide margins to the day, the peacefulness I’d craved, and I could not let that go. As my third therapist so often used to say: ‘if you let others down you feel guilty, but if you betray yourself you feel desperate.’ He wouldn’t be so keen on that thought when it was his own wishes I was contravening. But I did leave therapy; I was all talked out.

It was so funny to have seen him unexpectedly like that, and to think of all that had passed between us. It was odd to think of all the recent changes to my life, and to know he was in ignorance of them. But I didn’t feel any regret for my decision to leave. I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn.

Publishing, A Writer’s Biggest Headache

Unsurprisingly, the issues surrounding publishing and our sense of ourselves as writers have provoked the longest discussion of the whole writing course. It seems to me that at no point in the past has publishing ever been such a problem to writers. If you were mad – or educated – enough to want to write, then publication was something that eventually happened down the line. It strikes me (and I may be wrong) that writers were a much more self-selecting band, and publishers were a much more adventurous bunch.

Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out. Rather than simply accept these barriers to self-expression, those Darwinian technology types gave us the digital world. And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?

It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near. You say the ‘P’ word in authorial company and suddenly everyone is rushing to declare their practised speeches, composed during the small hours of the afternoon when writing is hard and recognition distant and somehow morale must be maintained. The other basic problem is that many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomenon – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.

Most of my publishing experience has been academic. I’ve published four books and about 20 articles and chapters, and I did this over the space of about 12 years. Which strikes me as quite a lot in hindsight, throwing my son and chronic fatigue into the mix. I rarely got paid for it (£200 was the only advance I was ever given), and my writings disappeared with the tiniest splash into the great ocean of academic tracts. Academics only read for what they’re researching – you don’t go and read someone’s book about Rabelais just because it’s supposed to be good – which to my mind is why academic writing has become so insular and unattractive to general readers. Everyone writes to be clever. Not everyone writes to be stylish, although the field of academic research even in my small literary corner is vast, and it makes no sense to either celebrate or condemn it. It has been formed by the forces of necessity and good intention.

So why did I take it upon myself to add to the trillions of words? It clearly wasn’t for fame or fortune. I didn’t do it ‘for myself’, whatever that really means. When the boxes of advance copies arrived I felt pleased for about two minutes, and then I found the immediate issues of the day more pressing. No, I did it because it was, for me, the root of my work as a literary critic. Everything grew out of that quiet moment when I thought about a book and shaped those thoughts into words. That was the beating heart of my discipline. How could I teach students about essay writing if I weren’t engaged with that process myself? How could I put good lectures together unless I had thought long and hard about the books I was discussing? I had to write about the book to get to the bottom of my reaction to it. And once I had written down to my satisfaction an interpretation of a book, I wanted to share it with my community, to contribute to the ongoing discussion and because (rightly or wrongly) I felt I had something to say.

It was always important for me to know whom I was writing for, not least because I could then be assured of saying something that might feasibly be useful. Essentially, the reason I write at all is to get my message across. I want to make people think about things they generally try to avoid thinking about. So I have to strategise a lot with regard to the audience if I have any hope of achieving that goal. What I learned pretty fast through teaching (and living) is that human beings make dreadful listeners. On the whole they hear only what they want to hear, or what they are afraid they will hear. It’s always seemed to me the most intriguing challenge to get readers to put their prejudices, their hopes, their anxieties aside and hear instead what I want them to.

So I have never been someone who writes ‘for myself’. I do not want, as one of my classmates brilliantly put it, to be engaged in nothing more than a monologue. I want to be talking to someone and not as a party bore who has importuned them in a corner, but as a voice saying something they might find illuminating to hear. Our course instructor said that he found the whole publishing malarkey much easier when he thought of his writing as a gift that he bestowed regularly on the world, without expectation of reward. This sounds to me like a convenient solution to a knotty problem, and one that makes us all look pretty. It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? This idea of the author writing in an isolated cell, then sending her work out into the world with never a glance to see where it lands, indifferent to its fate. Yeah, well, dream on. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t long for praise and popularity. And I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t hurt by rejection. Writers do what they do because they feel close to the human predicament – we can’t suddenly turn around and become angels or saints. It’s better to face up to the large and ugly emotions that are part of the process.

I think the consolatory fantasy of self-fulfillment has risen in proportion to the difficulties encountered in actually getting published. Because so few of us are ever likely to have the bonus of an audience for our writing, we have to work our way around that emotionally. And whether we publish traditionally or independently, an audience remains the most elusive commodity. As I said, it’s only once you’ve published and realised that it does not suddenly make your work desirable and praiseworthy, that you live in cold, hard clarity. I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this muddle and I’m not sure there are any. I think perhaps writers have to accept they are a kind of modern-day Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock to the top of the mountain and watch it fall back down again, but enraged when it does so and longing every time for that rock finally to stay in place and become a monument to endeavour.