Sunday, March 23, 2014

Classics Confidential: Popular Culture and the Democratisation of Classics

Last November I was interviewed for a second time for Classics Confidential, a site which hosts video discussions with scholars about their work.  The interview has now gone up.

This is, I think, rather interesting.  It was meant to be me talking about my research - how the Liverpool conference on Classics and Science Fiction went (brilliantly, thank you very much), and what I'm planning on doing next. And then Anastasia asked me why studying popular culture was important, and that led to me stating clearly on record what I believe the objectives of widening access to Classics should be (don't ring-fence the subject, either for socio-economic elites or for intellectual elites, but don't impose it on everyone either), and why I think pushing people away from the humanities towards sciences and business studies in some cases is failing students. These are ideas I've been talking about in conversation for a long time, but I haven't stated them publicly very often.  I suspect a number of people will not agree with me on some of these points, but I stand by what I say here.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Edith Hamilton: A blog post for International Women's Day.

"It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated." - Edith Hamilton

Until recently, I knew very little about Edith Hamilton. I had heard the the name, but was not familiar with her achievements. That changed because I was showing students Michael Cacoyannis' 1971 The Trojan Women. Though Cacoyannis takes the screenplay credit, his contribution is a few scenes, and deciding what people would actually be doing on screen. Most of the words come from Hamilton's 1937 translation Three Greek Plays (an interesting selection: Prometheus Bound, Agamememnon and Trojan Women, not necessarily what one might have thought of if asked to name three Greek plays).  So I decided to find out a little about Hamilton.

She's a fascinating character.  Born in 1867, she was introduced to Latin and Greek by her father, who home-schooled her, and went on to get Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Bryn Mawr College.  She went on to do postgraduate work in Germany, enrolling first at the University of Leipzig, and then at Munich.  This wasn't an altogether happy experience - the German professors were interested in the minutiae of grammar, whilst Hamilton was interested in the overall beauty of Greek literature (this fight between philology and classical civilization still goes on to a degree).

She returned to the US, invited to become head of Bryn Mawr School.  She taught there for twenty-six years, and then retired.  She set home with someone described in biographies as her "life partner", Doris Fielding Reid, with whom she adopted Doris' nephew. Hamilton was in her fifties, Reid in her twenties. So, clearly Hamilton was unconventional in her family arrangements, which in the 1920s was brave. Her biggest contribution to Classics came after she retired. The Greek Way was published in 1930, and was a bestseller. So were several books that followed, such as Mythologies, still apparently used in the US, and Three Greek Plays, which replaced Gilbert Murray's translations as the standard ones in use in the US.  Many people were introduced to the Classics through Hamilton's works.

Yet she's largely forgotten now.  Books such as The Greek Way are perhaps considered too populist, and her translations have been superseded by others.  I'm not convinced I have any of her books in my personal library (though there are things in there that I've forgotten about).  But I shall be trying to rectify that from now.  It's quite clear that she had a love of the ancient world that was not lost though over-familiarity.  And she believed in the value of education for its own sake, as the above quote indicates.  And I have to admire someone who stands up for that.

If you want to read more about Hamilton, there's an article by Judith Peller Hallet in Classical World 90.2-3.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Me and the SFF Masterclass

I want to talk to you about the Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism.  Since 2007 (with the exception of last year) this has run every summer, as an opportunity for all people interested in writing seriously about SF to develop their skills and broaden their critical toolkit, in sessions that are led (not taught) by a fascinating mix of professional authors, academics and fans.

The information about this year's Masterclass is here. It's conveniently in London, just before the Worldcon, and the opportunity has been taken to recruit a set of class leaders that would otherwise be difficult to get.

I've been on four Masterclasses over the years, and I have enjoyed every one of them.  They are brilliant opportunities for anyone.  For a start, they are great networking opportunities.  The first year I went, the class leaders were Geoff Ryman, Wendy Pearson and Gary Wolfe.  Geoff I knew already, but I hadn't met Gary or Wendy before.  Now, they are amongst my wide range of internet friendly acquaintances; when Gary comes over to the UK I try to make a point of meeting up with him if our schedules permit it.  I've not seen Wendy since, but we exchange comments on Facebook.  At a later Masterclass, I met Mark Bould.  I'm now writing a review of Pacific Rim for Mark's journal Science Fiction Film and Television (okay, he edits it with Sherryl Vint); I think doing the Masterclass helped, in that Mark knew I wasn't just some chancer when I asked if I could do the review.

I've also made a lot of helpful contacts amongst my fellow students.  The first year, I met Karen Burnham (who went on to edit the Locus Roundtable Blog), Stacie Hanes, and Paul Raven.  At another Masterclass I met Jude Roberts.  My social media is full of people I met through the Masterclass.  And that's not to mention the people who I already knew but with whom I strengthened relationships through being a fellow student.  Would Graham Sleight have asked me to be a co-editor on The Unsilent Library  had we not been on the Masterclass together?*  In the other direction, would I have realised that Audrey Taylor was the right person to take over the British Science Fiction Association's London meetings?  Possibly, but who knows?

The Masterclass is also a great excuse to discover new texts, or revisit old ones.  I would probably never have read Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed without the Masterclass (nor would Niall Harrison, and you can read about the effect that had on him here).  Nor would I have revisited John Brunner's brilliant Stand On Zanzibar, a novel that seems like a work of the 2000s rather than the 1960s.  And my exposure to new theoretical techniques would have been diminished - I know far more than I would have about Queer Theory through Wendy Pearson assigning several texts for us to read.

One of the great things about the Masterclass is the mix of different levels of experience - it's not just for newbies and postgrads.  Some of the best reviewers and critics we have passed through the Masterclass (Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jonathan McAlmont, and others).  And the fact that you can keep coming back if you want is another advantage - that core should help build a sense of community amongst those writing on sf.  I'm not alone in believing all this - Jude Roberts tweeted me to tell me the year she went it was awesome.

In short, I highly recommend the Masterclass to everyone interested in the field, especially with this year's class leaders.  Don't feel that you can't go because you've had your chance, or that you're too long in the tooth.  I'm going again this year.  You're joining me, aren't you?

*Actually, it turns out, yes he would, since he and Simon Bradshaw asked me to join the project six months before that Masterclass. Oops.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass

From Edward James:
Please share as widely as possible! 
The Eighth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism will be held from Monday 11 August 2014 to Wednesday 13 August, immediately before Loncon 3, the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention.

We are pleased to announce that the venue will be the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, founded by Charles II in 1675, and the home of the Prime Meridian. This is across the Thames from the Excel site where Loncon 3 will take place.

Price: £200.

The tutors for 2014 will be:

Andy Duncan, Professor of English at Frostburg State University, Frostburg MD, winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award and two World Fantasy Awards, and winner of the 2012 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Neil Easterbrook, Professor of English at the Texas Christian University, and a prolific reviewer and critic, whose monograph on China Miéville is due to be published in 2014.

K.V. Johansen, a Canadian writer of fantasy, science fiction, and children’s fiction, who has also published three books on the history of children’s fantasy. Her adult novel Blackdog was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award in 2012.

Please apply to
Send a short piece of critical writing, and a one page cv.

Deadline for Applications: February 28th 2014

Monday, January 13, 2014

BSFA Awards nominations

Nominations for the BSFA Awards close on 14th January (i.e. tomorrow).  If you're a BSFA member, please consider works that you feel should be nominated.  In particular, historically artwork and non-fiction get fewer nominations than the fiction categories, so think of some deserving works for those.

Unfortunately, I haven't read that much stuff in 2013, but I have nominated John Johnston's excellent introduction to the Unearthed collection of early mummy stories, published by Jurassic.

Nominate by using this form:

And this post should give you a memory-jogging list of what has been nominated so far.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Michael Gove and the First World War

Much though it pains me to admit it, there is some foundation to the remarks made by Michael Gove yesterday (in The Daily Mail, to which I shall not link). The view of the Western Front presented in Blackadder Goes Forth does indeed include a number of inaccurate myths. In particular the view presented of the general staff, insane and with little feeling for the soldiers they sent to the slaughter, is unfair on the real Captain Darlings and General Melchetts. Staff officers often worked themselves into a state of nervous exhaustion, and many tried to get posted back to the front, feeling that this was the proper place for them. Fifty-eight generals were killed as a result of combat (Richard Holmes, The Western Front, pp. 117-18). 

Nor is it the case that everyone saw the war as futile and pointless, either in 1918 or now. As Hew Strachan notes (The First World War, p. 321), it wasn't seen as pointless in Belgium in 1918.

Where Gove is wrong is in his politicization of the debate, in his lack of respect for those who disagree with him, in his promotion of an equally simplistic view of the war as a heroic struggle, in his support of the government's plans to commemorate the First World War, which are dangerously close to celebration, and in his linkage of all this to his educational "reforms", which seem intended to prepare young people for a world of imperial heroics, a world that no longer exists.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

New post on Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space

New round-up post on Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: ‘Atlantis, conferences, Kieron Gillen and loads of other stuff’.