Conference Retrospective: Contemporary Women’s Gothic

Remember, remember the 5th of November – for it was the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s ‘Contemporary Women’s Gothic’ conference at the University of Brighton.

Many of the questions I’ve come away from this conference with are to do with poetry – mainly because there was so little of it. Of course, that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy papers on the gothic in contemporary women’s fiction – there was much to enjoy – but my paper was the only one which wasn’t about fiction, although there were a handful dealing with drama.

The keynotes were by Prof Andy Smith on Elizabeth Kostovo and Dr Paulina Palmer on Ali Smith. I’m more familiar with Ali Smith’s work, and found Palmer’s exploration of a lesbian/queer uncanny through apparational aspects in Smith’s work fascinating. She also circulated a recent Jeanette Winterson article from the Guardian which makes (a bit brashly) some interesting comments on the value of high literature.

Nobody blames maths for being difficult – and it isn’t difficult – but it is different, and demands some time and effort. It is another kind of language. Literature is also another kind of language. I don’t mean literature is obscure or rarefied or precious – that’s no test of a book – rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation.

That’s obvious in poetry and we welcome it. In fiction we seem to want a kind of printed television. Why?

Another highlight for me was Dr. Marie Mulvey Roberts paper on Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl – a hypertext fiction. I wasn’t familiar with this work at all, but I’m very keen to experiment with it now. Her descriptions of it reminded me in many ways of the poetic hypertext experiments at online poetry magazine Snakeskin’s website.

Overall, I’ve come away thinking about why Gothic seems to be a shorthand for fiction when there is so much dark and haunting poetry.  It could in fact be something to do with what Winterson says about the ‘difficulty’ of poetry; we simply aren’t accustomed to identifying themes beyond the most broad, or we aren’t looking for parallels in fiction. This is something I need to process more than these throwaway comments. Perhaps this could make a stimulating panel discussion for future Gothic conferences….


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