‘The First Draft is Always Shit’ – Conference Season: Part One

Looking at the dateline of my last entry I realise with a larger-than-expected pang of guilt that it has been a long time since I last tended to this blog. Perhaps it would help my defence if I mentioned that the months since I hatched the idea to blog my PhD have been the busiest so far. Over and above writing my First Year Report (and feverishly preparing for my oral upgrade exam) I presented at three conferences in the summer term.

I had heard from many fellow students, from academics in my department and read on many blogs (including the excellent Patter and Thesis Whisperer) that writing is the best way to drive ideas forward. I was also aware that presenting papers is a great way to get feedback on work-in-progress. (In fact, my pastoral tutor said to me in the very first week of the academic year, “don’t go to conferences unless you are presenting”. Wise words, perhaps, for the PhD student looking to get noticed but also a guaranteed way to pile on the pressure.)

While inspiration to present work-in-progress is one thing, finding a suitable conference is another. Although I had signed up to the mildly useful Conference Alerts website, the most useful tips came from university mailing lists (word to the wise: get on as many of these as you can; although I am in the Geography Department I get notice of calls for papers in from the History and English faculties, too), as well as friends who kept an eye out on Twitter. Through a combination of these avenues I found three suitable conferences.

The first was aimed at postgrads and early career researchers and hosted by Cambridge’s own, wonderful CRASSH – the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Thinking with Things, a one-day symposium, brought together presenters from a range of scholarly backgrounds and interests, and from all over the country, to share their research on materials culture thinking in the arts, social science and humanities. Among many excellent papers, on topics as diverse as Belgian shopping-culture and commercial business cards in the nineteenth century, Pierre Duval’s seventeenth-century geographical board games and the gendering of casket metaphors in Shakespeare’s works, I had the chance to present my own work-in-progress on material objects and Sherlock Holmes’s method.

Like all good papers, this one developed out an unexpected idea that had sparked in one of my supervisor’s ‘critical geography 101’ seminars. Reading into material geographies, the strand of human geography that looks at the way objects and materials move through the world and interact with humans, non-humans and each other, I was intrigued by the idea, noted by Jane Bennett, that materials might (in some way) ‘vibrate’ with an energy of their own, and that people are, to a greater or lesser degree, sensitive to these vibrations. At the furthest end of the sensitivity spectrum are those people Bennett terms ‘hoarders’: people who collect or are greatly attracted to a variety of objects.

Bennett’s aim, which she shares with many materially-oriented human geographers, though she is a political scientist herself, is to reinvest objects and materials with a sense of political participation, or at least to raise the possibility that human-material interactions have political (and social, environmental or emotional) significance in this more-than-human world.

Though her research is broad, her comments on hoarders and on people’s sensitivity to materials’ vibrations and the role they can play in political and social life got me thinking. As a fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes relies heavily on material objects, from paper and clothing, to footprints and settled dust, to build up his cases. In most instances, Holmes is able to see physical evidence that everyone else, including the official police detectives, his partner Watson and the perpetrators themselves, overlooks or ignores. He displays a heightened sensitivity to materials, objects or things. This is just one way of analysing Holmes’s particular relationship with things – Joan Copjec, for instance, reads the detective’s abilities from a semiotical point of view: he represents the argument that there are always other ways to view a situation; his habit of noticing the overlooked letter, or the unnoticed door, indicates that there is always “one signifier more”: the “potentially infinite extension of meaning”.

Yet, materials thinking seemed to offer another way to view the question: does Holmes’s highly sensitive relationship to materials reflect Doyle’s (and other Sherlockian writers’) awareness of the significance that things play in the more-than-human world? There seemed to me to be a number of instances within the stories and their context which make this idea at least plausible. Like Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Doyle often includes more-than-human agents into his stories, such as the snake in The Speckled Band, the atavistic, animal-like soldier in The Blanched Soldier or the poison-box in The Dying Detective. At the same time, Doyle’s Spritualist beliefs and his use of mediums indicates his understanding that some people have a greater sensitivity to objects and ‘vibrations’, to use Bennett’s word, outside of those places that people tend to look.

With these thoughts cascading out, I sat down to draft a paper. One of the real benefits of presenting at conferences in my first year has been the painful, yet necessary, confrontation with the understanding that, as historian Matt Houlbrook has warned, “the first draft is always shit”. Boy, is he right about that. In my case, given my return to academia after half a decade in policy-focussed jobs in Westminster, where lengthy, considered prose wasn’t always the aim, this was a tough barrier to face down. My touchstone for academic writing was my undergraduate and masters essays, which I would (sadly) bang out in one sitting and submit, with very little editing. As a doctoral researcher, there’s no such luxury. The submission is never final and there’s always room for improvement.

As I will demonstrate in the next post, with an extract from my paper, the piece’s final form was very, very different from the ideas I started with. I didn’t use any interpretation of the stories I mentioned above and avoided entirely any reference to Doyle’s life. With only 3,000-or-so words to reel off in 20 minutes, brevity, and simplicity, are the soul of conference presentations. Honestly, as this was my first paper and I was anxious to avoid a train-wreck situation, when my first notions that Sherlock’s relationship with objects might in some was puncture the detective’s traditional role as final arbiter of power became too knotty, I based my structure on the useful and informative work of archaeologist Carl Knappett, referencing a book he wrote while just up the road from here, in Christ’s, Cambridge. Without Carl’s excellent analytical framework to draw on (and ‘enchance’, of course) my paper would not have been in the shape it was.

Once I’d written the damn thing, my next move was to build up the courage to read it. Aloud. And not in my living room.

A Study in Predecessors

Does this sound familiar? In the early 1930s the New York Times ran an obituary for a famous detective fiction writer, born in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The author combined full-length detective fiction with collections of short stories and wrote to great acclaim from the late nineteenth-century through to the 1920s. In the obituary, the NY Times noted that the author wrote genre-altering detective fiction in the hope that it would draw attention to their more serious, literary work.

Although the newspaper’s description fits the well-known biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle it was actually an obituary for US novelist, poet and crime fiction author Anna Katherine Green, who died in 1935. It might seem puzzling that Doyle is widely assumed to be the father of modern detective fiction (at least among those who have never read Murders at the Rue Morgue), when Green and many others are all but forgotten. Green’s prodigious output, beginning with her first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878) includes many more volumes of detective fiction than Doyle’s own career. In fact, Green found fame as a detective fiction writer from the very start, more than nine years before Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet flopped on it’s initial release. (Another bonus fact: Doyle was so enamoured by Green’s work that he sought her out on one of this first visits to America.)Revelations of a Lady Detective

Green isn’t the only woman to disrupt the popular notion of the ‘founding fathers’ of detective fiction: Poe, Gaboriau, Doyle. Among them, Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, who wrote her most well-known works under the pseudonym Seeley Regester, stands out for mention right now. She is recognised as having written one of the first American examples of the genre, The Dead Letter, in 1866. Although this fact is not contested nowadays – I first found mention of it on Wikipedia, for goodness’s sake – what is interesting is how Victor and Green’s contributions, among many others, are glossed over in popular histories.

For example, take Daniel Stashower’s excellent The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Muder, which interweaves the histories of the horrific murder of New Yorker Mary Rogers with Poe’s attempts to write the events into a new kind of fiction and to engage with the real-life detection efforts at the same time. Stashower, who is an expert on Doyle first, discusses the likely influence of Poe’s early work on the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Now, I am not arguing that there was no link; indeed, Doyle referenced Poe’s creation in A Study in Scarlet. What is interested is that by drawing a line directly from Poe to Doyle, Stashower reinforces the popular perception that these were the only detective fiction writers in town. 

The-Female-Detective_-1864In order to address this misconception I plan to (at some point!) discuss various writers that predated Arthur Conan Doyle or who could be considered to have influenced his work. I hope to demonstrate that the world of nineteenth century detective fiction was far richer and far more socially and gender diverse than is commonly supposed nowadays. This project was inspired in part by the news that the British Library recently reprinted three excellent works of mid-nineteenth century British detective fiction, two of which feature women detectives as main characters and one which is thought to be the first example of the detective novel: William Stephens Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective (1861), Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864) and Charles Warren Adams’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1863).

I’ll end as I started – with a puzzle. In 1994 at a symposium at the University at Albany (SUNY), Ellen Higgens presented a paper on ‘The Female Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’. In it she talked about Anna Katherine Green, Seeley Register and other women authors. About the reception of her work in some (Sherlockian) circles, Higgins is reported to have said, “People… don’t want to hear about women competing with the Master”. What’s peculiar about this is that women authors rarely, if ever, wrote female characters. As we have seen, the few female characters in nineteenth century were created by men. (Green did go on to create a female detective but only well after the success of her male police detective Ebernezer Gryce.) So who is the ‘Master’ that Higgins is talking about: Doyle or Holmes? Higgins is not alone in conflating the author Doyle with his vastly more popular character Holmes. I am intrigued to see whether the same can be said for the other authors here and what that might reveal about their relative popularity today.

To Geograph or not to Geograph?

I’m very new to the world of PhD-ing. Or, at least, I’m returning to university after a four-year break in the ‘real world’ and I’ve noticed that things can be very different as a Grad Student. I don’t necessarily mean the return to the inane smilies, exclamation marks and un-ironic uses of the phrase ‘roflcopters’ in emails, although that can be irritating.

(Don’t think, ‘real worlders’ that you can be smug about that – I’ve seen plenty of correspondence among government ministers and MPs strewn with pointless exclamations marks.)

Rather, I mean the practice of academic ring-fencing and disciplinary turf-wars. I’ve never felt particularly hide-bound by the demands or strictures of a particular discipline. I avoided the standard pitfall of “having to choose” between history and geography, or among foreign languages, at school by doing both. I side-stepped the need to ‘specialise’ too soon by doing a joint honours degree (history and politics) for BA and eliding any sense of specialism with an MA in ‘Australian Studies’. I am truly an academic jack-of-some-trades.

Naturally, when it came to striking around for a thesis topic I let the material guide me and chose from among the available critical lenses the ones which seemed to best suit the task. (At any rate, that’s my line and I’m sticking to it!). Where this got me was the dark, potentially career-defining interstice of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Where it actually got me was my university’s Geography Department.

I hadn’t realised the full ramifications of crossing the academic border until this week. All through my first term I had chafed against being defined as a ‘Geographer’, although that definition seemed to make sense in the eyes of my peers: it’s the answer to “what department are you in?”; it’s one of the defining factors in the arrangement of my social circle; and it explains why I have a key to the Geography Department buildings on my key ring.

But it didn’t feel right. It didn’t (and doesn’t) feel like I am a Geographer. History is what I really love. “I am a historian!”, I would bleat to myself. “The trouble is”, I found myself saying when stumped by Derek Gregory or the dreaded Foucault, “I trained as a historian: we didn’t do this kind of theory”.

Then, to my horror, this week I saw myself as others might see me. Signalling my interest in a proposed graduate lecture series run by the History Faculty here in Cambridge, I was pulled short by the organiser who notified me that the scheme is designed to encourage employability among young researchers in the History Faculty only. Ouch.

Has choosing the path of interdisciplinarity, of following the research questions that interest me with the full gamut of critical tools that seem appropriate, marked me out? Do historians, as my supervisor once said, operate a “closed shop”, blind to the useful employment of historical argument, critique and scholarship by other disciplines?

I’d like to think not. I’m comforted, at the very start of what I hope to be a long and fulfilling academic career, to note there are many academics out there, early career and established, who practice their craft using whatever tools they deem appropriate, rather than the tools that are “department approved”. At the same time, I am well aware of the need to be able to define myself within academia against other researchers and in tune with departmental or faculty research goals. Not to do so would kill any employment opportunities and with it the readiest means to continue my research.

What we really need is a Department of Interdisciplinarity. A place where researchers are encouraged to follow the leads they find appropriate with the tools they find useful and where the the “licence to practice” is not restricted with a trades-union-esque zeal. Given that, as our Director of Graduate Studies in Geography remarked, last term, “Geography is whatever geographers do”, perhaps I’ve not found such a bad home after all.

P.S. That’s not to say academic geographers don’t demand particular research practices, nor that I’m not still haunted by the question “where’s the geography?” about my research.

P.P.S. I’m still a historian, really. Really! Musty books! Mouldy smells! You can’t take them from me… No!…