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The mind field

Interrogating literature … and the language of who we are

My research is largely in the field of poetry and poetics, so not surprisingly poetry frequently makes its way into The Mind Field. I’m particularly interested in times that poetry hits not the literary pages but the political pages: when a poem by Günter Grass, for instance, made international news for its allegation that Israel poses a greater threat to world security than does Iran.

I’m also interested in moments when poetry – perennially undervalued in western nations – asserts its public worth: when an autographed manuscript of Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance fetched $15,000 – twice the anticipated price – at an auction at Bonhams; or a poet upturns a literary truism to become a bestseller.

More broadly I’m also interested in interrogating literature’s standing in public space.

Literary prizes, as one measure of literature’s standing, offer one of the few opportunities outside of the classroom for a shared-reading experience that allows us to engage in a conversation about literature, language and our lives.

Beyond being a high-profile marketing exercise – and no lover of literature should deny it that – the chief value of literary prizes is to curate a year’s worth of books. With around 8,000 titles published each year in Australia alone, this is an important if thankless task that literary judges perform on our behalf.

Literary prizes tell us a lot about of culture: not simply what they says about books, but what we say about prizes. The Stella Prize, for instance, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Miles Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011. The Miles returned rally with its first ever all-female shortlist in 2013, leading some to question whether women had suddenly become better writers or if judges were suddenly better at recognising them.

Sometimes science tells us what readers already suspect: that reading great literature can makes us better people. Recently, scientists have shown how fiction has the power to change future behaviour. Similarly, an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, has offered experimental evidence that reading literary fiction – as distinct from reading popular fiction or nonfiction – enhances empathy and makes us better at managing complex human relationships.

I’m interested in investigating the many ways that language – our most quintessentially human of arts – makes us who we are. I’m also interested in examining times when language fails us, which is another way of saying I’m looking forward to the next traumatising round-up of The Bad Sex Awards – alongside less excruciating dispatches – coming soon to The Mind Field.

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