Back With The Killer Again

I am astonished that it’s been almost two entire years since I have posted here. It feels very strange that an amount of time like that can go past without noticing, when a PhD itself is such a short chunk of a life (but such a LONG slog of a task as well). The passage of time during the thesis-writing process often feels like that of Green Wing, always speeding up and slowing down, glitching and looping, erasing parts of itself and repeating others in a way that is satisfyingly hauntological to write about and disconcerting in the extreme at times to experience.

In the time that’s elapsed half a PhD lifetime has passed. From being a second year, sitting on every committee I could find (mostly in order to avoid feelings of isolation, if I’m brutally honest), run ragged — but, also, having fun collaborating and engaging with colleagues and organising events, and working on my film and tv chapter and the quasi-comic, psychosexual, excess grotesquerie of embodied performances of toxic masculinity — to a sage (and/or haggard) old 4th year eking out the last months of their writing up year like some imaginary medieval saint scratching away in a cell. Since then, amongst other things, I have written a book chapter about the Gothic aspects of Maxine Peake’s Northern star persona (in David Forrest and Beth Johnson’s forthcoming edited collection Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain, Palgrave Macmillan 2016 (hashtag pluggy mcplugface)) the germ of an idea for which came from this very blog, and I’ve also considerably levelled up my chapter on representations of the Moors Murderers and Peter Suctliffe’s depiction in popular music (which you can see me give a paper on in Liverpool Hope at their Theorising the Popular Conference on June 28th-9th if you’re so minded, and/or read the abstract below:
[edit: I’ve added the abstract in full here, as I’ve realised only people with academia.edu accounts who are logged in can actually see the page I’ve linked to, which isn’t very helpful]

‘Pop Is Always Looking For Trouble’: Popular Music’s Fascination With Celebrity And Violence).

This paper will use popular music representations of the ‘Moors Murders’ and ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ cases as case studies to examine the ways that pop culture has responded to and shaped the figure of the celebrity criminal in general and the mythology surrounding these crimes specifically, and, the ways in which it has questioned official history and what has been designated as exceptional and what as unexceptional violence.

Featured in songs from punk and industrial music in the 1970 and 80s, to indie from the 1980s onwards, these killers’ proliferation as musical cultural commodities has emerged alongside the development of ‘alternative’ popular music and out of (and in turn fed back into) its mixed and often self-contradictory concerns around authenticity, fame, image, commodity, creativity, self-determination, ediginess, auto-didactism, rebellion, working-class emancipation, contested models of gender and sexuality, and suspicions of official establishment narratives.

Of the many songs available I will use the following texts as my main examples, providing both close analysis of lyrics and context of the publicity artefacts and reception around these cultural acts:
Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Very Friendly’ (1975), The Moors Murderers’ ‘Free Hindley’ (1978), Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Night Shift’ (1981), The Smiths’ ‘Suffer Little Children’,  (1984), the satirical depiction of pop music’s depiction of these killers in the TV comedy Brass Eye (1997), and Luke Haines’ ‘Leeds United’ (2007).

Drawing on Lisa Downing’s work on the construction of the figure of the murderer as exceptional, overlapping with the figure of the artist, and, the epitome of the individualised neoliberal subject (The Subject of Murder, 2013), and David Schmid’s analysis of the particular cultural forces that have shaped the modern serial killer into the apparently obvious and self-evident figure of fame and fascination (Natural Born Celebrities, 2006), I will demonstrate that the construction of these celebrity killers and that of the celebrity musician share many important facets and are mutually self-supporting in their mythologies and the kinds of cultural intertext they draw upon to create and maintain their exceptionality and commodity status as society’s ultimate outsider insiders.

I’ve also moved from Birmingham, which I wasn’t a fan of living in, but was lucky enough to have use of a shared office, and, rather than isolation or lack of cv-boosting projects, often feeling too much opportunities came my way, to Manchester, which is a brilliant city, but where I have no affiliation with a university, no jobs, no community other than as a drifting dilettante at the margins, but also free as the air from meetings or organising anything.

Sometimes that feels very floaty in a scary and sad way, cut off from reality, like a ghost, or a little balloon that someone has let go of the string. But other times it’s relaxing and exhilarating to know I can plan my own time as I choose. Right now I am glad to say it’s the latter. I’ve just got back from a lovely long holiday (9 days! heaven), my first proper one since I started my PhD, and I’m not even being sarcastic when I use the cliche that I feel “refreshed”. I didn’t take any work with me, no laptop, no books, but I had a conference abstract (for Birkbeck’s True Crime Fictions conference on July the 1st) deadline while I was away, so I have decided to write it on my smartphone rather than have either the physical or mental burden of Taking Work With Me and thus allowing my thesis to remain in my thoughts feeling like the little ghostly You Should Be Writing fairy is hovering over me the entire time:

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And so, that’s exactly what I did, and, as mundane a plan as it sounds, I was really pleased at how well it worked out.  I used dropbox in safari on my phone to access my drafts to copy in a few phrases and refresh myself on ideas and then just wrote the abstract on the notes app whilst lying in the sun in a beautiful park in Barcelona. It might not be the most beautifully phrased or finely wrought abstract that has ever been written, but, I think it’s ok and gets my ideas across, and I count it as a big win in that I made and sent an abstract for an event that I’m really excited about but that unfortunately I otherwise wouldn’t have had time to apply to be part of, without feeling like I had sacrificed more than a tiny scrap of my lovely luxurious holiday.

If you’re interested, here is the abstract (which I am super excited to say I have since found out I will get to present in July — registration is here):

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(this painting needs a delicate little trickle of blood at the corner of one cup to really represent it, but, I think you can see what I’m going for here :D)

Modernism and Materiality in True Crime 

The key internal elements of true crime, in my analysis, are its intertextuality, its meta-presentation of media and history as constructed artefacts, and, most of all its materiality. As a genre it is strikingly homogeneous in its presentation of a close up view of the physical and commodified: of objects, spaces and the body.

In this paper I would like to demonstrate some of the formal uses of these features, first of all in a more straightforward form of true crime, drawing examples from a variety of canonical true crime texts including In Cold Blood, Happy Like Murderers, Killing For Company, Handsome Brute, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, and Beyond Belief.

Secondly I will trace some of the ways in which true crime emerges from, and draws upon the techniques and traditions of, literary modernism. This is most strikingly the case firstly in its repurposing of the Bildungsroman novel form — by which true crime creates a dark shadow narrative to this form’s dramatising of the moral spiritual development of a young man — and secondly in its crowded and minute attention to things, to the physical and commercial meanings of spaces, bodies and things.

Finally I will compare true crime’s use of these elements to their subversion and repurposing in true crime fiction (ie fictions based on and making use of traditional true crime) particularly in David Peace’s ‘Red Riding quartet’ and Jean Rafferty’s Myra, Beyond Saddleworth – both of which especially provide a meta commentary on history as narrative and ‘write back’ to official histories of their respective criminal cases.

 

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Abstract Impressions Revisited: Stating the Bleeding Obvious

I had a bit of an epiphany just now. It may be that this is news to only me, but, turns out, it’s a lot easier to give a conference paper if in your abstract you set small, manageable limits for what you’re planning to cover. Especially if you go over it a couple of times to make sure that it isn’t too big in scope.

I often treat abstracts as a way of getting a foot in the door – often, if I’m honest, kind of at the last minute – and that’s fine, because a conference paper is a work in progress, and of course it’s going to change in the process of preparing it, and so it’s possibly setting yourself up for a fall to think you have to crystallise absolutely everything about what you want to say in time for the abstract deadline.

However, I have recently realised (through fucking up – the traditional way human beings learn anything about anything) that this can lead to sloppiness in conceptualising the paper itself (rather than the abstract, which is fine to be rough round the edges) and thenceforth to trying to present something you cannot: presenting yourself with an impossible task, in fact.

A conference I was at last year, in spite of all the bloody times between starting my MA and now when I have been reminded (and reminded myself) that you cannot, should not, do not try and say everything about all your ideas about a big topic in one conference paper, I still found myself trying to do exactly that, and, whilst I don’t think it was an unmitigated shambles (it was like maybe 92% shambles) I really could have served myself and my audience better simply by setting myself a tighter focus right at the beginning, at the germ of the paper, the abstract. Instead of, you know, finding myself on the day trying to talk about ten things at once for every single slide and ending up with a big mess in which I didn’t explain anything properly because NO TIME.

It’s not that a looser abstract will inevtaibly doom you to failure, but a tighter one will give you a better framework in which to succeed.

An abstract sets you parameters; it gives you a set of lines to colour inside of. It’s not that those lines are indelible and can’t be rubbed out and changed, it’s that without them you may get yourself into a scribbly muddle, like wot I did.

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A scribbly mess, yesterday

There’s nothing wrong with the sales pitch really, but, if you can bear with my horrible mixed metaphors, what you want is more like a map or a menu. The trouble with the former is sometimes you get in with your twin pack of chamois leathers but once you’re inside trying to seal the deal, you look in the bag you find you’re a bit light on cleaning products and having to improvise with “how about these lovely stainless steel cutlery sets, madam?”

Whereas of course, it helps a lot if the contents of the ACTUAL PAPER ITSELF are defined by what you said in your abstract  — which they can in a much more immediate and practical way than say a thesis which is going to evolve massively since you told the university whatever pack of conjecture you told them to be allowed to be where you are now, figuring it out as you go along.

[follows on, vaguely, from https://predominantlymisc.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/is-so-mid-to-late-80s/]

Abstract Impressions

So, recently(ish) I had cause to be looking through a load of abstracts for a conference I’m putting on with Roles. It is not my intention to criticise any of the individual submissions we received, but, my strongest overall impression was how different they all were from one another in style and format. It made me think about how little advice the PG receives on what form the abstract should take. I thought of the various abstracts I’ve submitted, and how much I was winging it when I did them.

So here are some tips that I thought of when the shoe was on the other foot and I was reading rather than writing conference abstracts. I have made most of these mistakes and probably more:

1. Word count doesn’t matter

In the marathon of the thesis the abstract is a micro-sprint. It’s a haiku. It’s an advert. It’s small, is what I am saying.

But word count isn’t everything. In fact, I would advise anyone writing an abstract not to worry about precise word count, as long as it’s roughly right. I have worried about being ‘disqualified’ for too many words before, and yet when I read the abstracts we received I honestly couldn’t tell you their length. No-one cares.

2. Send your abstract as an attached word doc (and make your name and the title of your paper the title of that document)

This makes things a lot easier for the people reading them.

This is totally not essential and no-one ever got binned for not doing it. But it’s nice for the reader.
I didn’t ever think about this before until I was on the receiving end. It’s the sort of thing people should spell out in CFPs but don’t because it doesn’t occur to them.

3. INCLUDE A TITLE

This isn’t mentioned in CFPs because, well, it should be obvious. But apparently it isn’t.

I can’t stress enough how much writing an abstract you should be trying to make it easy for the person reading it to quickly get an impression of what you are doing, what areas it covers, why it’s new, and that you are a competent researcher.

If you don’t put a title it makes it harder for the person reading it, and it also risks looking like you don’t really know what your ideas are, or that you don’t have them clear enough in your own mind to be able to summarise them briefly. This probably isn’t the case, but the easiest way to guard against it appearing that it might be is to PUT A TITLE, PLEASE. PLEASE PUT A TITLE. Honestly I can’t tell you how confusing and annoying it was to keep receiving abstracts without them. Even just a boring working title would be fine. You can contact the organisers and revise it later if you’re accepted.

4. HELP THE READER TO HELP YOU

This basically applies to all of academic writing ever (and all of any kind of teaching or informing writing ever). But it even more important in an abstract because
a) you want the person reading it to give you a slot at their conference (or in their journal, or whatever)
b) you only have a short space in which to convince them to do so, and they are in a hurry and will have already read a pissload of submissions.

You know this stuff already, really. You do. It’s just that it’s easy to forget that when you’re going ‘arghhhhh I only have 300 words aaaarghhh and the deadline’s really soon aaaarghhh’ etc. It’s FINE. You don’t have to sound like a genius.

Just make it clear what you are doing, what field(s) it involves, and why what you are saying about it is new.

If you use any technical terms or abbreviations please explain them. I had to google some of the unglossed terms in our submissions and while it didn’t make me vote to reject those papers, it did make me very very cranky. And I’m just a PhD student doing a tiny little training-wheels conferences with other PGs. We had some brilliant-sounding papers where the lack of attention to making things clear for the reader could potentially have scuppered the person’s chances if it was a huge intentional conference with big names and high stakes. You could talk yourself out of presenting very easily simply by pissing the reader off and making it harder for them to see just why they should bother to keep reading to the end of your abstract.

5. Bear in mind a conference is an academic event

And pitch what you want to do accordingly. Think about the other people who are going to be on a panel with you. You don’t know who they are yet, but chances are they’re going to stick to the script. It might be an ecocriticism conference but dude put your holiday slides away. Are you trying to make the people on after you want to fall into a pit from embarrassment? Does your exploration of the politics of food advertising need a synth interlude? I suspect if you are the kind of person who puts a lot of extraneous personal stuff into their academic work then you’re not going to heed this advice or even pick up on how that might make the rest of us want to implode from all the excruciating. So I suppose this tip is pointless for the real offenders. But if you think you might be a borderline case, just, tone down the ‘personal journey’ side of things. This isn’t X Factor. Don’t be remembered as the cringey one.

Some people are really into unorthodox presentation styles, but, personally, I am way way too socially awkward for that. I like to know vaguely what’s going to happen next, so if you whip out some tone poetry or a stand-up section or call for your lovely assistant I am going to not be able to control my facial expression and it’s going to be a lot like this:

In many circumstances doing things a bit differently can be engaging and exciting, and there’s no reason why you can’t use creative methods to get ideas across. And in a teaching context getting people to open up and discuss things genuinely benefits from bringing in more of yourself and more unusual or novel formats.

But a conference paper is not a discussion. It’s not performance art. When it starts to be less about finding ways of expressing the ideas in accessible and interesting ways and more about ‘look at meeeeee’, then, dial it back a bit. These are your academic peers. They’re not your students. Some of them will be your superiors. You don’t need to make it super accessible. It sort of looks a bit arrogant if you try. It’s normal to make the assumption that your paper will be judged purely on its merits alone. But the people reading your submission have to keep in mind how it fits with others they have received (which of course you have no way of knowing anything about) to see how they can fit them together to make panels. If you have made yours sound like it is going to be a genreclash extravaganza of personal aggrandisement they may well decide there is nowhere they can reasonably fit you.

6) The reader is a person and your peer

I think it might help to remember that the people reading your submission (or your article, or even your thesis) are not the Gods Of Thought. Your abstract will not be read by a kind of brain-robot counting your words and looking for reasons to rubber stamp your VERY SOUL with a big REJECTED sign. They’re probably a harassed PG or researcher who just would like you to clearly and concisely tell them how great your idea is so they can get on with their own research, or teaching, or worrying about whether they got the grant to buy the milk and sugar for the conference and if not whether they can persuade everyone else on the committee to keep going into cafés and filling their pockets when no-one’s looking.

They aren’t searching for bad papers. Yes, not everyone can get in, but it’s usually on grounds of how well your paper fits in with what other submitters are speaking on, or how well it relate to the central theme of the conference. If you make it hard to understand what you are doing or why anyone should care you’re just wasting everyone’s time, especially your own.

7) EXTRA BONUS EDITED TO ADD POINT: pay ATTENTION to the CFP and EXPLAIN how your paper relates to the theme
Thanks to Michelle‘s thoroughly helpful comment below, I feel like I should add another important point: you have to put some thought into how the paper you intend to give relates to the conference theme and the disciplines the conference is focused on. This information will be in the Call For Papers. Do not just assume that it will be immediately obvious to the person reading it how what you are doing fits in well with what their conference is about. There are no bonus points for subtlety or the surprise reveal. This has been a source of much disappointment to me: I always wanted my work to be like a detective story or a conjuring trick and for everyone to gasp in awe at my big “TADA!” as I blindsided them completely with what my research was actually about right at the end. HAHA. Bet you didn’t see THAT coming!

Except, er, no. Really, no. That is the worst possible thing you can do. No-one is going to wait that long to find out you had a point all along. The absolute rock bottom key to academic writing is point out what you are doing RIGHT AWAY, and then ALL OF THE TIME thereafter until everyone can pretty much repeat it back to you verbatum.

In addition to the surprise reveal pitfall, it is also very easy to neglect this side of things because to you it seems unbelievably clear what you are doing; you already ARE making it clear How much clearer could it be? Do they want you to draw them a map? Surely pointing it out would be straight up like calling the reader/listener an idiot, right? It would be an INSULT to spell it out to them? Again (sadly for you) not so much. No matter how much of your field they are familar with or how much of a pulsating giant megabrayne they are blessed with, chances are they won’t know your topic as well as you do, because, that’s the whole point, it’s YOUR research not theirs. It’s very frustrating to be on either side of this divide: for the writer it’s as if everyone else is being wilfully dense, and for the reader it’s like WHOOSH, straight over.

It will help everyone if you remember to make it clear in your abstract exactly why they should give you a slot because your paper is way megs relevz in THESE EXACT WAYS. I mean, sometimes it will be genuinely obvious, for e.g. if the conference is subject specific, or reeeeally broad. But in general it can’t hurt to point out why your paper fits perfectly with what they are looking for. Even if you have to, er, exaggerate a little. Just like a job application. Cough.

The same thing applies when giving the paper: it will help everyone if you explain every little thing you are doing, and how you are doing it, very very clearly as you go along. I know it’s well annoying when you just want to blaze along the highway of words throwing out your ideas like water balloons and blaring stuff you find interesting like bangin’ choons (This is what young people do, yes? Probably?), but, without signposts nobody’s going to know where exactly you were heading or why, and you maybe wont even get there.

8) GOOD LUCK. YOU CAN DO IT. Share your draft with someone else if you’re worried. Hell, paste it into the comments here if you like. Just please remember to put a title!

Anyone else got any suggestions? Tips? More dire mistakes that I have forgotten to warn direly about? Please feel free to share them here.