Getting academic about David Mitchell


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Academics and book lovers in Scotland are gearing up for the first University of St. Andrews conference on the work of writer David Mitchell, taking place Thursday and Friday, Sept. 3 and 4. Conferences such as this are nothing new -- you can’t swing a stick at an academic calendar without hitting one on James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or any number of other major writers -- but this one is unusual.

Because Mitchell -- whose most acclaimed novel, ‘Cloud Atlas,’ was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize -- differs from the likes of Joyce and Woolf because he’s alive. He might even be said to still be in the early phase of his career: He just turned 40 this year, published four novels in the last decade, and his fifth is due out in 2010. Yet his body of work is weighty enough to merit attention from professors from across the United Kingdom, France and even UC Davis.


Like other conferences, this one will include a number of panels on the author’s work. And as they are at many other conferences, the panels are charmingly arcane. A sampling:

Intertextual Doppelganger: David Mitchell’s ‘number9dream’ and ‘Japan’

Narratology and the Mitchell Multiverse

‘Versed Enough in Antipodese Etiquette’: Speculative Fiction as Postcolonial Critique in ‘Ghostwritten’ and ‘Cloud Atlas’

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, from Postmodernity to the Posthuman

Writing Inside/Out: Genre and David Mitchell’s Paratext

Hypertext, Palimpsest, and the Virtual Text: Tracing the Digital in David Mitchell’s ‘Ghostwritten’

Reading those titles makes me both want to attend and wince with embarrassment. How fun it would be to discuss narratology and posthumanism and text and intertextuality in relation to Mitchell’s work! How silly and removed these discussions are from the job of writing and the joys of reading!

Maybe it’s better that Joyce and Woolf and other study-worthy novelists are gone. Are these really the kinds of discussions a novelist should be aware of? Ask Mitchell. The sprightly young novelist is scheduled to appear at the conference in person; he’ll read and answer questions on Friday evening.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: Random House and the University of St. Andrews