Reviews 2014

Melvin Burgess: A Collection of All New Critical Essays by Contemporary Scholars

Melvin Burgess: A Collection of All New Critical Essays by Contemporary Scholars. Ed. Alison Waller. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 215 pages. £14.99 (paperback).

This collection of essays on the works of Melvin Burgess provides a reasoned perspective on the overarching ideas that pervade his work. Acknowledging that Burgess’s contribution to young adult writing is controversial, this collection of essays also encourages a wide-ranging consideration of his overall career, his contributions to areas of academic discourse such as gender studies and ecocriticism, and his impact upon style and form in young adult writing. The collection is divided into four thematically intuitive parts: part one addressing controversy and the cultural context, part two dealing with form, style and genre, part three covering human and animal identities, and the final part comprising of an interview between editor Alison Waller and Burgess. The overall picture that emerges is that Burgess’s work examines the liminality of cultural, social and environmental practice and the collection throws new perspectives on his works.

Chris Richards’s opening essay frames the debates around Burgess’s work. Positioning these within the context of Rose’s seminal "impossibility of children’s literature" discussion, the chapter provides a frame of reference for the rest of the collection. Opening with consideration of Doing It (2003) and Anne Fine’s 2003 Guardian review, Richards presents a critique of the extent to which Burgess’s own identification of himself as a "writer for children and teenagers" (24) holds up under close examination of the focalizing elements of the novel. Michele Gill picks up on these notions, particularly those surrounding the capacity of Burgess’s characters to be read in a more nuanced fashion than much of the debate about them allows. Her essay brings into question the ambiguities surrounding the construction of gender roles in both male and female characters. Gill teases apart the representation of masculinity in Doing It and Kill All Enemies (2011), positioning both novels within the continuum of debates surrounding notions of sexual identity in young adult fiction. In chapter three, Joel Gwynne examines the broader positioning of YA fiction within the development of postfeminist discourse before turning his attention to questions of empowerment in the construction of Burgess’s female characters. He positions his examination of Burgess’s works in the context of the degree to which they reflect contemporary concerns and address the liminal positioning of female characters in relation to the dominant discursive paradigms surrounding sex and sexuality.

Part two shifts from questions of cultural context to those of form, style and genre. Kay Sambell firstly outlines the intertextual context within which Sara’s Face (2006) is situated and extends the metaphorical idea of the novel as "game" to consider the degree to which Burgess plays with notions of structure and voice. She concludes with a fascinating examination of the metafictive nexus between the structural devices in Sara’s Face and the way in which Burgess has constructed his own public identity within the "game" of new journalism. Following this, Robyn McCallum and John Stephens examine the two-part Volson Saga with specific attention to the interrelationship between the narrative strategies employed by Burgess and the evocation of a position of ethical subjectivity in the reader. Their analysis of both Bloodtide (1999) and Blood Song (2005) is particularly interesting when read in conjunction with the ideas presented in the previous essay. Mel Gibson concludes this section by positioning Burgess’s picture book The Birdman (2000) within the continuum of post-modern picture books, drawing intertextual links between works by writers like Jon Scieszka. Gibson explores the extent to which The Birdman speaks to Burgess’s novel Lady: My Life As a Bitch (2001) in its treatment of its protagonist.

Part three of the collection, which examines human and animal identities, opens with Peter Hollindale’s convincing argument that there is an under-regarded thematic sequence to Burgess’s four novels featuring animal protagonists. He suggests that this idea can comfortably serve as a vehicle for a broader consideration of Burgess’s approach to conservationism. Hollindale’s examination of the degree to which Burgess’s animal writings subvert and challenge ideas of human exceptionalism, and his approach to traditional anthropocentric treatments of animals as characters are equally convincing. In the following chapter, Pat Pinsent explores Burgess’s earlier works with a view to both drawing out thematic links between them and illustrating their complexity. The first half of the chapter, which considers the parallels between the relationships in An Angel for May (1992) and The Ghost Behind the Wall (2000), is especially engaging. The chapter then examines Loving April (1995), before drawing out common threads of symbolism and isolation between all three works. Finally, Karen Williams’s contribution brings into play some of the ideas of ecocriticism that have been lurking in the background of many of the preceding essays. This chapter examines two of Burgess more speculative works not just through an ecocritical lens, but also by considering them against the development of ecocriticism as an academic discipline. She considers the degree to which Burgess, in his willingness to question and unravel the binary discourses often imposed upon ecocritical discussions, both anticipated and addressed many of the contemporary discussions currently underway in this field. It is an engaging discussion in its own right but also serves the function of effectively bringing together the multiple strands of this collection. The ongoing influence of Burgess upon broader cultural and academic discourse is evident in the common threads that have emerged through the collection to this point: Burgess as the unraveller of binaries, Burgess as the challenger of stylistic conventions, Burgess as the examiner of social privilege, and Burgess as the interrogator of power. The final section, an interview between Waller and Burgess, is engaging as a contribution to Burgess’s public examination of his practice.

Melvin Burgess: A Collection of All New Critical Essays by Contemporary Scholars presents a cohesive view of Burgess’s career and makes an important contribution by putting aside the tabloid responses to his writings, and instead considering them through the lens of careful academic discourse.

Anthony Eaton
The University of Canberra, Australia

Works Cited

Fine, Anne. "Filth, which ever way you look at it." The Guardian. 29 Mar. 2003. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Richards, Chris. "One of the Boys? Writing Sex for Teenagers in Doing It." Melvin Burgess: A Collection of All New Critical Essays by Contemporary Scholars. Ed. Alice Waller. London: Palgrave McMillan, 2013. 23-40.