Blog. Our ECR bursary holders report on the last event: Critical Performances of the Authorial Role, 27-28 November 2014

Contemporary Critical Performances of the Authorial Role, 27-28 November 2014


Marie Thouaille and Sophie Corser report back on the first day of November’s event, Contemporary Critical Performances of the Authorial Role


Following a deliciously catered lunch in Lancaster University’s private dining rooms, Rebecca Braun kickstarted Thursday’s proceedings with an energetic introduction to the Authors and the World Research Hub in general, and the literary celebrity cycle in particular. Outlining both the ‘fat cats’ and the ‘lean gorillas’ of the literary world, and exploring the origins of ‘celebrity’ as an attribute rather than an individual, Rebecca insightfully problematised the focus on the individual performative literary subject vs the literary corpus.

Next, Timothy Brennan gave the first paper of the day. In ‘A Confusion of Categories: Literary Authority in an Age of the General Author,’ Tim thought-provokingly interrogated the contradictory forces at work in our understanding of, and confusion over, authorship and authority, tellingly revealing the devaluation of authorship in the digital age and our simultaneous fetishisation of the author as an authoritative individual. With the advent of blogging, Tim argued that ‘everyone is an author,’ and the ‘entire world… is already a philosopher,’ such that, finally, ‘with so much talking, there is less listening.’ Perhaps more controversially, Tim asked whether digital humanities was really a ‘revolt of the disenfranchised’ which ironically fails to challenge the neoliberal frame. In an era increasingly characterised by the undermining of all critique, an ‘evacuation of position-taking,’ the reverence of productivity, and the ‘scientisation’ of the Humanities, might revolution lie, instead, in the preservation of the printed book and its author?

Following an insightful Q&A, Diana Holmes was next welcomed to the stage for her paper entitled ‘Performing the Middlebrow – Women Writers and Literary Stardom in Contemporary France.’ Citing women authors’ traditional associations with ‘trivial matters,’ their predominantly female readership, and problematic connotations of ‘escapist’ and ‘immersive’ writing, Diana explored the complexity and contestedness of the ‘middlebrow’ in France. Usefully comparing the authorial performances of contemporary best-selling novelists Anna Gavalda and Amélie Nothomb, she revealed the ways in which both authors seek to negotiate these tensions via their public personas and interactions with their readers. While Gavalda comes across as ‘natural’ and ‘sympathetic,’ Nothomb opts for a highly stylised and theatrical public performance which, deployed as a ‘protective shell’ empowers her to proceed on her own terms. Crucially, Diana argued, it is Gavalda and Nothomb’s respective success which prevents them from being validated as authentic artists in a country in which ‘massive sales are difficult if you want to be taken seriously,’ thus maintaining the hegemony of what has become a male aesthetic.

Presented as a conversation via Skype, the unusual form of Cornelia Gräbner and Alejandro Reyes’ session ‘Crossing Paths at the Crossroads: Authorship, Critique, and Commonalities’ made explicit one of its key components: an author’s view of their own role as ‘author’. Placing their discussion at the points where authorship and criticism meet, Cornelia and Alejandro analysed Alejandro’s 2013 novel La reina del cine Roma (The Queen of Cinema Rome) within the context of committed methodologies and critiques. La reina del cine Roma is written in the vernacular Brazilian Portugese spoken by its characters, Brazilian street children in San Salvador Bahía; encountered via a transgender narrator who challenges the reader in repeated combative direct addresses. Cornelia and Alejandro explored the concerns of the novel and of the act of writing it: the implicit violence in acts of narrative appropriation, of telling the stories of others. During the group discussions which followed the presentation Alejandro’s strategy of narration, an attempt to tell another’s important story while acknowledging the problematic nature of such writing, was in turn considered as problematic in its use of a transgender voice as a narrative device. Raising questions of authorial ethics at the intersections of cultures, identities, and texts, and providing an example of literature informed by Chela Sandoval’s methodology of the oppressed and its advocacy of love as a critical analytic category, Cornelia and Alejandro prompted a crucial consideration of the responsibilities and implications of the acts of writing and reading. These considerations manifested variously and productively throughout the rest of the two day event.

Gary Hall, a pioneer of open access academic publishing, rounded off an excellent session of talks by exploring practicalities of contemporary digital authorship within a theoretical context in a presentation entitled ‘Authors in a Post-Crash World’. He began by considering recent calls made by Manchester University’s ‘Post-Crash Economics Society’ for a rethinking of how economics is taught at universities. Post-crash economics argues that economic syllabuses should be radically different in light of recent and current economic crises – Gary suggested that the same is perhaps true for literary theory. Taking in issues of social class in the arts, the neoliberalism of higher education and possibilities of post-liberalism, theoretical concepts of the posthuman, the role of digital humanities, and the complexities of open access licenses, Gary adeptly placed theoretical quandaries of authorship within practical contexts, and vice versa. In a presentation which returned our focus once more to academic authors, Gary argued for critical and theoretical concerns to be brought to bear upon our modes of communication through a pointedly different approach to publishing.

After a thorough, lively, productive debate and a lovely, much-needed dinner we returned to the topic of new publishing methods in relation to authorship, as Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst introduced us to their collaboratively written interactive novel for Kindle – part of the output of the Curious Tales collective. Almost echoing the exhortations of Gary’s presentation, the literary (rather than critical) concerns of Jenn and Richard’s work spill over into the shifting mode of communication their interactive novel entails. A modern gothic story with an unfixed form, Bus Station: Unbound requires a reader to continuously make choices which result in a varyingly different text – ‘a “choose your own adventure” for grown-ups’. As a group we read, insistent upon our decisions to get the protagonist out of Preston bus station and into a pub, all authors and readers together as we pondered the reasons behind our selections. The level to which the group had become engaged in such a short time was apparent in our noises of protest when our roles as reading guinea pigs ended: we wanted more of this eerie gothic tale, more of an uncanny which crept out of the content of the story and into its creation before us. The act of writing implicit in all acts of reading became, in Jenn and Richard’s project, sinister and wonderful. Thankful that we could reach our on-campus beds without a real-life navigation of Preston bus station, we said good night, eager to continue the next day discussions of how the interactions of form and content in both literary and critical texts affect our conceptions of authorial roles.


Samuel O’Donoghue reports back on the second day of November’s event, Contemporary Critical Performances of the Authorial Role


Our second day at the Authors and the World Research Hub began after breakfast with a workshop run by Tim Brennan. There were some new faces that had materialized since the proceedings of the previous day, but the atmosphere was familiar and relaxed. We decided to push the tables together and the congregation soon acquired the intimacy of an undergraduate seminar.

We had gathered to discuss the idea of a peripheral aesthetics, a concept Tim characterized as a hypothetical set of common features shared by literary works written in former colonies. There was preparatory reading for the session: an article by Roberto Schwarz entitled ‘Competing readings in world literature’ and another by Tim, ‘The case against irony’. There was, moreover, a novel that the participants in the workshop were expected to have read: Max Havelaar; or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company. The novel is an indictment of the injustices inflicted on the native peoples of Java by the Dutch colonial administration written by a former member of the East Indian Civil Service, Eduard Douwes Dekker, under the pseudonym Multatuli, and published in Holland in 1860. These three texts were to provide our point of departure for an examination of what Tim described as the decline of post-colonial studies and their transformation into world literature. In the context of this significant disciplinary shift presaged by Tim, we were to interrogate the existence of a peripheral aesthetics and modernism by questioning whether there are practices, styles and tones that are common to both the West and the ex-colonies.

The article by Schwarz provided a starting point for our discussion. Schwarz explores the reception of the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis (1839-1908) by critics in Brazil and in the West. He elucidates the tensions between, on the one hand, readings of Machado rooted in the historical specificities of the Brazilian context and, on the other, readings of the writer by Western critics who seek to consecrate Machado’s works in the global canon of world literature and who, in the midst of their enterprise of canon formation, often overlook the national experience of the periphery. Our consideration of Schwarz’s ideas led to a debate among the participants regarding what exactly we mean by the term ‘modernist’ as it is applied to literature. What began superficially as a disagreement merely over terminology led to a profound divergence of opinions over the kinds of textual features that might be labelled ‘modernist’. For a time our discussion stalled; the group was becoming increasingly fixated on definitions of literary modernism, definitions that were felt to be at the crux of our discussion of peripheral aesthetics and without clarity on the subject of which it was felt we could not progress.

Tim’s dissection of irony in his article tracing its historical roots in Plato and its development in the philosophical works of Hegel and Kierkegaard appeared to provide a way out of the aporetic impasse. Tim argues that irony, despite having colonized literature, is inessential to it, and he examines the implications of his reading of irony for our understanding of forms of peripheral modernism. As the participants considered extracts of poetry quoted by Tim in his work, such as Pablo Neruda’s ‘The Beggars’, Mourid Barghouti’s ‘Midnight’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘A High-Tone Old Christian Woman’, we were able to move away from theoretical discussions regarding how to characterize modernism. As we began to analyse specific literary works, the tone of the workshop changed: divisiveness was quelled, or at least passed over in a tactical and conciliatory silence, and a spirit of collaborative investigation appeared to take hold as we turned to Max Havelaar, the primary focus of Tim’s workshop.

The greater part of the morning was devoted to the Multatuli text and hinged on the question of whether the authorial figure appeared to dislike having to deliver his denunciation of the abuses of colonialism in the form of a novel. Tim contended that Max Havelaar was a work of art that was inherently uncomfortable with its status as art. He based this assertion on an examination of the paratextual material provided by Multatuli, for example the footnotes in which the authorial persona appears to align himself with the negative view of literature voiced by his character Droogstoppel. Yet other participants in the workshop disagreed. They found in Max Havelaar not a denigration of literature and an uneasiness with the use of a literary form to deliver a political message, but rather a celebration of literature. The novel, some of the participants sustained, was a work that promoted the concept of a literary truth as the only means of conveying the horrors endured by the Javanese under the Dutch colonial system. By the end of the workshop we had reached the agreement that both readings of the novel were permissible and, indeed, that the enduring power of Multatuli’s text resided in this apparent ambiguity: the authorial persona’s professed dislike of literature and his evident enjoyment of the ludic possibilities of the novel form.

The three-hour workshop was followed by a well-earned lunch provided for delegates, in the course of which discussions held during Tim’s workshop spilled over into the dining area. We reconvened after an hour to discuss academic co-authorship in literary studies, a fitting topic to follow on from our exploration of Max Havelaar, given that the Multatuli text poses as the product of a collaborative effort by a number of fictional co-authors. The discussion on academic co-authorship began with a series of presentations by Gary Hall, Nicholas Lawrence, and Andy Darby. Gary, Nicholas, and Andy each provided a case-study, through which they gave us an insight into their own experience of co-authorship, its opportunities and challenges.

Gary spoke about his work as a director of the Open Humanities Press, an open access publishing collective that seeks to make works of critical scholarship available worldwide. Gary also gave an outline of the digital humanities, including the different information technology programmes and publishing outlets available for the production and dissemination of works of collaborative scholarship.  Nick gave a presentation on his work on world literature as part of the Warwick Research Collective. He explained his methodological approach to co-authorship that had emerged through his work in the research collective, describing the co-authorship process as one that progresses through regular meetings to stake out common ground and resolve differences of opinion, together with successive iterations and peer-commentary on drafted work. Finally, Andy talked about his work as an artistic director at Lancaster’s literary festival, Litfest. He described a series of projects in which he worked collaboratively with authors to put on events and discussed the tensions and difficulties that emerged in the course of these projects and how they were overcome.

After we had heard from Gary, Nick and Andy, and after we had enjoyed a short break to refuel on coffee and cake, it was time to consider the future of the Authors and the World Research Hub in the light of what we had learned about co-authorship. What form would future research projects take? How could the participants in the hub work together in order to produce research? From practical concerns about which technology platform to use to complete the research, to the more pressing question of what exactly we would write about, the possibilities of where we could go from here seemed daunting and enticing by turns. As our numbers began to dwindle and numerous participants decided that with dusk fast approaching it was time to make the long journey home, we had much to think about: the richness of two days of diverse and compelling discussions on the authorial role were beginning to take their toll. The question of the future of co-authorship and our role in it would have to be postponed, at least until after the weekend.


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