Event blog: The Shifting Shapes of Authorship: (Dis)Embodying Literary Celebrity 18 September

Sandra Mayer reports back on day one of September’s event, Embodying Literary Celebrity

Here is where you can find Alison Lutton’s report on the second day.

Dr Sandra Mayer is currently an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty and Wolfson College, where she is working on a post-doc project on the closely-aligned public personae of literary celebrity and celebrity politician in the career of Benjamin Disraeli. http://www.sandramayer.org/


Admittedly, as we set off from Oxford on a crisp September morning to make our way up north to attend the “Embodying Literary Celebrity” workshop, authors’ celebrity bodies were not much on our minds. The impending Scottish Referendum was casting its shadow on the day’s events, and as we slowly emerged from our drowsy pre-caffeine lull, we soon found ourselves engaged in lively discussions about Gordon Brown’s speech the day before. And yet, the impassioned contributions to the public debate on Scottish independence by such high-profile authors as Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling made it seem more timely than ever to take a historical look at how writers and their ‘celebrity capital’ have become embroiled in discourses of national identity and cultural memory.

Excited about exploring the architectural, literary, photographic, filmic, and digital (dis)embodiments of celebrity authors, after a three-hour train journey we were nevertheless grateful to have our own bodily needs attended to with an unexpectedly opulent VIP-style buffet lunch. Thus fortified, we were ready to embark on what Rebecca Braun aptly compared to a “Space Odyssey” of scholars across disciplinary boundaries, creative writers, and industry professionals “docking in” to share their thoughts and work on processes of writing, authorship, translation, mediation, and literary ‘branding’. By the end of the day, we would all agree with Rebecca that the theme of literary celebrity seemed ideally suited to bring together ‘friendly aliens’ from English Literature, Modern Languages, History, Linguistics and Creative Writing to jointly explore the historical roots of what has become one of the most striking features of Western media culture.

The event was then kicked off by a string of four excellent and thought-provoking research papers, so well-matched and precise in their focus that they were a delight to anyone who has ever found themselves despairing over the sprawling vastness and heterogeneity of five-parallel-panel conferences.  Tom Mole’s paper about architectural manifestations of literary fame and their political implications impressively highlighted the fact that “Britain in the nineteenth century didn’t acquire a Pantheon, but it became one.” He showed how memorials to Byron and Scott in public spaces in London and Edinburgh represented not only a ‘crossing of the bar’ from living to posthumous fame but, by elevating these authors to the status of ‘exemplary men,’ served the purpose of forging a sense of cultural cohesion in the post-Second Reform Act nation. Tom’s talk raised intriguing questions about the strategic positioning of such ‘sites of memory’ dedicated to famous authors within the urban geography and the diverse socio-political agendas they convey, obvious to anyone who has seen Maggi Hambling’s Oscar Wilde monument in London’s West End.

Moving on from architectural to forms of literary commemoration of celebrity authorship, Jessica Goodman provided some fascinating insights into posthumous representations of Rousseau and Voltaire in late eighteenth-century dialogues of the dead. As a vehicle of social and cultural consecration, the textual medium here clearly functioned as an alternative to monumental stone or bronze as it celebrated the two men as artists and revolutionaries who had made a crucial contribution to the artistic heritage of the French nation. The recent boom in historical author fictions as a flourishing biofiction subgenre highlights some obvious parallels that raise questions as to whether these two cultural moments are in any way connected. As the genre lends itself to self-projection, the authors of such contemporary fictional re-writings pursue their own ideological concerns; one of them is the critical exploration of their self-understanding as writers and the revaluation of authorship and its cultural position through engaging with the life and work of their predecessors.

Kamilla Elliott’s talk about the historical roots of “picture-identifying authorship,” the interplay of verbal and pictorial representations of authors in the nineteenth century, evoked similar parallels with the contemporary literary marketplace. In what Richard Todd calls our “‘meet-the-author’ culture,” where the author’s multi-medial visibility has become a crucial factor in the marketing and sale of his/her books, it was fascinating to find out about nineteenth-century strategies of establishing ‘literary brands’ through frontispieces, title pages, and the circulation of cartes-de-visite. The fact that the commercialisation and branding of authorship relied on a close connection between authors and their works was also revealed by a short clip from a 1922 film adaptation of Vanity Fair, which, as a frame, featured an actor’s rendition of Thackeray busily engaged in the process of writing his novel. I think we all agreed that the comical portrayal of the author as a white-whiskered jovial country squire merrily slapping his thighs with endless pleasure over the sheer ingenuity of his opening lines was simply priceless.

After undergoing a string of medial transformations, at the end of the day the body of the author was dissolved and replaced by a dense web of digitally processed data. Andrew Piper’s paper on “‘World’ ‘Authorship’: Three Computational Frameworks” offered a mind-boggling insight into the application of computational approaches to the study of literary cultures across national, geographical, linguistic, and historical contexts with particular emphasis on network theory. Digital processing techniques fed by a vast corpus of literary texts across different languages made authorial fields, influences, ‘inter-author relationships’, circulations, and literary exchange come to life in the shape of a most astonishing artwork of coloured tiles, clusters, and impenetrable webs that very much resembled the maze-like geometry of LU campus, which some of us involuntarily got to explore in their desperate quest for a post-dinner drink. Those of us for whom the Digital Humanities present an untrodden and cautiously circled territory were left in a puzzling limbo of half-formed questions but also a great curiosity about the potential benefits for scholars researching the phenomenon of literary celebrity.

The rich food for thought provided by the four papers in their treatments of different forms and media of authorial embodiment was matched by the excellent dinner during which previously half-formed questions took on a more tangible shape. In this relaxed setting new acquaintances were made, old ones renewed, and we enjoyed stimulating conversations that were highlighting one of the workshop’s unique strengths: its fascinating diversity, inclusiveness, and true claim to interdisciplinarity. Who would have thought an Austrian Anglicist holed up in Oxford’s Bodleian Library to work on Disraeli would find herself at a table of UK Germanists, discussing translations of Elfriede Jelinek’s Rechnitz into English and the ‘marketing’ of Christa Wolf in the US?





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