Podcasts from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing!

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing has a treat for you to enjoy, just in time for the weekend: podcasts of our events!

 Please visit www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/podcasts for a wonderful sound archive of many of our lectures, seminars and conferences since our foundation in October 2011. Among the audio gems in this archive, are:
  • Keynote speeches by Edmund De Waal and Neil MacGregor at the Lives of Objects Conference in September 2013
  • The complete run of Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing, featuring Alan Hollinghurst and Stella Tillyard among many others
  • Lectures by Kathryn Hughes, Adam Phillips, Michael Woods, Michael Burden and Hugh Haughton
  • 14 papers from the Lives of Objects Conference, on subjects as diverse as ‘Gnomes Behaving Badly’ and Benjamin Disraeli’s locks of hair
Don’t forget to bookmark/favourite this page: in the next few weeks I’ll be uploading podcasts of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing 2014 (featuring Blake Morrison, Edward St Aubyn, Richard Holmes and Marina Warner), as well as lectures by David Amigoni (Keele) on Victorian life-writing and Tom Couser (Hofstra) on ‘The Work of Memoir’.
All these podcasts will also shortly be made available on the blog too.
Enjoy!
Rachel Hewitt (OCLW’s Research Fellow)
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Work in Progress Seminar 19th February 2014

Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.

On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford.  Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face.  The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.

First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.  She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means.  Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did.  She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.

Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams.  Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time.  An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view.  He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart.  One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors.  The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.

Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford.  She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony.  This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it.  She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist.  In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.

Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects.  Her work  focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world.  Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things.  This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us.  To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.

Call for applications: Two Life Writing postdoc positions at King’s College London

King’s College London is advertising two postdoctoral positions (of 3 years and 5 years) to work on a new collaborative research project in Life Writing and digital media funded by the European Research Council. It is called ‘Ego-media: The impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation’, and is being led by Professor Max Saunders, the Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute. He will be joined by his Co-Director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research, Professor Clare Brant, and two other King’s academics: Alexandra Georgakopoulou, Professor of Discourse Analysis & Sociolinguistics om the Centre for Language, Discourse & Communication, and Professor Leone Ridsdale, from the Institute of Psychiatry. The project’s steering group also includes colleagues from Culture Media and Creative Industries, Digital Humanities, French, Medical Humanities, Medical Sociology, War Studies, and Education.

It aims to study the impact of new media on autobiographical narratives: an impact increasing as habits and practices of self-presentation evolve rapidly in response to constantly fast-changing technology. It will consider the implications of these new forms and practices for such notions as autobiography, selfhood, subjectivity, individuality, self-intelligibility, agency, creativity, privacy, and sociability.

The closing date for applications is the 11th March. For further details of how to apply please see:
http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/pertra/vacancy/external/pers_detail.php?jobindex=14266

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/pertra/vacancy/external/pers_detail.php?jobindex=14262

Please note that these links will open with both Safari and Mozilla Firefox. If you have trouble accessing them through the closing date of 11th March, please try opening them with another web browser.

 

Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing: Edward St Aubyn in Conversation with Hermione Lee

Matthew Sellers here for the OCLW publicity team.  Last Thursday, 13 February, I had the pleasure of listening to novelist Edward St Aubyn discuss his writing process with Hermione Lee as part of the Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing.  Edward St Aubyn is the author of seven novels, five of which were collected in 2012 as The Patrick Melrose Novels.  This year’s theme, ‘Voicing the Self’, is especially apt for a writer as adept as St Aubyn at revealing his characters’ inner lives. 

With his witty, stylish prose, St Aubyn accesses fully realized characters and a range of human experience, from the hilarious to the truly tragic.  His novels, at turns sharp, humorous, and poignant, satirize the English upper class with pointed sophistication.  Yet in The Patrick Melrose Novels St Aubyn grapples with traumatic events of his own life, and his works never lose their awareness of this deep pathos.  Brutally honest in his prose, St Aubyn was equally forthcoming with the large audience gathered to see him on subjects from the inexpressible to the experience of making personal trauma public in autobiographical fiction.

Lee opened the talk with a question about the plan of The Melrose Novels, which St Aubyn confessed he initially intended as a trilogy before he reconceived the series to include two additional novels, including the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Mother’s Milk.  The five novels follow a protagonist, Patrick Melrose, who endures a traumatic childhood and copes in adulthood with a combination of booze and drugs.

Though all five novels center on Patrick, Lee noted that they are all written in third person.  St Aubyn replied that he felt “attracted to the freedom” of third person, that third person helped avoid confession and establish distance.  Establishing a core dramatic truth was more important to his autobiographical project than a faithful representation of the facts.  With that, St Aubyn set the scene for a rich discussion of his authorial relationship with his fictive protagonist, the function of his pithy style and cutting irony, and influences on his writing.

St Aubyn was frank about the difficulty of writing his first novel, Never Mind, which features a graphic rape scene; he recounted how he wrote longhand before handing the leaves off to be typed, how the sound of typing took on a reassuring constancy that enabled St Aubyn to continue.  Crucial to his writing experience, and indeed to the novels’ handling of trauma, are the moments when language runs up against the inexpressible.  Lee noted that Patrick Melrose is a vocal, witty protagonist, but he often longs for silence, and St Aubyn noted that Patrick’s efforts to articulate cause confusion.  Indeed, his drive drive as a novelist often seems an effort to evoke an unsayable moment of experience.

The redeeming qualities of silence may seem odd given St Aubyn’s elegant style—he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde.  Lee gave an exemplar of his epigrammatic wit from At Last: ‘As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions’.  St Aubyn replied that the compression of epigram, of wit, provides a strong structure for the inner drama of the novels, a horrifying contrast of perfect control, balance, and brevity against uncontrolled violence and uncontrollable inner emotion.  And it is in that balance of polished irony and violence that St Aubyn’s novels voice a self at once dazzlingly witty and painfully troubled.

Blake Morrison launches The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Voicing the Self’

Blake Morrison, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’

Hi there, Nanette here for OCLW publicity, and I’ll be summarizing for you the first of the OCLW Weinrebe Lectures, given by Blake Morrison on Tuesday 4th February in the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Blake Morrison began his lecture last Tuesday by revealing that his lecture title, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’, was the original title for his 1997 book about the James Bulger murder case.  The story of the two ten-year-old boys who tortured and murdered the two-year-old James Bulger is examined in conjunction with Morrison’s own life, and in the end he titled his book, As If. Asking us to think about private and public deaths and the bad things we do in our own childhoods, Morrison explained As If was an attempt to ‘reclaim’ for humanity the children who do bad things.

Morrison went on to explore things that bother us about memoir as a genre. Confessional memoir, and talking about yourself have something ‘indecent’ about them, he said. The intimacy and painful truths of the form lead us to think about mortality: life-writing often turns into death writing.

The connection between this opening and the remainder of Morrison’s lecture was the theme of ‘motive’: we question the motives of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger; perhaps they are impossible to know or understand because children do not have a fully developed moral sense. The motives for confession and memoir are manifold, and can be difficult to discern because a certain amount of strategy and calculation are required to structure a narrative. Morrison described the following as some of the motives for confessional literature:

  • Shock value / sensationalism: attempts to redefine what is shocking by exposing lies and secrets
  • Performance / showmanship: writers who bear witness versus confessional writers who dare readers to judge them, and self-dramatization or the pleasure of constructing the narrator’s persona
  • To set the record straight: incorporating elements of ‘objectivity’ and journalistic witness, but intimacy sets this writing apart from reportage
  • Catharsis / cleansing: writing as therapy and memoir as a form for airing grievances and for grieving

Blake Morrison concluded his lecture by reading Sharon Olds’ “First”, a poem from her 2010 collection, The Wellspring, that describes a scene of sexual abuse to the young speaker. Morrison explained that the poem employs the confessional mode to transform a memory of abuse into one of empowerment, and this transformational element is one of the most liberating motives of confession.

Questions afterwards ranged from ‘how do we know a confession is true’ to ‘does confessional literature say anything about its audience?’ In addition, a reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as being ‘recollected in tranquillity’ spurred the question of ‘whether there is something to be said for what’s recorded in the heat of the moment and will be shaped later as memoir?’ Final questions considered the stigma in academic writing of using the first person ‘I’, and the importance of understanding any writer’s subjectivity.

OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters

Hello life-writers! My name is Matthew Sellers, and I’m one-third of the new OCLW publicity team.  Over the course of the term, Nanette O’Brien, Lucinda Fenny, and I will be blogging about the events OCLW hosts.  To kick off, here’s a summary of our first event, the OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters, convened by Professor Pamela Clemit on Tuesday, 28 January 2014.  The speakers included Professor John Barnard, Professor Pamela Clemit, Grace Egan, Daniel Hitchens, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, Dr Mark Pottle, Dr Henriette van der Blom, and Maria Rita Drumond Viana.

The first half of the session focused on eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century letter-writers who, while adhering to epistolary etiquette, wrote letters as a form of self-representation and reciprocal social exchange with their contemporaries.  The second half of the workshop gave speakers working in different eras and in different disciplines the opportunity to note continuities and changes in conceptions of letter-writing across periods, social milieus, and material forms.

The workshop concluded with a wide-ranging discussion of the issues raised by the panelists, from which emerged some common themes.  Across all disciplines and periods, for example, the speakers and workshop participants foregrounded the notion of self-representation in letters.  This shared concern sparked lively discussions, from how to read letters (whether as individual, standalone texts or as “narratives” revealed in long correspondences) to censorship/self-censorship and the importance of social and political context.

In the first half, Daniel Hitchens and Grace Egan both drew on examples from the eighteenth century to show how letter-writing form and convention suggest that letters constitute a unique genre, influenced by factors such as epistolary etiquette, social protocol, and personal relationships.  They stressed the particularity of the letter, intended for a specific addressee and discussing shared interests or experiences, or even asking for particular advice.  Professor Clemit’s presentation further explored the social bonds engendered by letter-writing.  Her paper posited a notion of reciprocity, arguing that letters construct and sustain social networks and intimate personal bonds.  Professor Barnard concluded the session with an insightful discussion of how John Keats crafted his letters to represent himself to his contemporaries.

Dr Henriette van der Blom began the second half by contrasting Cicero’s and Pliny’s letters with the eighteenth-century examples, noting that letters in the ancient world were frequently made public and often deployed the art of rhetoric to persuade readers.  Priyasha Mukhopadhyay presented on the material life of the letter, arguing that features like handwriting versus type-writing can say as much about social relationships and new technologies can say as much as form or content.  Maria Rita Drumond Viana shared her thesis research on W.B. Yeats.  Demonstrating continuity between self-presentation in eighteenth-century and modernist letter-writing, she called letters a “laboratory of the self.”  Finally, Dr. Mark Pottle came at letters from a historical perspective, raising the point that letters can serve as historical evidence as well as objects of textual or material analysis.