Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue

Abounding with buzzwords such as ‘myth’, ‘image’, ‘authenticity’, ‘public and private persona’, ‘iconicity’ and ‘cultural memory’, the links between celebrity and life-writing seem self-evident. There are, for one, the ambivalent motives underlying our fascination with both biography and celebrity, ranging from a desire for emulation and hero-worship to a hunger for gossip, revelation and social levelling through a vengeful ‘dethroning’ of celebrities. We are drawn towards the extraordinariness of exemplary lives and tempted into semi-religious veneration of their ‘relics’, while, at the same time, the appeal of individual life narratives is rooted in their ‘ordinariness’. Their promise is the democratic attainability of fame: that, with a bit of luck and a good marketing strategy, we can all become at least ‘micro celebrities’ as the stars of our own YouTube channel.

Both life-writing and celebrity – as practices, phenomena and fields of research – are concerned with the notions of authenticity and intimacy, public and private, accessibility and aloofness, myth-making and revelation. Both explore the tension between individual agency and the shaping and appropriation of public images by cultural and socio-political frameworks, media industries, ideologies and a whole network of agents. Life-writing is a multi-media genre, and it is one that both creates, and is fuelled by, celebrity, which emerges from the visibility and circulation of public images through a broad variety of media, from portraits to biopics and social media. A biographical subject’s celebrity status often determines whether their lives get written or not; it often obscures and obstructs our vision, necessitating a critical look at the workings of the ‘celebrity apparatus’ itself.

In spite of their many shared concerns, the close interconnections of life-writing and celebrity have only recently begun to be specifically addressed. The one-day colloquium Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue at The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on 19 November takes up a conversation begun last year at the TORCH/OCLW co-funded conference After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity, organised by Nanette O’Brien and Oline Eaton. It aims to contribute towards a more sustained dialogue between these two closely interwoven fields and to trigger a conversation about what we as scholars and ‘practitioners’ may gain from combining their theories and methodologies. How can we benefit from integrating a life-writing perspective into our work on celebrity, and how does thinking about the nature of celebrity, the conditions of producing and consuming celebrity, change the way in which we write, read and study life narratives?

The mix of formats though which this conversation unfolds – research papers, a roundtable discussion, a ‘performance’ and Q&A – reflects the diversity of thematic and disciplinary approaches to celebrity and life-writing in dialogue. Research papers by Emma Smith, Tobias Heinrich, Julia Lajta-Novak, and Ginette Vincendeau offer specific case studies of the intersections of life-writing and celebrity in different cultural and historical contexts. They focus on biographical subjects as diverse as celebrity actresses and celebrity books and cover a broad spectrum of themes, including the (after)lives of iconic objects and the ways in which they inform discourses of cultural memory and value; or the relationship between life-writing, celebrity, and concepts of gender, class, and genre.

A round table discussion featuring biographers and scholars Hermione Lee, Philip Bullock, and Ruth Scobie, and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero will address the challenges and opportunities of representing lives of different types and degrees of celebrity and fame (e.g. musicians, writers, politicians, explorers) through different media. Another aspect that links life-writing and Celebrity Studies is that the work undertaken in their respective disciplinary frameworks is often intensely personal, and scholars have not shied away from drawing on their own experience as fans. In a Q&A with author, academic and filmmaker Will Brooker, whose documentary Being Bowie captures the immersive research process behind his forthcoming book on David Bowie, we will have a chance to dwell on the question how this personal level of affective involvement can be turned into a form of auto/biographical experimentation.

The first in a new series of OCLW events dedicated to exploring the intersections of life-writing and celebrity, the colloquium will spark debates on how different degrees of fame, celebrity, and public (non-)visibility affect the representation of lives; on the challenges and the ethical questions that arise in the context of working on famous lives; and on the relationship between life-writing, celebrity and questions of selfhood and identity.

Sandra Mayer is a Lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Vienna and an OCLW Visiting Scholar. She is currently working on a project that explores the intersections of literary celebrity and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.

Photo by Anthony Delanoix (CC0 1.0)

This event is open to all, to register click here.

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Unsteady: reconstructing the life and work of Leila Ann Soltau

Memory, as they say, is a funny thing. The last time I saw Leila, I cannot remember in any detail what we talked about, or what we watched on television after she returned, exhausted, from the chemo. I do remember the day she enjoyed me showing off her wigs though, and then I made her a steak salad with strawberry coulis for lunch. What really sticks in my mind was the shape on the ATM keypad she drew out for me, so I wouldn’t forget her pin number when I went shopping (she had insisted on paying for dinner, but was too weak to make it to the shops). 1431 marks out a right-angled triangle that hugs the top left hand corner of the keypad and stretchers along the top edge. Like a cobweb, she said.

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As we gathered her poems and papers together to publish a collection, Joe, her boyfriend; Humphrey, a local poet; and I were faced with a series of uncomfortable choices: in the absence of the author, how were we to proceed? We could not suggest revisions to texts, or additional pieces that might develop successful themes; nor could we nail down meanings, dates, or place for every piece. It must be a basic polychotomy of life-writing between those with no chance of a personal connection to a subject lost in time; those writing about a living, talking and question-able person; and those who had known their subject, who had seen how they talked and moved, how they listened, how they pondered. Our project belonged to the latter category, complicated further by its reliance on an unorganised cache of Microsoft Word files and handwritten notebooks. In addition, it was horrifically painful.

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As such, we approached the work both with our memories of Leila as the person(s) we knew, and the truth of her absence. Our best and most respectful way in, we felt, was to be as professional and dispassionate as possible, a position we could only hope to aim for. We were alone amongst these tens of thousands of words and hundreds of images, but always accompanied by a loose phantasm of recalled moments. Whilst she had shared poems and prose with Humphrey and I for several years, immersing ourselves in the editing let us discover a private Leila: the artist at work. Leila was a drafter, we discovered, editing again and again, renaming, restructuring, returning to motifs, refining them down. She planned her work from the outset, the idea skeletally sketched out, then fleshed out with each subsequent draft. It was apparent how her artistic focus changed as she travelled, grew into full womanhood, and as she grew ill. It was also possible to see her reconsider and evolve in her conceptions as she returned again and again to the themes that so dominated her art. We were thus faced with an act of recreation, of resurrection, and bringing something entirely new, dynamic, and synthetic into being.

Her prose combined elements clearly biographical but distorted through a lens of folk stories and imagined futures, both declarative and reflective, with a keen eye for human foibles and facades:

I bought a pair of boys’ jeans which I rarely take off, and find myself craving a moustache

Rebecca opened the bedroom door with a slice of bright yellow and looked disapprovingly into the shadowed room before lighting her way through the corridor to the bathroom. Deftly flicking switches as she went

”Miss…” he uttered. He had meant the words to be strong and reassuring but they cracked and disappeared in the dark. He reached out his dry hand and took her right arm in his grip, she was as cold as the sea. Then her eyes opened in panic and she thrashed violently

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The prose was light on dialogue; she used instead monologue and the inner voice. The characters are, in the main, observers, at one remove; placed there by either circumstance or their predilections. Leila writes them as an observer too, distancing them from herself and from the reader, as they are from their fictive habitats, yet still brings forth their essence. Her creations breathe and sweat, her allegories lust and fidget.

Her images repeat other, more self-referential themes, almost to the point of iconography. Ideas and pressures of womanhood, family, sex and sexuality, weakness, and the peace of the banal are all essentialised and distilled. Figures either emaciated to the width of a single pen line, or reduced to abstract shapes. These are, by design I believe, both open and closed to interpretation, a scaffold and a safe. An ongoing conflict (or synthesis?) exists in her visual art between simplicity and complexity, solidity and willowy sparseness, the plain and the mosaiced, the ephemera and the all too fleshy, untitled or adorned with cryptic notes.

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Using an array of voices, Leila used her poetry as a far more personal mode of expression. Form was an intrinsic part of function for her as she whizzed from one tradition to another:

The poppy set slumber
For Dorothy in her blunder.
Sleep in an apple core
And let me rise in spring
In that same young tree’s blossoming.

She is older.
I’d give her three or four years on me at most
But she is such an innocent.
The pain of living has not set in yet, But I’ll bet that it does
And that’s where we differ

Your silk and leather,
my pauper’s wool
wet with weather.
My poxed fingers
and yellow thumbs
will sleep with Him
when all is done
and I will miss
your hissing tongue.

 When I first was able to rouse myself to actually seriously read though the collection, rather than staring at words made meaningless by fresh grief and tears, I stumbled upon one piece of prose where Leila had quoted me. I do remember saying it and her nodding, more in conversational politeness than hearty agreement it seemed to me. The quote is unimportant, but the fact she had taken it up as a part of her art is not… The piece was saved under the name “Dialogue”. And imperfectly, made clumsy by our limited understanding and craft, this is what this book hopefully provides: continued dialogue with Leila, with her thoughts and her creative spirit, with how we remember her and how she remembered the world.

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Leila Ann Soltau died of cancer, just shy of 31, on 26th September 2012.

Unsteady, a collection of her art, prose, and poems is available.  All proceeds go to costs and two local Oxford charities; Helen and Douglas House where she spent her last days and the Young Women’s Music Project.

On the 6th November, from 7:00 at Fusion Arts (by the East Oxford Community centre on Cowley road) Unsteady will be launched. Books will be on sale, there will be readings from the collection and reminiscences of Leila’s life as well as examples of her work. Please join us. Stuart Bryant.