Art & Action Literary Authorship, Politics, and Celebrity Culture

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20-21 March 2020
The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Radcliffe Humanities, Woodstock Road, Oxford
Keynote contributions from: Benjamin Zephaniah (performance poet, activist, Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing, Brunel University London) | Antjie Krog (writer and scholar activist, TORCH International Fellow) | PEN roundtable discussion with Jennifer Clement (PEN International President), Carles Torner (PEN International Executive Director), Margie Orford (former South African PEN President), Rachel Potter (University of East Anglia), Peter McDonald (University of Oxford).


Conference fee: £30 / £10 for undergraduate and graduate students. For more details and registration, click here


Art & Action Literary Authorship, Politics, and Celebrity Culture

When she was awarded the 2018 PEN Pinter Prize, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made a forceful statement about the writer’s responsibility to step outside the artistic medium and engage in political activism: “Art can illuminate politics. Art can humanize politics. Art can shine the light towards truth. But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes politics must be engaged with as politics” (qtd in The Guardian, 9 October 2018). Writers and writers’ organisations indeed have a long history of using their public standing and cultural capital to promote causes that transcend the literary sphere, from abolition and gender equality to free expression, anti-war agitation, and environmental issues. This two-day conference explores the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity across historical periods, literatures, and media. It examines the forms and impact of authorial field migrations between literature and politics and the ways in which they are situated within, and shaped by, structural frameworks that include academic institutions, prize-giving bodies, publishing industries, and literary celebrity culture.

Authors have at all times been fiercely outspoken campaigners for a wide range of socio-political causes. At the same time, debates have long revolved around literature as a form of political intervention in its own right, thus undermining the seemingly clear-cut distinction between politics and poetics. Refugee Tales, an outreach project launched by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, is a case in point: while taking advantage of the reputational capital of high-profile literary authors such as Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, and Monica Ali in the attempt to communicate migrant experience, it demonstrates how acts of collaborative story-telling themselves can be appropriated as powerful tools of political activism. This conference hopes to foster such debates and address a wide range of questions: What are the strategies employed by writers in the construction and performance of their public personae as political office-holders, activists, and cultural critics? How do they negotiate the tension between ethics and aesthetics in their public interventions, the potential conflict between authorial and activist selves? How have writers’ literary/political border-crossings been perceived by their audiences and to what extent have they affected their (posthumous) reputations? What are the risks faced by the politically engaged and outspoken writer?

Interrogating the ideological dimension of literary celebrity and highlighting the fault-lines between public and private authorial selves, ‘pure’ art, political commitment, and marketplace imperatives, this conference joins current debates on authorship and literary value. It brings together writers, academics, literary activists, and industry stakeholders to explore the wider implications of authors’ political responsibilities and cultural authority in today’s heavily commodified literary marketplace and age of celebrity activism.


This conference is convened by Sandra Mayer (University of Vienna / Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, sandra.mayer@wolfson.ox.ac.uk) and Ruth Scobie (Mansfield College, Oxford, ruth.scobie@ell.ox.ac.uk)

 

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