Literary Biography – Plenary Panel presented by English: The Journal of the English Association

Speakers: Kathryn Hughes, Andrew Hadfield, Martin Stannard

Chair: Katherine Baxter

Kathryn Hughes – The greatly exaggerated death of Literary Biography

In the middle of the last decade commentators in the literary press, including Kathryn Hughes, began to argue that readers had fallen out of love with Literary Biography. As sales plummeted, advances fell to a level that made it hard to see how professional writers, working outside the academy, could sustain their craft. But fast forward ten years, and it’s clear that the death of Literary Biography has been greatly exaggerated. The cradle-to-grave account of a novelist or poet may be a rare sight in today’s market place, but writers have found other, more nimble, ways to map literary lives on paper. This presentation argues that by thinking of Literary Biography less as a genre than a practice we can start to spot it sailing under the colours of memoir, nature writing and bibliographical studies.

Martin Stannard – In Defence of Literary Biography

Martin will speak on how literary biography can be defended against accusations of voyeurism. How do we justify the form in the light of (a) Barthes’s arguments about the death of the author, and (b) the widespread feeling, expressed by writers from George Eliot to Germaine Greer, that the biographer is the lowest form of literary life?

Andrew Hadfield – Biography between the academy and the public

What is at stake in a biography, literary or otherwise? Who are biographies for? There’s often a tension between the need to work out the factual truth of a life and the desire to tell a story. These forces have to be negotiated by biographers who work in the academy. On the one hand there is a need to treat biographies as one form of research; on the other there is often a wish to write for a wider public who read biographies. When academics are coming under ever more pressure to engage with the public and to produce ‘impact’ biographers need to be clear about who they are writing for and why they are writing the lives they have chosen to write.

About the Speakers

Kathryn Hughes is an author, academic and critic.  Her most recent book is Victorians Undone, which aims to put bodies and bodily experience back into the biographies of five brand-name Victorians.  Her previous books include the international best-seller The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and George Eliot: the Last Victorian which won the James Tait Black Prize, both of which were made into full-length films by the BBC. She is Professor of Life Writing at UEA, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, and has judged the Orange Prize and the Whitbread. She is a Fellow of both the Royal Literary Society and the Royal Historical Society.

Martin Stannard is Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Leicester. He has published extensively on Evelyn Waugh, following The Critical Heritage (1984) with a two-volume biography (1986 and 1992). In 2009 his biography of Muriel Spark appeared to critical acclaim from, among others, Jonathan Bate, Frank Kermode, and Elaine Showalter, and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He has also published on Kingsley Amis, Michael Arlen, Dickens, Ford Madox Ford, David Garnett, Graham Greene, William Gerhardie, Christopher Isherwood, David Jones, and Philip Larkin, and on the subjects of textual criticism, biography, autobiography and letters.

His Norton Critical Edition of Ford’s The Good Soldier (1995; 2011) was an experiment in textual editing. Currently he is Executive Editor of OUP’s 43-volume The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, and Principal Investigator for the AHRC grant supporting it. Recently he completed Vile Bodies for this edition, to be published later this year.

Andrew Hadfield is Professor of English at the University of Sussex. He is the author of a number of books, most recently Shakespeare and Republicanism (2005) and Edmund Spenser: A Life (2012). Lying in Early Modern English Culture: From the Oath of Succession to the Oath of Allegiance is out from OUP in September. He is currently chair of the Society of Renaissance Studies (2016-9) and is editing the works of Thomas Nashe, also for OUP, with Jennifer Richards, Cathy Shrank and Joe Black.

Katherine Isobel Baxter is Reader in English Literature at Northumbria University and General Editor of English: The Journal of the English Association. Her research interests include (post)colonial law and literature, Joseph Conrad, and literary multilingualism. She has published widely on Joseph Conrad, including Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance (2010) and Conrad and Language with Robert Hampson (2016). More recently she has edited the Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and the Arts with Ann-Marie Einhaus (2017).  She is currently completing a monograph on Nigerian law and literature for Edinburgh Critical Studies in Law, Literature and the Humanities, and editing Conrad’s plays for the Cambridge Works of Joseph Conrad Edition, with Richard Hand.

Wednesday 5th July, 2.00