Ugly Audacities: On Jennifer Cooke’s Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: The New Audacity (C.U.P., 2020)

Kaye MitchellMCRm

Chair: Dr Kaye Mitchell (Manchester)

This panel will address and respond to an important new scholarly publication in the fields of contemporary literature, life-writing and autofiction, and gender and sexuality studies. Jennifer Cooke’s Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: The New Audacity is the first book to identify and analyse the ‘new audacity’ of recent feminist writings from life – by authors including Katherine Angel, Alison Bechdel, Virginie Despentes, Sheil Heti, Juliet Jacques, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, and Vanessa Place. Characterised by boldness in both style and content, willingness to explore difficult and disturbing experiences, the refusal of victimhood, and a lack of respect for traditional genre boundaries, new audacity writing – as theorised and illuminated by Cooke – takes risks with its authors’ and others’ reputations, and even, on occasion, with the law.

After a brief introduction (5-10 minutes) by the chair, Kaye Mitchell, setting out the significance of Cooke’s analysis within wider discussions of feminist writing, autofiction and ‘hybrid’ texts, and the writing of vulnerability, the three panellists will then deliver a short response (10-15 minutes each) to the second chapter of Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: ‘Ugly Audacities in Auto/Biography: Genius, Betrayal, and Writer’s Block’. This considered response to a single chapter will bring out the richness of both Cooke’s source material and her analysis, allowing for a fine-grained engagement that will offer a model of focused scholarly dialogue; it will also gesture outwards to the bigger questions around affect, authenticity and women’s self-authorship which permeate the book as a whole.

Kaye Mitchell is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Co-Director of the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. She is the author of three monographs: A.L. Kennedy: New British Fiction (Palgrave, 2007), Intention and Text (Continuum, 2008), and Writing Shame (EUP, 2020), editor of Sarah Waters: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2013) and co-editor (with Nonia Williams) of British Avant-Garde Fiction of the 1960s (EUP, 2019). She is the UK editor of Contemporary Women’s Writing journal (OUP) and an editorial board member of Open Gender journal in Germany.

Katherine Da Cunha Lewin will consider how the ugly process of writing relates to the self-image of the writer as a writer, contrasting the strategies Sheila Heti, Kate Zambreno and Alison Bechdel use to give a sense of the difficult and labour-intensive work of writing, with the language through which work by women is often dismissed. As Joanna Russ notes, one way of dismissing work by women is through ‘polluting their authority’; Lewin will consider what happens when this idea of polluted authority is turned back on itself, by portraying the creative process not in its idealised form, but instead as a difficult, painful and sometimes impossible action – asking whether and how if writers can pollute their own authority as a strategy of undermining the methods through which their work is ignored.

Katherine Da Cunha Lewin is a writer, tutor and researcher. Her PhD investigated spatial aesthetics and interiority in the work of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee. She is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2018), and her essays and reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, The London Magazine and Los Angeles Review of Books among others.

Alexandra Parsons will examine the role ugliness plays in Bechdel, Heti and Zambreno’s projects, exploring how betrayal and the co-option of others’ stories operate within them. She will consider what Cooke describes as ‘grappling with what is inherited’: the challenges of confronting and trying to find a place within one’s personal histories and literary legacies. Finally, she will examine what is at stake in writing about the ugliness of the self and question to what extent this category helps us theorise these authors’ work.

Alexandra Parsons researches contemporary literature and visual cultures, with particular interests in queer histories, life-writing, and feminisms. She is a postdoctoral fellow of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and teaches at Queen Mary and UCL. Her book about queer icon Derek Jarman’s life-writing is forthcoming by Manchester University Press. 

Monica Pearl will be addressing issues around the conceptualisation of writing as ‘redemptive’ or transformative. As Pearl argues, what is meant by ‘transformative’ or ‘redemptive’ in this context is the idea that the text of life-writing or autofiction is often not just a record of the change, an emblem of it, but part of the process of it; in other words, it expresses the way that it is the writing itself that manufactures change. Pearl asks what the difference is between texts that do this – offer a blueprint of the shifts and changes in a life or psyche – and those that offer a journey or change as complete, or as a history.

Monica Pearl is Lecturer in 20th Century American Literature at the University of Manchester; she is the author of AIDS Literature and Gay Identity: The Literature of Loss (Routledge) and essays on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home, on Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami, and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.

Following these three presentations, there will be a panel discussion of 15-20 minutes to tease out the differences and continuities between them and to reflect further on Cooke’s idea of the ‘new audacity’ and the textual forms in and through which it is embodied.

Fri 12:30 pm - 1:45 pm