Rendering Reality: Popularism and Contemporary Life Writing (NEMLA 2018/ Pittsburgh, PA/ April 12-15)

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Danielle French, Kent State University
contact email: 

Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) Conference 2018

Pittsburgh, PA

April 12-15, 2018

Contemporary American politics enacts populist rhetoric in troubling ways, and in light of current cultural context, memoir lends itself to individualized experiences perhaps being taken as representative. Furthermore, memoir is an increasingly popular and profitable genre.  Memoir: An Introduction (2012) notes, “memoir now rivals fiction in popularity and critical esteem and exceeds it in cultural currency,” and ends, “this is an age—if not the age—of memoir (Couser 3). Moreover, this genre allows anyone with the ability and desire to remember her life and render it in book form to be an author. Vivian Gornick writes, “Suddenly everyone’s tale is tellable, which seems to me a good thing, even if not everyone’s story turns out to be fascinating or well told" (22). Importantly, various mediums of expression available to the author, including prose, graphic, hybridized, and digital forms. 

Generic study of contemporary memoir is critical precisely because of its increasing popularity and proliferation. T.S. Eliot famously comments, “‘It is just the literature that we read for amusement, or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence on us. . . . Hence, it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular playwrights of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely’” (qtd. in Ousbourne 3-4). Eliot’s prompting to examine popular media stresses the likely passive internalization of overt and covert messages, making the work set forth in this panel necessary. 

With increasing proliferation and purchasing of autobiographical writing in the United States, this panel seeks to interrogate the vital aspect of popularism in contemporary life writing. Consumers of autobiographical texts want to know "what really happened," but as Lynda Barry famously questions, “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?” (7). Because autobiographical work is based in memory, life writing is never able to fully capture what “really” happened, as their perspective is necessarily biased, partial, and mediated through time, yet modes and mediums of life writing are increasingly popular. This panel seeks to address potentially problematic and nuanced issues of popularism, perspective, and hybridization across mediums of autobiographical work.

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