North-American Novelists’ Autobiographical Acts: Nonfictional Disruptions

deadline for submissions: 
June 30, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Aix-Marseilles University (France)

North-American Novelists’ Autobiographical Acts: Nonfictional Disruptions

 

Aix-Marseilles University, 6/7 July 2023

Organizers: Sophie Vallas (Aix-Marseilles University, LERMA), Arnaud Schmitt (University of Bordeaux, CLIMAS)

 

 

 

Addressing the topic of autobiographical texts or memoirs published by novelists, what she calls “the literary writer’s autobiography,” Laura Marcus underlines that the reader’s awareness of the name and reputation of the author immediately confers a certain literary status on the autobiographical text: “Not all autobiographers are writers by profession, though there is a widespread assumption that the literary writer’s autobiography best defines the genre.” Far from the host of confessional memoirs, either by celebrities or unknown authors, a publishing phenomenon identified by Rockwell Gray as a “memoir boom” in his 1982 article “Autobiography Now,” and far from so-called autobiographical novels or autofictions which, according to Maurice Couturier, allowed many writers to “smuggle their own autobiographies,” this conference will focus on autobiographical texts—paratextually and unequivocally identified as such—published by American novelists, on “the literary writer’s autobiography” in other words, and on their influence on the perception of the overall work of their author. We will wonder how autobiographical acts happen, when they happen, in a career dominated by fiction, what their links with the fictional part of the work are or why they are often perceived as minor texts among a fictional body of major ones. Also, do they conjure up specific writing techniques, a separate creative space? The disruption caused by autobiographical texts in a literary work mostly devoted to the writing of fiction raises several questions concerning the artistic logic underlying them, the way they are embedded in the complete oeuvre of the author and the editorial and paratextual choices made for their publication.

            It often seems logical that authors should turn to life writing at the end of their career, an introspective act embracing their whole life, revisiting their own work. Mark Twain, who published a few chapters of his autobiography in the years prior to his death, decided nevertheless that its publication would be a posthumous act, a hundred years after his death more precisely (The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 2010). Other texts, also published late in their authors’ life, focus on the death of a relative or a friend while offering authors the opportunity to reflect on their own life, inexorably drawing to a close: Joan Didion’s autobiographical diptych, The Year of the Magical Thinking in 2005 (simultaneously mourning the death and celebrating the life of her husband, John Dunne) and Blue Nights in 2011 (doing the same for Didion’s adopted daughter, Quintana, who died in 2005), belongs to this crepuscular tradition in which writing almost amounts to issuing legal, performative acts standing for marriage, adoption, death. Such is also the case for Philip Roth’s Patrimony (1991). Conversely, some autobiographical texts herald the birth of an author: Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (1982) delivered, in prose, the new voice of a poet and essayist who, from then on, would dedicate his career as a novelist to developing and fictionalizing many topics already present in this seminal memoir. Auster has gone on regularly publishing autobiographical narratives, each time revisiting his life from a different angle and adding new acts to the play of his life (The Red Notebook, 1995; Hand to Mouth, 1997; Winter Journal, 2012; Report from the Interior, 2013).

For other autobiographical texts, what is at stake is less the moment when they get written, either at the beginning or at the end of a career, than their capacity of exploring the very art of their authors. In that case, they tend to exist as so many comments on the fictional works which they occasionally revisit. Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, has kept on analyzing the act of writing throughout the years ((Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities, 1974; The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, 2003; A Widow’s Story. A Memoir, 2011; The Lost Landscape. A Writer’s Coming of Age, 2015). At the very opposite of Oates’ regular autobiographical practice, James Salter’s Burning the Days (1997) stands as a unique autobiographical text in a body of work otherwise entirely devoted to fiction, almost like a faulty act, even if the volume sounds like Salter’s powerful novels in terms of structure and voice, much to the delight of his readers. On the other hand, certain autobiographical texts, just like Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) for instance, can be seen as irreversible acts which eclipse the author’s fictional production.

Philippe Lejeune once regretted that “the dirty habit of publishing diaries has resulted into most people writing their privacy while decked out in their very best attire.” Is a novelist, and even more so an established one, not tempted, indeed, to write their autobiography in their best array, drifting away from spontaneous, supposedly authentic autobiographical acts which tend to be nowadays published on social networks? Autobiography indeed involves an element of risk and exposure since it may, whether purposefully or not, allow the reader to get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of fiction, and thus disrupt the construction of the figure of the author.

 

Proposals may address, among other issues, the following:

- The origin of the autobiographical act in a novelist’s career

- The minor works/major works dialectics. 

- Stylistic specificities of autobiographical narratives versus fictional texts

- The balance in an author’s oeuvre, and more specifically the place occupied by the autobiographical texts in the overall work

- The reception of the autobiographical texts, often isolated or unknown

- The dialogue between fictional and non-fictional texts within a work (Laura Marcus: “The literary writer’s autobiography also bears on, and frequently comments upon, his or her other works”)

- The tools needed for analysis (similar, different?) to study the autobiographical texts

- The persistence of a distance between the narrator and the author, even in an autobiographical text, similar to that embodied by the concept of implied narrator whose presence Jim Phelan, for example, detects even in referential texts such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.