CfP: Biofiction as World Literature (Leuven, 29 - 31 October 2020)
Biofiction (literature that takes a real biography as its point of departure) is powered by what Colm Tóibín has recently called “the anchored imagination”, which grants the fictional narrative a certain ambiguous (almost duplicitous) credibility. As such, biofictions are already situated on the borderline between real and possible worlds. Paradoxically, they often incarnate the real and the possible simultaneously. But what do they then mean as world-making vehicles, in the sense of mediating between the sometimes conflicting experiences of cultural otherness?
Prominent authors like Robert Graves, Thomas Mann, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, Marguerite Yourcenar, and William Styron have innovated with this literary form over the last hundred years, but it has gained more visibility since the late 1980s, with acclaimed publications from global luminaries like Gore Vidal, Gabriel García Márquez, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel, Pierre Michon, Olga Tokarczuk, and Colum McCann, to mention only a notable few. Is this boom in stories that rely on the real past, yet project contemporary visions upon it, only a sign that we are trying to build a coherent world-image of centuries past, or is it also an attempt to bring into being a new way of seeing and/or being in the present? Furthermore, does it foster new visions and teach new lessons for the future? Since scholarly interest in biofiction is now spreading (for instance, there have been five special journal issues devoted to biofiction since 2016), the next logical step is to pursue a more sustained international dialogue on the topic, and to explore the facets of the genre on different continents and in different languages.
Our endeavor is premised on David Damrosch’s conception of World Literature as a mode of reading rather than a selection of canonical works, but it also retains Emily Apter’s caveat against any facile overlooking of the untranslatability of many notions and experiences. To pursue our goal, we follow the direction of Thomas O. Beebee’s method of using the particular and its crossings towards the universal as a stepping stone for circumscribing tendencies and mutations within World Literature. Faithful to the humanistic legacy of Bildung that undergirds Weltliteratur since its beginnings (emphasized in the works of Theo D’haen, David Damrosch, Djelal Kadir, Ottmar Ette, and many others), our approach aims for a better understanding of the way in which individual stories of becoming and learning shed light on our shared world and its values. We are also interested in the process of translating the untranslatable through the use of narrative, particularly a type of narrative that takes its cue from real historical details, but employs them to refashion familiar and unfamiliar pasts into fictions with contemporary relevance.
We thus propose to explore the world-founding capacity of biofiction from several complementary angles. The first, and perhaps most basic perspective includes aspects of cross-cultural representation: writers from one country and language becoming the topic of biographical novels in another language (Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, Tabucchi’s Gli ultimi tre giorni di Fernando Pessoa, Laurent Seksik’s Les Derniers Jours de Stefan Zweig, Hassan Najmi’s Gertrude, etc.).
The second angle covers the foundational imagery surrounding the cosmopolitan figures who shaped the world map as we know it through their transnational adventures – explorers, translators, etc. as protagonists of biographical novels, like Klaus Mann’s Alexander and Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (novels about Alexander von Humboldt), or Réal Ouellet’s L’aventurier du hazard: Le baron de Lahontan (about an early French-Canadian explorer).
The next possible approach focuses on the heterogenous origins of biofiction. The roots of biofiction in the interwar fashion of the roman à clef, in experiments like Marcel Schwob’s Vies imaginaires (1896), Woolf’s Orlando (1928), or Borges’s “La busca de Averroes” (1947), and in earlier explorations of identity-play and cultural recycling, attest to the diversity of transcultural influences that brought this genre into being. Investigating the modernist heritage that biofiction carries on into postmodernism and beyond can shed light on the nature of its hybridity, and open it up to the world via the cosmopolitan canon in which it originates.
Biofiction started flourishing in the 1930s, but it emerged as an autonomous genre under the catalytic influence of postmodernism, and gained wider recognition thanks to postmodernism’s theoretical sharpness. However, biofiction is currently evolving beyond the confines of this current’s particular logic. Its formal innovations, its play with the boundaries of fact and fiction, and its reconfiguration of historical time were strongly influenced by postmodern thought, but they are also starting to unveil new mechanisms of symbolization which move away from this paradigm, rediscovering modernist or Victorian sensibilities. We believe that exploring biofiction’s complex connection with postmodernism will shed light on the genre’s adaptability over time and reveal its capacity of putting different literary ages in dialogue.
Together with biopics, biofiction has contributed to bridging the gap between literary tradition and popular culture, thus integrating figures from the world canon into the cultural consciousness of new generations. The participation of recent biographical novels and films in the revival and reevaluation of cultural icons from around the world is another dimension of the investigation we propose.
Biofiction partakes of World Literature through its nuanced, fact-anchored, and very personal treatment of national and political myths. It creates unique empathic awareness of individual experiences of war, historical trauma, or social rebellion (Soldados de Salamina by Javier Cercas, Gabriela Ybarra’s El comensal, Parnell by Brian J. Cregan), but it also emphasizes the role of uncertainty, autonomy, and responsibility in the shaping of historical “facts”. Biofiction’s political stance can also take the form of unearthing precursors of feminism (e.g. Anna Banti’s Artemisia) or delving into the lives of obscurer female characters (e.g. Alicia Giménez-Bartlett’s Una habitación ajena, Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace) or of outcasts regardless of their gender (e.g. Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang). Its direct engagement with postcolonial topics, from Coetzee’s Foe to Mario Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del Celta, also involves biofiction in a world dialogue about overcoming powerlessness.
If biofiction configures a vision of the world, it is not only through its movement across cultural borders, but also through revealing parallel developments across vast spaces. Aside from the transnational connections woven into the dynamics of biofiction, we invite our speakers to explore the diversity of the genre horizontally, moving far beyond the West with novels that revive cultural models with a vocation for universality, like Anchee Min’s The Last Empress and Empress Orchid, Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand, or Bensalem Himmich’s The Polymath.
Finally, biofiction can be productive of transnational dynamics inasmuch as it is a topic of literary-theoretical delineations spanning across linguistic barriers. As the story of the term “biofiction” (coined by French critic Alan Buisine in 1990 and used again by German-Austrian Anglicists Martin Middeke and Werner Huber in 1999) reveals, a lot of French-language scholarship has until recently remained scarcely known to Anglophone theorists, and vice-versa. This bilingual conference (French-English) is meant to initiate a robust dialogue about the cross-cultural nature of the topic at hand.
Suggested topics for papers include:
- Biofiction as cross-cultural translation
- Biofiction and the representation of otherness
- Biofictions of world-shapers (explorers, translators, diplomats, conquerors, revolutionaries)
- Biofiction’s origins and the roman à clef
- Biofiction as a cosmopolitan genre
- Biofiction and world heritage (canonical writers, painters, philosophers, etc.)
- Biofiction and national myths (Irish, Italian, Spanish, etc.)
- Biofiction beyond the West (China, India, South Africa, etc.)
- Biofiction and postcolonialism
- Comparative perspectives on Western and non-Western biofiction
- Biofiction and postmodernism
- Theories of biofiction at the intersection of academic traditions and jargons
- Humanist Bildung, Weltliteratur, and the values of Biofiction
- The circulation of biofictional histories across linguistic barriers and national borders
- Biofiction compared to the historical novel
- Biofiction and remapping gender
- Biofiction, biopics, and popular culture in the light of globalization
We welcome the following types of submissions:
- Proposals for traditional 20-minute papers: abstracts of max 300 words.
- Proposals for complete panel sessions: a brief covering statement (max 300 words) outlining the aims of the panel, along with abstracts for each speaker (max 300 words).
Please send the abstracts, along with a 150-word bio for each speaker, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deadline for submissions: Wednesday, 15 April 2020. Notice of acceptance will be given no later than 15 June.