A forum for the discussion of biography in the 21st century.
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Colleagues on vacation mean that the recordings of the proceedings at the ‘Can Biography Survive?’ conference have yet to be converted into podcasts, but this is a priority.

The Times Higher Education, 19 July 2012, carries a feature article – ‘Cult of Personalities’ – by Jonathan Steinberg, to coincide with the paperback publication of his acclaimed biography of Bismarck. The article, in which the author offers a spirited defence of biography, seeks to explain why the genre has re-established its intellectual credentials (‘…because the social science models ignored the power of human personality’). Steinberg rightly signals that biographers have to pose the same questions as the ‘academic historian’, and must provide the same evidence-based answers; and he draws on his own and other political biographies to support his argument. He suggests that if a biography fails then it does so in a manner that is familiar to the discipline of history as a whole; but, when successfu,l then the manner of a biography’s achievement is unique, by ‘showing us what extraordinary human beings have done and what they were like.’ This is an entertaining and informative 1500 or so words, and it’s worth checking out the Higher‘s website.

Two years in the planning, this was a major event, involving many of the leading figures, not only in biography, but also in the publishing and book-selling world. Indeed, it was the perfect fulfillment of the network’s aim to bring people together from as wide a range as possible. Among the speakers were academics from departments of English, History, Politics, Sociology, Geography and Philosophy. There were also some of the freelance biographers whose works has done most to shape the genre over the last few decades, as well as some of the agents, publishers and booksellers who have been at the forefront of the book industry’s attempts to come to terms with the deep and rapid economic and technological changes which have presented such formidable challenges in recent years.

The papers and discussion sessions fell roughly into three groups. First, there were those that presented reflections on the genre from various academic perspectives. The historian Stephen Brooke, for example, drew attention to the importance of treating a person’s life, not as a simple narrative, but rather as, in Walt Whitman’s famous phrase, ‘containing multitudes’. Robert Fraser, a professor of English, looked at biography from a literary point of view, discussing its characteristic styles and tropes. Meanwhile, the philosopher Paal Antonsen raised questions about the supposed exclusiveness of biography from other disciplines and concluded that, actually, it should really be seen, not as an independent genre, but rather simply part of history. Starting from the opposite assumption – that biography is a genre in its own right – Jeremy Treglown, a professor of English at Warwick, argued that reports of its demise were, as those of Mark Twain’s had been, ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Others discussed the challenges and prospects of particular types of biography. The sociologist Silke Roth gave a summary of her work on international aid workers, while Becky Conekin’s paper discussed another relatively specialised area of concern: the lives of fashion models during the forties, fifties and sixties. Much less specific was Alex Danchev’s impassioned discussion of the lives of artists, a sub-drama whose importance Professor Danchev urged with great passion and conviction. The methodological problems of writing collective biographies were analysed by Jack Corbett from the Australian National University, while the issues raised by the opposite situation – a collection of biographies of a single individual – were discussed by June Purvis in her presentation of the various lives of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and also by the geographer Liz Baigent, who considered the various lives that have been written of the explorer Kate Marsden. Andrew Hadfield, professor of English at the University of Sussex, talked very entertainingly and enlighteningly about his recent experience of turning the few scanty documentary records of Edmund Spenser’s life that exist into a 600 page scholarly biography.

Though she has taught at Oxford, Manchester and Columbia, Claire Harman would more naturally be thought of as a literary biographer than as an academic, having written prize-winning biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her talk, ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward’ focused on the ways in which various biographies have approached the task of revising their work and how new technology – in particular, the e-book – offers an opportunity to approach this task in a completely new way. It was a fascinatingly fresh look at an old theme. Among the other freelance writers in attendance was the eminent man of letters, Frederic Raphael, who, among his many other distinctions, can count winning an Oscar. He has recently finished a biography of the Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, and talked with great wit and elegance about the importance of the imagination for the biographer. On the morning of the second day, the freelance historian, writer and biographer Helen Rappaport gave an extraordinarily stimulating discussion, based on her own experience as a practitioner of the genre, about how biography might be rejuvenated by a more imaginative approach, not just with regard to writing but also with regard to choosing a subject. Why, she asked, should the subject of a biography be the whole life of a person. Why not a few years or even just a moment? In a masterly and captivating presentation, Richard Holmes – regarded by many as the greatest living biographer writing in English – provided another fresh perspective when he described why he, known to everyone as a literary biographer, had now turned his attention to science and scientists. There were, he suggested, signs that we are currently going through a golden period of scientific biography, even during this period of economic and technological change and uncertainty.

Which brings me to the third and final group of presenters: those in the business. First up was Stuart Proffitt, who, as Publishing Director of Penguin, is in an excellent position to know which way the winds are blowing through the publishing industry. Supporting his argument with some useful statistics, he gave a sobering analysis (but one not entirely without hope) of the state of both the bookselling business as a whole and the biography market in particular. The gist of Stuart’s analysis was confirmed by the bookseller Tim Waterstone, who told us that the book market in the UK grew year on year by about 3% between 1947 and 2004, when it reached a peak of £5.8 bn. Since 2007 the market has declined by 21%, and in the near future, Tim thinks, it will be down to about £3 bn, a third of which would be accounted for by e-books. The market for good old fashioned, “physical” books (those made of paper rather than electrons), then, will soon be less than half of what it was a few years ago. The implications of this were thrashed out in the lively and fascinating panel discussion that followed Tim’s talk. On the panel were two agents (David Godwin and Gill Coleridge), a publisher (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape) and a literary editor (Miriam Gross, who used to edit the book pages of the Sunday Telegraph and has been at the centre of Britain’s literary world for the last four decades). For many people, this panel discussion was the highlight of the conference, not only because of the spirited ways in which the panelists argued for their widely different reactions to the economic situation (Dan Franklin was inclined to be gloomy, David Godwin resolutely upbeat), but also because of the very pertinent interventions made by members of the audience. It was at this session that the hopes of the conference organisers received their most direct fulfillment, with authors having the chance to present their concerns to publishers, and academics having the opportunity to hear at first-hand how the current state of the market for biographies is affecting those who make their living from writing them.

For many, this bringing together of very different kinds of people affected by the challenges to biography presented by today’s world was the real value of the event. One impressed academic wrote to me afterwards: ‘I didn’t comprehend in advance that all those luminaries from UK publishing and book trade would attend and participate’, while an agent told me it had been ‘a fascinating glimpse into academic life’. Richard Holmes described it as ‘a very well-organized and exceptionally multifaceted Conference, bubbling with ideas’, while June Purvis, I think, spoke for many, when she wrote ‘it would be a pity for the AHRC funded Biography Network to dwindle away. Is it possible to keep it going??? ‘ This last is a question to which we are now putting our minds and on which we would love to hear the views of everyone who has taken part in any of our events.

FRAMING LIVES

The 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association
17-20 July 2012, Canberra, Australia

Deadline for paper and panel proposals: 15 November 2011
Notification of acceptance: 15 December 2011
Conference website: http://www.iaba2012.com

The Humanities Research Centre and National Centre of Biography at the Australian National University, in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, present Framing Lives, the 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association.

The field of auto/biography and life narrative studies is dynamic and interdisciplinary. Founded in 1999, the International Auto/Biography Association (IABA) is the leading international forum for scholars, critics and practitioners. The Framing Lives conference will feature distinguished international speakers and events at the National Portrait Gallery and other national collecting institutions.

Framing Lives draws attention to the extraordinary turn to the visual in contemporary life narrative: to graphics and animations, photographs and portraits, installations and performances, avatars and characters, that come alive on screens, stages, pages, and canvas, through digital and analogue technologies. At the same time, framing suggests the ways that lives are lived, recorded and viewed through multiple frames including those of language, politics, place, gender, history and culture. It draws attention to the multiple ‘I’s of auto/biographical representations now, and the various fields of vision, lines of sight, and points of focus for critics, artists, writers, historians and curators in the life worlds of auto/biography. Conference themes include depiction and display, ethics and rights, living archives, place and displacement, media and celebrity, digital identity and social media, and creative life narrative.

CONVENORS:

Paul Arthur (Deputy Director, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University)
Rosanne Kennedy (Associate Professor and Head of Discipline, Gender Sexuality & Culture, Australian National University)
Gillian Whitlock (ARC Professorial Fellow, School of English, Media Studies & Art History, University of Queensland)

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:

We welcome paper and panel proposals that connect with the conference themes as well as wider aspects of biography, autobiography and life narrative in the 21st century.

For individual papers, please submit a one-page proposal including full name, title, institutional affiliation (if applicable), email address, postal address, abstract (max 300 words) and bio (max 200 words) by email to papers@theiaba.org.

For panel proposals, please submit a short panel description (max 200 words) along with individual paper proposals for each presenter by email to papers@theiaba.org.

CONFERENCE ENQUIRIES:

Contact: Leena Messina, Programs Manager, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University
Email: leena.messina@anu.edu.au
Phone: (+612) 6125 4357

WEB LINKS:

Framing Lives conference website: http://www.iaba2012.com
International Auto/Biography Association: http://www.theiaba.org
Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University: http://hrc.anu.edu.au
National Centre of Biography, Australian National University: http://ncb.anu.edu.au
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia: http://www.portrait.gov.au

CONFERENCE THEMES:

We are particularly interested in paper proposals that address the following themes but also encourage submissions that deal with wider aspects of the practice and theory of auto/biography and life narrative:

1. Depiction and display

–Histories and analyses of visual representations of lives
–Lives as art, including portraiture, sculpture, photography, film and new media
–The life of objects and things in storytelling
–Curating online collections
–Adaptation and remediation
–Eavesdropping and voyeurism
–Framing, filtering, capturing, exposing, colouring lives
–Digitisation, simulation, authenticity

2. Ethics and rights

–Human rights, privacy, advocacy, law
–Rights of biographical subjects
–Trauma, grief and testimony
–Editing and ethics
–Disability, illness, therapy and recovery in life narrative
–Environmental biography
–Posthuman lives
–Gender and sexuality
–Secrets and lies

3. Living archives

–The archive within: genetics, genomics, neurology, emotions
–Archival legacies: remembering and forgetting
–Managing archival material: methodologies, policies, selection, metadata
–Oral history theory and practice
–Life story consent, copyright, constraints
–Preserving ephemera
–Institutional partnerships
–Transnational archives
–Transgenerational archives

4. Place and displacement

–Translating ‘life’ and lives across cultures and languages
–Indigenous lives
–Diasporic lives
–Immigrant lives
–Transnational lives
–Minoritarian life narrative
–Genealogies
–Witnessing publics

5. Media and celebrity

–Press, radio, television, film and music biographies
–The media as biographer
–Creating notoriety
–The changing nature of fame
–Collective memory and biography
–Refashioning identity: bodies in the media
–Confessional modes in public life
–Obituaries

6. Digital identity and social media

–Cyberlives
–Auto/graphics
–Social media audiences
–Digital relationships, communities, intimacy
–Epistolarity before and after email
–Avatars, animation, machinima
–Transfigured bodies
–Pocket lives: iPhone, iPad, Android, apps

7. Creative life narrative

–New hybrid forms of life narrative
–Approaches to constructing the autobiographical self
–Memoirs, journals, diaries, reflections
–Autoethnography
–Scholarship versus creative practice
–Fantasy lives
–Personal journeys
–Digital storytelling