Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-16-33-39Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the ‘Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue’ colloquium at Oxford’s Wolfson college. The event, expertly organised by Victorianist Sandra Mayer, was supported by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), and explored ‘the intersections of celebrity and life-writing across historical periods, disciplines, and media, highlighting possibilities of theorectical and methodological cross-fertilisation.’

After a few opening comments from Sandra Mayer, the day kicked off with a panel on celebrity, biblio-biography, and obituaries, chaired by Celebrity Research Network founder Ruth Scobie and featuring papers by Oxford scholars Emma Smith and Tobias Heinrich. Smith spoke about ‘Shakespeare, Biblio-Biography, and the Life of the Celebrity Book’, tracing the Victorian history of Shakespeare’s First Folio as a celebrity book. Taking about the example of Angela Burdett-Coutts, who kept her copy of the First Folio locked away in a casket, Smith questioned the extent to which objects can be celebrities in their own right, apart from the people they are associated with.

Casket, carved in an Elizabethan style (1866). Image via the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Heinrich’s paper focused on ‘Celebrity, Biography, and the Enlightenment: Friedrich Schlichtegroll’s Nekrolog’. Unlike most biographies of the time, Schlichtegroll’s work involved crowdsourced contributions, and featured typically marginalised subjects like women and the working class—some so provincial they were only given a job title, rather than a surname.

Next came a panel on cultural icons in (bio)fiction and film, chaired by Hannah Yelin and featuring Julia Lajta-Novak and Ginette Vincendeau as speakers. Lajta-Novak explored the trajectory of King Charles II’s Protestant mistress in ‘From Celebrity “Whore” to Romantic Heroine: Images of Nell Gwyn in Restoration Satire and Contemporary Biofiction’. In her own time, Gwyn was depicted in a mostly negative light by the many examples of verse satire that featured her. In contemporary biofiction, however, she has been transformed into a wily and witty feminine ideal. Transitioning to another example of the sexualised feminine ideal, Vincendeau presented on ‘Brigitte Bardot and the French New Wave: Life-writing On and Off Screen’. She showed contrasting constructions of Bardot’s celebrity across a number of texts, including works of popular cinema, French independent cinema, and Bardot’s own 1996 autobiography.

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot, French actress and sex symbol.

Following lunch, the colloquium resumed with roundtable discussion on ‘Celebrity and Life-Writing: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives’. The panel was chaired by Mayer, and featured celebrity biographer and Wolfson College President Hermione Lee, Tchaikovsky biographer and scholar Philip Bullock, Scobie, and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero. Discussion topics ranged from ethical concerns, to sources used in reconstructing a biography, to methods for drawing essential ‘truths’ about a person’s character from parallel stories and experiences. It also included a number of anecdotes from biography research and writing that kept the audiences in stitches, but which I can’t do proper justice to in prose. Fortunately, this roundtable will be soon available as an audio file: keep an eye on the the OCLW podcast page.

Finally, in the closing panel, we were treated to a premiere of the documentary biopic Being Bowie (edited by Rebecca Bryant), which documents Will Brooker‘s unusual approach to his latest academic book Forever Stardust. Brooker spent a year dressing, eating, and and absorbing the same sights and sounds as David Bowie, and his research attracted international media attention. [EDIT: You can now find the full documentary / audiovisual essay at this link. Dir. Rebecca Hughes. Runtime 61 mins.] The premiere the documentary was followed by a Q&A with Brooker, conducted by writer, broadcaster, and popular music scholar Marcus O’Dair. Brooke fielded questions from O’Dair and from the audience on the impossibility (and futility) of trying to get at the ‘real’ Bowie, on his response to Bowie’s unexpected death halfway through the project in January 2016, and on the politics of privilege behind his ability to conduct such a creative approach to the study in the first place. You can read my live tweets of the event at this link.

Will Brooker as David Bowie
Will Brooker as David Bowie

As a relative newcomer to studies of both celebrity and life writing, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet scholars in the field, and even discovered a few familiar faces amongst its ranks. Wolfson College was lovely, and despite a few typically Oxford faux pas (including some dubious comments about the nature and class of people who buy lottery tickets), the atmosphere was warm. A good variety of academic backgrounds were represented at the event, and I was able to compare notes with people in literature, celebrity studies, film, popular music, and the public sector. I will certainly be following future OCLW research with interest – and who knows, I may even make it to a few more of their upcoming events.

You can find a copy of the programme here, and a full list of the abstracts and biographical notes here.

Leave a Reply