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Separated by a Common Language: The (Differing) Discourses of Life Writing in Theory and Practice
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Separated by a Common Language:
The (Differing) Discourses of Life Writing in Theory and Practice

Differing Discourses

The differing discourses used by life writers and the critics who study them create a damaging distance between practice and theory in the field. That distance, moreover, has become exacerbated by the emergence of innovative and ever-multiplying forms of life-story telling. To begin to support this claim, I offer below two examples of life-writing discourse, one from a writer and one from a critic. You will have, I suspect, no trouble guessing which extract is which.

And when we turn to literary biographies, we will find that the author's failure to formulate a hermeneutics renders them blind to their subject's rhetoric. Biography remains entrapped within a humanistic problematic of a symbolic aesthetic that requires a teleological concept of history and consciousness. And because biography relies on an inadequate theory of history and language, a study of it offers a chance to re-evaluate the relation of literary studies to humanism.

What is the worst/most difficult thing about talking to students/researchers about your work?

Feeling ignorant and uninformed. What's this strange abstract language they're speaking? Is that really me/my book?

(Blake Morrison1)

My assertion that there is a communication problem between art and academia in narratives of the self is not new, of course. As a biographer and memoirist as well as a novelist, Virginia Woolf also believed that there was a linguistic gap between the self as articulated through the academy and the self as told through the life story. In Woolf's most autobiographical novel, To the Lighthouse, for example, [End Page 299] the father figure, Mr. Ramsay, invites his student, Charles Tansley, to holiday with his family in St. Ives. Soon after arriving, Tansley confides the tale of his difficult childhood to Ramsay's wife. Later, Mrs. Ramsay overhears Tansley and her husband talking, and Woolf tells us that she "did not catch the meaning, only the words, here and there … dissertation … fellowship … readership … lectureship … She could not follow the ugly academic jargon […] but said to herself that she saw now why [Tansley] came out, instantly, with all that about his father and mother and brothers and sisters, and she would see to it that they didn't laugh at him anymore" (22). Woolf saw the difference in discourse that she portrays here and elsewhere as gendered and political, inscribed by historically static boundaries. In our own century the divide may be differently drawn, but within the discipline of life writing, the linguistic distance between practitioner and researcher remains. Indeed, the act of bringing together academics and practitioners in the field to debate contemporary critical and theoretical concerns is not only challenging and frustrating—it is, I suggest, an act of translation in which something is gained as well as lost.

As the Director of the Centre for Life Narratives (CLN) at Kingston University in London, I have had the opportunity to work with any number of memoirists, diarists, and biographers through organizing conferences, seminars, and the like. While my creative writing students find such visits stimulating and informative, I am often left wondering whether the academic researchers and theorists of life writing in the audience or around the conference room table are gaining as much. Frequently, the researchers appear disappointed by or even dismissive of the reflections of life writers upon their craft—particularly of those reflections that speak to the impact of pressures of the marketplace upon writing. The life writers at such events, on the other hand, are bemused or even intimidated by questions of a theoretical nature couched in academic jargon (see Blake Morrison's words above). In Joseph Harris's study of academic writing communities, he argues that no one ever steps "cleanly and wholly from one community to another" because they are "caught instead in an always changing mix of dominant, residual, and emerging discourses" (17). The concerns Harris articulates here have long been on my mind.

In the introduction to The Open Book, I noted the tension I felt as a PhD student between the academic discourse...