Biographical Forms in Contemporary Fiction

Kaisa Kaakinen, University of Turku

This ACLA panel invites proposals on the uses of biographical forms in contemporary fiction. The point of departure of our conversation is the idea of approaching biography as a “dwelling of human experience”, to borrow the expression put forth by the German author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge. Kluge characterizes writing as “the only form of preserving human experience independently of time”, in a manner that does not leave it “imprisoned in individual biographies”. How does contemporary fiction that employs biographical forms approach literary writing as imaginative mediation of the historicity of experience?

While discussions around postmodernism mostly related the topic of biography to problematizing and deconstructing the subject, there is an emerging trend in contemporary fiction to shift the focus of attention from the subject to subjects’ context – from contemplating the concept of the subject as such to studying the both discursive and material conditions of subjectivity. Furthermore, instead of stressing the impossibility of rendering exact representations of the past, recent fiction seems to rather explore the possibility of literature to function as an imaginative medium of historical experience. In addition to Kluge, authors such as Steve Sem-Sandberg (The Emperor of Lies, 2009) or Annie Ernaux (Les années, 2008) use biographies of real historical persons to chart possibilities of action and imagination in specific historical and social contexts. Authors such as Aleksandar Hemon (The Lazarus Project, 2008), John Banville (Shroud, 2002) and Julian Barnes (The Noise of Time, 2016) employ postmodern strategies of “laying bare the device” in literary projects that do not simply expose the discursive aspects of historical narration but also draw attention to the pressure exerted by history on literary writing. We invite scholars across linguistic borders into a comparative conversation on the status of biography in relation to history and fiction. How do contemporary uses of biography illuminate changes in ideas on subjectivity, belonging and historicity and narrative forms available for the articulation of historical and contemporary experience?


The possible topics include but are not limited to:

    • biography, experience, subjectivity


    • biography and forms of life (Wittgenstein, Foucault, Agamben) 


    • biography and cultural memorial forms 


    • narrative devices in contemporary biographical/autobiographical fiction


    • biography, affect and identification


    • biography vs. autobiography, “autobiographies of others”/”heterobiographies” 


    • the legacy of Bildungsroman, realism and postmodernism in contemporary approaches to biography 


    • biography, migration and globalization


    • biography, fiction and sociological inquiry


  • biography and posthumanism

The American Comparative Literature Association’s 2017 Annual Meeting will take place at Utrecht University in Utrecht, the Netherlands July 6-9, 2017. Individuals interested in participating in a particular seminar are encouraged to be in touch with the organizers; paper submissions through the portal will close Sept. 23.