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Abstracts for 180. Stealing Lives: Appropriation, Hoaxes, Censorship

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    180. Stealing Lives: Appropriation, Hoaxes, Ownership
    7:00-8:15 pm, Grace, Chicago Marriot
    Programme by Division on Autobiography, Biography and Life Writing
    Presiding: Julie Rak, University of Alberta
    1. “‘That Ain Me’: Race and the Fake Memoir,” Heidi Bollinger, Hostos Comm Coll, CUNY
    2. “Victim/Victor: Stalking the Subject of Life Writing,” Molly Pulda, U. of Southern California
    3. “The BIographical Novel: A Misappropriated Life or Truthful Fiction?” Michael D. Lackey, U. of Minnesota, Minneapolis
    4. “Collaboration and Consent,” Brian J. Norman, Loyola College</div>

    Heidi Bollinger, “That ain me”: Race and the Fake Memoir
    The phenomenon of the “fake memoir” has fascinated and scandalized readers during the past two decades. My presentation focuses on the discourse of racial authenticity in Margaret Seltzer’s fake memoir Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival (2008).  Seltzer, a middle-class Caucasian woman who grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, narrated Love and Consequences from the perspective of Margaret B. Jones, a multi-racial girl adopted by an African American foster family in South-Central Los Angeles.  When Seltzer’s memoir was exposed as a fiction, both she and her book were derided by readers who felt that their trust in her “true story” had been betrayed.  Seltzer’s audacious performance as her fictional narrator precipitated the strong backlash against her book.  Seltzer took on the fictional persona of Margaret B. Jones while publicly promoting her book, wearing a costume, speaking in an imitation of African American vernacular, and elaborating on “her” life story for publishers and interviewers.  Seltzer exploited the authority and authenticity of a black voice to narrate “her” story.  Yet publishers and book reviewers were completed fooled by Seltzer’s performance and it was only after she was exposed that the outlandishness of her racial masquerade became apparent.  The reader response to Seltzer’s memoir before its fraudulence was revealed demonstrates a continuing cultural investment in blackness as authentic, exotic, and traumatic.
    Molly Pulda, Victim/Victor: Stalking the Subject of Life Writing
    Cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, sockpuppetting, virtual identity theft: online communication has yielded a whole new vocabulary of victimization. To what extent can we shape our self-presentation on the porous Web? And how can we prove that our personal material, including the words we write and the ideas we exchange, is “ours?” Life writing theory, which has taken a turn to the relational, contends that our lives and stories are entwined with others’. Our material, then, is never completely our own; no “I” stands alone in any work of life writing, from blog to memoir. In this paper, I analyze  James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (2013)  in order to highlight the ethical stakes of identity appropriation – Lasdun was cyber-stalked by a former creative writing student, and he turns the tables by publishing his version of events. Lasdun’s memoir and its reception point to the ethical boundaries that autobiography scholars and privacy theorists have long debated. If all life writing is an investigation of the other as well as the self, then no first-person project can skirt the ethics of appropriation. This paper theorizes the porousness of self and source, through these fraught cases of Web-based stalking and identity appropriation.
    Michael D. Lackey, The Biographical Novel: A Misappropriated Life or a Truthful Fiction?
    On what ethical grounds can Anita Diamant justify portraying the rape of Dinah as a passionate love affair gone awry?  How can Sherry Jones defend her representation of Mohammed’s child bride, Aisha, as a willful warrior?  And what allows David Mamet to picture Leo Frank as an astute diagnostician of transatlantic anti-Semitism?  The Red Tent, The Jewel of the Medina, and The Old Religion are just three examples of contemporary biographical novels that have, on the one hand, used fiction to give readers considerable insight into the lives of historical figures, but, on the other hand, taken considerable liberties with the seemingly established facts.

    This paper will focus on the ethics of representation in the burgeoning genre of the biographical novel. What kinds of liberties can biographical novelists legitimately take with the lives of actual historical figures?  In this paper, I will examine a few contemporary American biographical novels in order to establish a methodology for determining which ones misappropriate a human life and which ones produce a truthful fiction.  I will focus primarily on biographical novels that deal with anti-Semitism, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, such as Joanna Scott’s Arrogance, which portrays the life of Egon Schiele; Bruce Duffy’s The World as I Found it, which features the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein; Jay Parini’s Benjamin’s Crossing, which examines the last year of Walter Benjamin’s life; and Irvin Yalom’s The Spinoza Problem, which revolves around the lives of Spinoza and Alfred Rosenberg.
    Brian J. Norman, Collaboration and Consent
    We are in a collaborative age. From crowd-sourcing technologies and Wikipedia to experiments in open peer-review to the minor industry of humorous revisions of classics such as Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies, cheekily marketed as written by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. What is the fate of the individual writer and proprietary claims to one’s work? Such a question is especially pressing for nonfiction genres such as the personal essay and life writing. To pursue the question, I turn to a revealing example of nonconsensual collaboration in contemporary literature: Lia Purpura’s personal essay “Playing with Imperfection,” which was published in a 2012 special issue of the small magazine Fugue devoted to the theme of play. The piece itself was also the subject of play: fellow essayist Michael Martone embedded his own “essay” in the form of footnotes to the other essays throughout the volume. The problem: none of the writers were in on it. Purpura published an open letter denouncing the gimmick, claiming ownership over her own writing, and declaring, “I am not a petri dish.” The online response was swift and harsh. She was denounced as stodgy, insufficiently grateful, or not famous enough to levy such a stance. The attacks were also personal and vicious in many cases. The case reveals the tensions, often gendered, of a collaborative age when writers nonetheless must make a name for themselves in the American literary marketplace.

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