Art & Action: A Webinar Series on Literary Authorship, Politics, and Celebrity Culture

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Writers as Political Activists

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This webinar explores the multi-faceted roles and cultural authority of writers as political activists and public intellectuals across a diverse range of historical periods, literatures, and cultures. Simon Morgan looks at the intersection between disability, authorship, and literary political radicalism in early Victorian Britain through the life and work of disabled Chartist poet, James Vernon of South Molton. Although not a ‘celebrity’ in the traditional sense, Vernon used his literary aspirations to increase his own ‘attention capital’, and thus serves as a case study for exploring the potentials and limitations of literary activism as a strategy for self-actualisation and empowerment. Divya A discusses B. Jeyamohan’s tale “Aram”, written in Tamil and set in a small town in Tamil Nadu, India, in the 1950s. She probes the relations between Jeyamohan’s fictional narrative and the discourse surrounding the author’s public persona to throw light on the relationship between his writing and the affirmation of the cultural status-quo that privileges the majority religion, the higher caste, and the male. Her aim is to illustrate how the field intersections of writing and cultural activism are inflected in problematic ways through the lens of caste and gender. Odile Heynders addresses the position and cultural authority of literary authors in the increasingly fragmented twenty-first-century public sphere. Focusing on the work of literary author Valeria Luiselli and her interventions regarding issues of migration in the Trump era, she considers the specific role of authors as public intellectuals and spokespersons in current political debate.

Simon Morgan is Head of History at Leeds Beckett University. He is the author of A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century (I.B. Tauris, 2007), and the co-editor of the Letters of Richard Cobden, 4 vols. (Oxford University Press, 2006-2015). He has published widely on the histories of nineteenth-century public culture and radical politics, and is currently completing a monograph for Manchester University Press entitled: Celebrities, Heroes and Champions: Popular Politicians in the Age of Reform, 1810-1867.

Divya A is an Assistant Professor in English Literature in the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, India. Her research interests primarily revolve around explorations in the fields of gender, domesticity, spatiality, urbanism, and the interplay between the visual and the textual in literature and culture. After obtaining her Master of Studies degree in Early Modern English Literature from the University of Oxford, Divya completed her PhD in Nineteenth-Century English Fiction at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She has published articles on Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Her current research projects are on Anglo-Indians, colonial texts and illustrations, and regional Indian literatures in translation. 

Odile Heynders is Professor of Comparative Literature and Head of the Department of Culture Studies at Tilburg University. She was a fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Sciences (NIAS) in 1998/99 and 2004/05. She published books and articles on European literature and authorship. Her book Writers as Public Intellectuals: Literature, Celebrity, Democracy (2016) appeared with Palgrave Macmillan. Her current book project is on experiences of migration in literature.

This series of webinars is convened by Sandra Mayer (University of Vienna / Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, sandra.mayer@wolfson.ox.ac.uk) and Ruth Scobie (Mansfield College, Oxford, ruth.scobie@ell.ox.ac.uk), and is supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) in collaboration with The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, and The Stephen Spender Trust.

For more information, see https://torch.ox.ac.uk/art-and-action and https://artandactionoxford.wordpress.com