English 464 WI: Studies in Life Writing–Fact, Fakery, Fiction, and Faction
MWF 9:30 to 10:20
Although the lines between fact and fiction, or history and literature, have always been blurry, the repertoire of hybrid literary and cinematic genres has been expanding precipitously over the past few decades. The familiar and often venerable paradoxical forms—historical fiction, autobiographical fiction, the dramatic monologue, confessional poetry—have recently been augmented by such productions as graphic “novels,” autofiction, biofiction, creative non-fiction, biopics, documentary fiction, “As told to . . . ,” “Based on a true story,” and a host of other genres and sub-genres that handle archival or factual material with a great deal of creative license.
This course has three motives. 1. To sketch out a history of how literary texts have deployed factual material 2. To examine how modern (20th century) and contemporary literary texts have drawn upon earlier historical material. 3. To explore how certain writers or film makers have negotiated, masked, or exploited their own relationship to family histories or contemporary events.
Key texts (Title and author/editor only)
Plutarch, Lives / Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra
Aphra Behn, Oronoko
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities / Thomas Carlyle, The History of the French Revolution
Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood / Capote
Caryl Churchill, Top Girls
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Mutiny on the Bounty (films)
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell
Disney Productions, Moana
Class requirements and procedures
These will include attendance, weekly postings on upcoming material, content tests, in-class reports on research, a shorter archival paper, and then a substantial—15 to 20 pages (@5,000 words)—research paper, involving a compiled bibliography, initial draft, and revision. There will be mandatory conferences for all papers.
The course will entail substantial historical research—NOT to determine “what really happened” (although that might come up occasionally)—but to evaluate the author or director’s deployment of the “factual” material, and to explore issues related to genre and historiography—how the understanding and pursuit of the past is itself historically conditioned.
This course falls under the English Major Pathway for Literary Histories and Genres. It will certainly introduce you to a “diversity of literary forms and the complexity of literary history”—in fact, these are the considerations driving this course. Because it is a Studies course, there will also be extensive writing instruction. As for the destination of this pathway, while it would certainly be a good direction to follow in terms of an English graduate program, the emphasis on fact, interpretation, narrative, and history will be valuable for those thinking of a career in law.
Craig Howes is a professor of English, the co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, and the Director of the Center for Biographical Research. He has published frequently on life writing, nineteenth century British and American fiction and non-fiction, and periodical literature.