MSA18 CFP: Modernism and the Origin and Rise of Biofiction

CFP for an MSA 18 Panel on the topic of

Modernism and the Origin and Rise of Biofiction

MSA 18: November 17-20 in Pasadena, CA

250-Word Abstracts due March 20th

Send cv and abstracts to Michael Lackey (


In 1937, Georg Lukács published The Historical Novel, a landmark study that examines the nature and power of the literary form.  But he also discusses the biographical novel, which is a form of fiction that names its protagonist after an actual historical figure.  Many biographical novels were published in the 1930s by notable writers like Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Robert Graves, Arna Bontemps, Lion Feuchtwanger, Irving Stone, and Zora Neale Hurston.  But Lukács condemned the form as irredeemable.

I am seeking submissions for a panel about the role modernism played in the rise and legitimization of biofiction.  For instance, modernist theories of knowledge led some writers to author biblical biographical novels that challenged and debunked ideas in and approaches to the Bible.  Thomas Mann and Zora Neale Hurston wrote biographical novels about Joseph, Moses, and Herod.  Specifically which theories of knowledge led Mann and Hurston to write biographical novels about biblical figures?  How do modernist theories of knowledge impact the characterizations of the biblical figures in the novels?  How do the modernist theories of knowledge, as dramatized in the novels, force readers to rework their understanding of and approach to the Bible?  How have Mann’s and Hurston’s works contributed to the rise of the contemporary biblical biographical novels of Frederick Buechner, Anita Diamant, David Maine, ColmTóibín and Geraldine Brooks, to mention only a notable few?

A more theoretical question is: to what degree did distinctly modernist ideas contribute to the making of the biographical novel?  According to Lukács, the hero of a historical novel should be a fictional figure that functions as a historical-social type.  Thus, he condemns the biographical novel, because its protagonist is based on an actual historical figure.  Is Lukács right to condemn the biographical novel? If not, why not?  Lukács believes that the successful historical novel should give readers the objective proportions and weights of history.  To what degree and in what sense does the biographical novel refute core ideas at the center of Lukács’ work about historical fiction by centering the novel in the consciousness of a biographical subject?  What kind of history do readers get from biofiction?  And what kind of biographical subject do readers get from biofiction?

Modernist writers did much to challenge and deconstruct traditional versions of subjectivity, especially those based on strict binaries.  How have modernist theories of the subject contributed to the formation and valorization of biofiction?  And, is it a coincidence that so many contemporary biographical novels have been written about famous or important modernists, including Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Egon Schiele, Virginia Woolf, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Katherine Mansfield, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, Sergey Nabakov, Frid Kahlo, and Walter Benjamin, just to mention only a notable few?

As you can see, the questions are endless.  For those interested in this panel, send a cv and a 250-word abstract to Michael Lackey ( by March 20th.