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Past essay topics

PAST ESSAY TOPICS for THE PRACTICE OF LIFE WRITING (EN258)

 

2005/06

2nd assessed essay.

Length 5,000 words. Deadline Tuesday 2 May 2006 (Summer Term, week 3 [Monday is a Bank Holiday]).

The topics below are suggestions. You may also use the list for the first essay (below) and are free to come up with a title of your own so long as it’s discussed with and approved by one of the module tutors by the end of Week 10 of the autumn term.

Your answer should focus on at least two works, of which at least one must be a set text. Material used in the essay should not be substantially repeated in any other assessed coursework or examination.

Before starting work, remind yourself of the guidance given in the English Department’s handbook, Essay Writing & Scholarly Practice, available from the departmental office.

Writing option: Students may offer a portfolio of life writing as one of their forms of assessment. The project, which should only be undertaken after prior consultation with one of the module tutors, will consist of 1) a piece or pieces of life writing amounting to c 4,000 words, and 2) a critical essay of about 1,000 words discussing the aims and processes involved with close reference to published works on a similar theme and/or in a similar form, and possibly also to relevant secondary material.

NB: while the portfolio may build on work written for seminars, it must represent as much additional work as would be required for an assessed essay.

Essay topics:

1. ‘biography seems to value itself upon everything that is injurious and detracting’ (Hannah More, in a letter, 1786.) Discuss any two published biographies in the light of this comment.

2. Discuss the presence or otherwise of the biographer in biographical texts.

3. With close reference to two examples, either make a reasoned case against the genre of life writing or any particular branch of it, or defend the genre against the criticisms made of it by Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, or by any other critic you have read.

4. Discuss any two works of life writing in relation to one of the following topics: narrative handling; use of sources; socio-historical background; the construction or reconstruction of artistic reputation.

5. Explore the connections, and the differences, between life writing and fiction.

6. ‘Compared with the images of our culture which post-modernism projects, biography is, in spite of its intertextual construction, fundamentally reactionary, conservative, perpetually accommodating new models of man, new theories of the inner self, into a personality-oriented mainstream, thus always helping to defuse their subversive potential.’ (Jürgen Schlaeger, ‘Biography: Cult as Culture’, in John Batchelor, ed., The Art of Literary Biography, 1995.) Discuss.

7. Imagine that you are starting a new series of [auto]biographical books, to be written by other people but with a common aim. Explain and defend your criteria with close discussion of examples, in such a way as to help your authors in their work.

8. Compare in detail any published biography or autobiography with a version or versions of the same life in a different medium (eg a film, a play, a series of portraits).

END

 

 

[1st assessed essay. Length 5,000 words. Deadline Monday 16 January 2006 (Spring Term, beginning of week 3).

 

1. ‘Myself alone! I know the feeling of my heart, and I know [human beings]. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those in existence.’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782.) Discuss the genre of autobiography, with specific reference to work by at least one published author (but also including yourself, if you wish) in the light of Rousseau’s words.

2. Write in detail about the use made by Shakespeare of his biographical source-material in Antony and Cleopatra AND one other play.

3. Make a critical case for Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals by comparison either with another journal or autobiographical work by any author, or with William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. (Your essay should not be confined to the extracts from Dorothy Wordsworth made available for the seminar.)

4. Compare in detail aspects of one or two of Evelyn Waugh’s novels with his handling of related material in A Little Learning, and discuss what the comparison reveals about his approach(es) to autobiography.

5. What do you learn about life-writing by comparing Sheelagh Ellwood’s Franco either with another book on the same subject, or with a biography of another political leader of roughly the same period, or with Ellwood’s The Spanish Civil War (1991)?

6. Paying close attention to one or two specific works, discuss one of the following in relation to life-writing: interior vs. exterior; ‘balance’; ‘honesty’; narrative structure; historical or genealogical background.]

 

Exam 2006

Answer EITHER section A and one question from section B, OR two questions from section B



Section A



 


The following passages [see xeroxes] are taken from:



 

  1. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’): complete text of article on Robert Byron.



 

  1. Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937): complete text of a passage from the book, set in Iraq. (NB ‘Christopher’ is Byron’s school friend and travelling companion, Christopher Sykes, who later wrote the original DNBarticle on him.)



 

  1. Lucy Butler, ed., Robert Byron: Letters Home, 1991: a letter Byron wrote to his mother, while in Iraq.



Imagine that you are writing a long biographical essay on Byron in which you have decided to include this episode. You don’t have permission to quote his own words. You may be opinionated but must be factually accurate. 250 words.



 


 


 


Section B



Your answer(s) may range widely but should at some point focus on ONE or TWO works, including one set text.



 


 


1. ‘To make a life intelligible, it must first become coherent.’ (Peter Ackroyd, in a review, 1991.) Discuss.



2. Consider the differences between biographies written at a historical distance from their subjects and ones about people who are still alive, or have only recently died.



3. Is it true, as Marshal Pétain wrote, that ‘to write one’s memoirs is to speak ill of everybody except oneself’?



4. Compare any fictional biography with a more factual version or versions of the same life.



5. ‘[Flaubert’s] Bouvard and Pécuchet, during their investigations into literature, find that they lose respect for an author when he strays into error. I am more surprised by how few mistakes writers make. So the Bishop of Liège dies fifteen years before he should: does this invalidate [Walter Scott’s historical novel] Quentin Durward? It’s a trivial offence’ (Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot). Discuss any TWO or more works you have read for this module in the light of this passage.



6. With close reference to particular examples, consider the view that certain responsibilities and/or problems are specific to biographies of people in TWO of the following categories: a) well-known political figures; b) well-known artists; c) people of any kind whose lives haven’t attracted much attention.



7. Discuss the argument that biographies of writers are a distraction from, or substitute for, a serious encounter with their work.



8. ‘Do not impose a premature scheme upon him or her, avoid simplistic plot-structures, and give your hard work of [interpretation and analysis] a role in the story you are setting out to tell.’ (Malcolm Bowie, ‘Freud and the Art of Biography.’) Discuss.



9. The earliest life-writing took the form of exemplary stories about holy people and heroes. Consider the effects of this ancestry on the genre.



10. With close reference to particular examples, write about the advantages and disadvantages to a biographer of having been ‘authorized’ by a literary estate.


2008-09

2nd assessed essay. Length 5,000 words. Deadline Tuesday 5 May 2009(Summer Term, week 3 [Monday is a Bank Holiday]).

The topics below are suggestions. You may also use a topic from previous lists of topics on the website and are free to come up with a title of your own so long as it’s discussed with and approved by one of the module tutors before the end of March.

Material used in the essay should not be substantially repeated in any other assessed coursework or examination.

Writing option: Students may offer a portfolio of life writing as one of their forms of assessment. The project, which should only be undertaken after prior consultation with one of the module tutors, will consist of 1) a piece or pieces of life writing amounting to c 4,000 words, and 2) a critical essay of about 1,000 words discussing the aims and processes involved with close reference to published works on a similar theme and/or in a similar form, and possibly also to relevant secondary material.

NB: while the portfolio may build on work written for seminars, it must represent as much additional work as would be required for an assessed essay.

‘The moment a person becomes famous, two different biographies become necessary: the story of their fame and the revelation of their inner life.’ Discuss with reference to Cleopatra, Shakespeare, ‘Perdita’ Robinson, John Clare … or any other famous figure.

What are the distinctive gains and losses of fictionalised as opposed to factual biography? Answer on Flaubert’s Parrot, The Cure for Love, The Pursuit of Loveor any other appropriate novel.

Biographers usually regard letters and journals as the ultimate gold dust. Why is this the case, and might the assumptions behind it be dangerous?

Analyse the problem of distinguishing between real memories of childhood and memories invented by the act of remembering. Wordsworth or Nabokov are obvious starting points, but you may range widely in your choice of subject.

What is the place of comedy in biography and autobiography? Discuss with reference to Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford or any other appropriate figure.

6. Compare Richard Holmes’s Footsteps with another biographical work or works based on the idea of a quest, and/or in which biography and autobiography are closely linked. (Examples might be A.J.A.Symons’s The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography or Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D.Salinger.)

7. In Wikipaedia’s long entry on Roald Dahl, the only biographical source listed is Philip Howard’s 2004 article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39827?docPos=2). Howard includes among his sources Jeremy Treglown’s biography, various texts also drawn on by Treglown, and ‘personal knowledge’ and ‘private information’. Discuss the uses of sources and evidence in these or other texts in which Dahl or any other controversial figure is the central character.

8. Discuss Inside Hitler’s Bunker in relation to one or more of the following: Joachim Fest’s full biography of Hitler; Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler; Antony Beevor’s Berlin – The Downfall 1945; Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall (Der Untergang).