'Dear Diary': New Approaches to an Established Genre
Colloquium and Workshop
University of Sussex, November 22-23, 2001
CALL FOR PAPERS
The diary kept by the teenager Anne Frank between 1942 and 1944, whilst in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, is one of the most widely read and impressive books of the twentieth century. It is significant as an historical document and as a work of literature in equal measure. The diary as a genre and a practice has a five hundred year tradition, and Anne Frank's is just one famous example. Every year numerous diaries by prominent figures are published and consumed by a public eager for 'private' insights into a life, and yet it is arguably the only literary form which intimidates no-one and is familiar to all. Despite this diaries and journals have tended to be neglected by research.
In conjunction with the exhibition 'Anne Frank: A History for Today', to be held at Brighton College Great Hall in November 2001, the Centre for German-Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex plans to hold a two-day colloquium entitled '"Dear Diary": New Approaches to an Established Genre' on Thursday November 22 and Friday November 23. We invite proposals (ca. 300 wds) for short papers on the diary. We hope to investigate as many of the different aspects of this important literary mode as possible over two days. Proposals for papers on individual diaries should also incorporate reflections on the genre, exploring some of the broader questions suggested by the topic. In the following we suggest some possible ideas and directions for presentations:
Diary Writing as Therapy
The habit of keeping a diary, of creating a narrative of events, thoughts, hopes and emotions, may be considered at one level intensely private. At its purest diary writing is a form of self-reflection, a therapeutic mediation of one's life not intended for consumption by others. It would also seem, as in Anne Frank's case, that the intensity with which a diary is written lies in direct proportion to the degree of stress and trauma suffered in everyday life. What is the connection between writing, trauma, and therapy? How effective can the writing of a diary be in helping an individual to cope with stress? Should diary writing be preferred to other types of writing, such as prose fiction or poetry, as a means of dealing with problems?
Diaries and Readers
What distinguishes a diary from a letter? It is noticeable that writers sometimes feel uncomfortable to be writing a monologue in a vacuum, and a fictional addressee, a recipient of the words is created. This act can range simply from the famous 'Dear diary', in which the book itself is invested with personality, to the fictional friend, christened 'Kitty', to whom Anne Frank addressed her diary. And yet diaries are also kept by writers and public figures with a future readership in mind; from Swift, Evelyn and Pepys onwards they have represented not just a way for a writer to comment upon his own life but also a means of describing and analysing society, politics and culture more frankly than would be possible in public.
Is there a difference between the unselfconscious type of writing typical of a truly private diary and that in a diary ultimately intended for a wide readership? Do readers react differently to diaries than to other types of writing? Are there ethical problems in reading a private diary?
Diaries and Gender
The therapeutic side to the diary is sometimes perceived as a peculiarly feminine form of writing, an impression reinforced with the recent success of Helen Fielding's novel, Bridget Jones's Diary. Historically, the diary represented a creative outlet for women prevented from other types of writing, or from expressing themselves freely in public. But do women really keep more diaries than men, and do they keep them in a different way? What are the connections between gender and the diary form?
Anne Frank's is only one example of a diary written in secret; there are many other examples of the diary form providing an outlet for ideas, words, and feelings which would have caused scandal or worse for the writer had they been made known to the wider public. In what ways has the diary served as an important form of private testimony, of protest against a prevailing ethos? We would be particularly interested in investigations of the diaries kept by victims of the Holocaust.
Diaries and Technology
There are now many different ways of keeping a diary or journal - on tape, video, on a home computer, on a publicly accessible website. How have new forms of technology affected our understanding of the diary in the traditional sense? There are huge numbers of websites providing not just access to private diaries and journals but advice and encouragement to others interested in writing a diary. The ease with which communication can take place on the Internet seems to be transforming what was once an intensely private activity, taking place outside the wider community, into a recognisable subculture.
Diaries as Historical and Social History Resources
Clearly, a diary may also be a valuable historical document of an individual life, and, more broadly, of historical or social circumstances. But what type of evidence, precisely, does a diary provide an historian? How do we handle the subjectivity of the diarist in academic research? What is the relationship between the diary as text and the life as lived? How have diaries influenced our understanding of key periods in history?
Diaries as a Teaching Resource
Is the diary a useful tool in teaching? Anne Frank's diary is widely read and taught at school level, but are there other ways in which diaries can be usefully employed in the classroom? What is the relationship between children's literature and the diary form?
Diaries and Fiction
Fictional diaries, or novels employing the diary form have long represented a minor but significant literary genre. From Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Gogol's Diary of a Madman and George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, through to recent comic manifestations of the form by writers like Sue Townsend and Helen Fielding, there have been numerous successful examples. What distinguishes these texts from other literary forms? Does the diary form lend itself particularly well to a certain type of storytelling? What is its future in the 'postmodern' age?
There are of course numerous other possible approaches. Proposals for 30 minute presentations should be sent to Jon Hughes or Chana Moshenska at the Centre for German Jewish Studies (e-mail addresses below). The deadline for the receipt of proposals is Monday 17 September.
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