Art & Action

Art and Action: Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics (2018-2021)
Project T 922-G30: Supported by the FWF Austrian Science Fund as part of its Hertha Firnberg programme.

Celebrity advocacy has become a familiar phenomenon in today’s media-saturated world, which has seen well-known actors, comedians, musicians, and entrepreneurs making their forays into political activism. While the media spotlight is often cast on the political interventions of twenty-first-century entertainment celebrities, the long tradition of eminent writers crossing the divide between art and action has received less attention. Their multiple roles as elected politicians, activists, and public intellectuals appear almost like a default position – a response to a cultural expectation that is closely tied to the idea of the artist as propagandist and moral authority who appeals to the political, moral, and social conscience of their readership. Conducted in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, this project looks at the ways in which authors in the British context, from the nineteenth century to the present, have taken advantage of their celebrity status in order to draw attention to specific socio-political concerns in and through autobiographical narrative.

Events organised

“Art & Action: Literary Authorship, Politics, and Celebrity Culture”

“Art & Action: Literary Authorship, Politics, and Celebrity Culture”
Originally conceived as a two-day conference at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), 20-21 March 2020, but cancelled due to Covid-19, this Zoom webinar series is convened by me and Dr Ruth Scobie (Mansfield College, Oxford). It is supported by the FWF Austrian Science Fund and TORCH in collaboration with The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, and The Stephen Spender Trust. For more details and recordings of previous events, please visit our webinar website.

“Writing Activism”

“Writing Activism”
A workshop featuring contributions by Refugee Tales, Karin Amatmoekrim, and Eve Wedderburn; organised with Katherine Collins in collaboration with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), 26 February 2019. 

“Literary Celebrity and Political Persona”

“Literary Celebrity and Political Persona”
Discussion panel featuring contributions by Kirsty Gunn, P David Marshall, and Rachel Potter; organised and chaired by Sandra Mayer in collaboration with The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Wolfson College, 14 May 2018. Podcast available here.

“Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics”

“Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics”
A one-day symposium, 5 March 2016, at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Listen to the series of podcasts available on the University of Oxford podcast channel and read the conference report here!

Journal Special Issue

“Forum: Art and Action: Authorship, Politics and Celebrity.”

“Forum: Art and Action: Authorship, Politics and Celebrity.” Ed. Sandra Mayer. Celebrity Studies 8.1 (2017).

Life-Writing & Celebrity 

Both life-writing and celebrity – as practices, phenomena and fields of research – are concerned with the notions of authenticity and intimacy, public and private, accessibility and aloofness, myth-making and revelation. Both explore the tension between individual agency and the shaping and appropriation of public images by cultural and socio-political frameworks, media industries, ideologies, and a whole network of agents. In spite of their many shared concerns, the close interconnections of life-writing and celebrity have only recently begun to be specifically addressed. The research strand on celebrity and life-writing I am co-ordinating at The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing aims to contribute towards a more sustained dialogue between these two closely interwoven fields and to trigger a conversation about what we as scholars and ‘practitioners’ may gain from combining their theories and methodologies. How can we benefit from integrating a life-writing perspective into our work on celebrity, and how does thinking about the nature of celebrity, the conditions of producing and consuming celebrity, change the way in which we write, read and study life narratives?

Events organised

"Celebrity & Memory: Victorian & Neo-Victorian Perspectives"

“Celebrity & Memory: Victorian & Neo-Victorian Perspectives“,
Lecture series organised with Sylvia Mieszkowski and Monika Pietrzak-Franger, English Department, University of Vienna, winter term 2020/21.

"Auto/Biographie, Gender und Celebrity"

“Auto/Biographie, Gender und Celebrity,“
Workshop organised with Julia Lajta-Novak, Carola Bebermeier and Maren Bagge, hosted by the Department of European Ethnology, University of Vienna, 15-16 November 2019.

"Transnational Lives and Cosmopolitan Biographies"

“Transnational Lives and Cosmopolitan Biographies,“ day symposium convened with Philip Ross Bullock, and hosted by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing in collaboration with the “Writing 1900″ network; Wolfson College, 17 March 2018.

"Life-Writing and Female Celebrity"

Colloquium hosted by The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Wolfson College, 4 November 2017; featuring contributions by Patricia Duncker, Stella Tillyard, Mary Luckhurst, and Hannah Yelin. Podcasts can be accessed through the University of Oxford podcast channel.

"The Lives of Houses"

“The Lives of Houses,“ one-day colloquium organised with Oliver Cox and hosted by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Wolfson College, 27 May 2017; podcasts available here.

"The Celebrity Interview: History, Aesthetics, Method"

“The Celebrity Interview: History, Aesthetics, Method,“ discussion panel featuring contributions by Rebecca Roach, Anneleen Masschelein, and Hermione Lee; The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Wolfson College, 17 January 2017. Podcast available here.

“Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue”

“Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue,” one-day colloquium, hosted by The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Wolfson College, 16 November 2016; featuring contributions by Emma Smith, Hermione Lee, Philip Bullock, Ruth Scobie, Tobias Heinrich, Ginette Vincendeau, Julia Lajta-Novak, and Lindsay Shapero. Podcasts available here.

"Life-Writing and Celebrity: Exploring Intersections"

Seminar convened with Julia Lajta-Novak, 13th Conference of the European Society for the Study of English, NUI Galway, Ireland, 22-26 August 2016.

Edited Collection
Journal Special Issue

A special issue on the theme of “Life-Writing and Celebrity“ for Life Writing, guest-edited with Julia Lajta-Novak, was published in March 2019. The individual contributions explore the intersections of these two fields across media, genres, and disciplines, including film, painting, and biofiction, with case studies ranging from the 18th century to the present. In December 2019, the special issue was published as an edited collection by Routledge.

Cultural Transfer & Reception

In my PhD research, I explored the transfer, dissemination, and reception of Oscar Wilde’s works on twentieth-century Viennese stages. Examining the successive phases of literary image construction, which, in Wilde’s case, neatly follow a distinctive pattern of forging, consolidating, modifying and, eventually, remodelling the playwright’s reputation in the local literary field, the study reveals the crucial role played by artistic networks, government censorship offices, translators, adaptors, directors, actors, and critics in the course of popularising, establishing, and reinterpreting Oscar Wilde’s works on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Viennese stages and thus sheds light on the mutual interdependence of cultural production, structural framework, and socio-historical background.

Drawing on extensive archival material, my monograph Oscar Wilde in Vienna: Pleasing and Teasing the Audience was published with Brill Rodopi in 2018. Charting the history of Wilde’s plays on Viennese stages between 1903 and 2013, it examines the international reputation of one of the most popular English-language writers while contributing to Austrian cultural history in the long twentieth century.  


On 8 February 2019, I discussed the book with theatre scholar Mary Luckhurst (Head of the School of Arts, University of Bristol), cultural historian Dominic Janes (Professor of Modern History, Keele University), and literary scholar Stefano Evangelista (Associate Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford) at an event jointly hosted by the TORCH Theatre and Performance Studies and Queer Studies Networks. A podcast is available here.

Journal Special Issue

I continue to be interested in the transnational circulation of literary reputations through cosmopolitan artistic networks. In March 2018, Philip Bullock and I organised a day symposium on “Transnational Lives and Cosmopolitan Biographies“, which aimed to explore the tangled relationship between life-writing, creativity, fame, and the transnational. A special issue on the theme, guest-edited with Clément Dessy for Comparative Critical Studies, will appear in 2020.