On Thursday, November 2, 2017, several English graduate students joined visiting colloquium speaker Julie Orlemanski for a mentoring conversation over a lovely dinner at L’Albatros Brasserie. This opportunity was generously funded by Writers House, an initiative to construct a university-wide hub centered on the act of writing in all of its rich permutations. John Orlock, Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of Humanities, currently serves as the inaugural director of Writers House.
Dr. Orlemanski is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where she specializes in late-medieval literature and literary theory. She has just completed a monograph entitled “Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Signs, and Narratives in Late Medieval England,” and her new book project is “Things without Faces: Prosopopoeia in Medieval Writing,” which addresses fictional bodies in the Middle Ages. Her work has appeared in Exemplaria, postmedieval, JMEMS, Textual Practice, JEGP, and numerous edited collections. For the academic year 2017-2018, she is a Visiting Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Orlemanski discussed her own academic career and research and shared advice on coursework, teaching, publishing, conference presentations, graduate student activism, and work-life balance. Students enjoyed her and one another’s company in advance of Orlemanski’s colloquium the next day.
What, exactly, is fiction? And does fiction have a history? Recent scholars have argued that fictionality only “arose” or “emerged” in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the realist novel. Against this claim, Professor Orlemanski argues for the importance, but also the difficulty, of investigating medieval fictionality. One way such an investigation might proceed is through medieval literary theory, or the corpus of commentaries, prologues, and treatises in which medieval thinkers described the nature of textuality. Though Orlemanski attends to this body of thought, she also points out its limits. The practice of fiction-writing in the Middle Ages, especially in the vernacular, often developed at a remove from such explicit theorization. Accordingly, Professor Orlemanski explores how concepts of fiction are embodied, immanently, in medieval poetic writing. In particular, she shows how the fictional bodies of literary characters incarnate ideas about these characters’ ontology, or the nature of their being. Finally, Professor Orlemanski turns back to the charge of anachronism that might be leveled at her approach, and she seeks to address the question of whether fiction can truly be said to have a history.