6 Oct 2012 All day Magdalene College, Cripps Court, 1-3 Chesterton Road, Cambridge, CB4 3AD



Marcus Waithe (Faculty of English / Magdalene College)
Claire White (Dept. of French / Peterhouse)



Registration for this conference is now closed.



La Bruyère discovered the world’s erroneous estimate of literary labour: ‘There requires a better name to be bestowed on the leisure (the idleness he calls it) of the literary character, and that to meditate, to compose, to read and to be tranquil, should be called working.'

— Isaac D’Israeli, The Literary Character of Men of Genius, Drawn from their Own Feelings and Confessions (1818)


Should writing ‘be called working’, as La Bruyère argued? How have writers projected and problematised their labours against a changing understanding of what it means to ‘work’? Have they operated at a remove from dominant modes and measures of productivity or sought an accommodation? In what sense is literary activity poised between labour and idleness?

This symposium brings together researchers from across the humanities to address the enduringly troubled relationship between writing and ‘work’. It raises questions that are topical when cuts in public spending are prompting scrutiny of what we mean by ‘cultural production’. At the same time, this is a debate with deep historical roots. By taking the long view, this event aims to shed fresh light on some unusually persistent problems. Papers will focus on Western European writing between c. 1790-c. 1910, a formative period in our understanding of the terms of labour, writing and idleness. Against the emergent pressures of labour politics and developing paradigms of industrial production, the conditions of ‘literary labour’ were being scrutinised and reformulated with new urgency.

This event will explore new connections between social history and literary history, focusing less on the depiction of work in others, than on the representation, and self-representation, of writers as ‘workers’. As such, it responds to recent critical interest in the testimony of writers, in the formal qualities of the writing process, and in the scope for its reform or restoration as ‘work’.



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH),  University of Cambridge.



Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.


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