“Why Diarists Write”: Chapter Available

In support of all my fellow teachers who are assigning diary or journal writing to their students during the corona virus crisis, I am making one chapter of my book, How to Read a Diary: Critical Contexts & Interpretive Strategies for 21st-Century Readers (Routledge, 2019), available here as a downloadable pdf. The chapter introduces numerous instances in the past when ordinary people found themselves caught up in extraordinary times, and used their diaries as sites of witness, creating invaluable historical records for the future. It also discusses the mental health benefits and challenges of diary writing. It’s only 10 pages and accessibly written — meant for a wide audience. I hope that both teachers and students will find it useful. Stay well everyone!


“Reading Digitized Diaries”

My essay, “Reading Digitized Diaries: Privacy and the Digital Life-Writing Archive,” is now out at a/b: Autobiography Studies. I am really proud of this essay, which was the first scholarly writing about diaries I ever completed. It’s strange because my research in this area has really taken off and I have published a few other essays on the genre already, while this one worked its way slowly through the editorial process at a/b. While published later, this essay represents where I started. Looking at it now, I can already see how my thinking has evolved but I remain proud of the work and excited to have produced something out of this index — which I initially designed as a resource for my students, but which has really impacted my thinking about diaries and how modes of access shape our understanding of the genre. I hope you’ll check it out.

Digitized Diaries: New Paths in Diary Studies

I created this blog to host the list of Digitized Diaries (linked above) as a research tool for my own scholarship and for other scholars and students interested in studying diaries in digital form. Initially, I experimented with blogging about diaries — an early stage in my own thinking about the genre — but eventually this slacked off. I may return to the blog occasionally, if I find I have something to say, but this site will primarily be designed to serve as a resource for the study of the diary.

I hope you find the Digitized Diary Index useful!

The Diary of Anne Frank: New Controversies

Anne Frank’s diary is arguably the best-known, most-widely-read diary in the world. I suspect that for many readers Frank’s diary is an introduction to the form, perhaps an inspiration for writing their own diaries. From Frank’s diary, they would learn about dailiness, about the letter-diary hybrid, and, of course, about the powerful combination of ordinariness and pathos.

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Frank’s Diary has been in the news recently because of two intertwined controversies: the question of whether or not her father, Otto Frank, can legitimately be considered co-author of the Diary; and the question of whether or not the copyright on the Diary has expired, allowing the text to enter the public domain.

That Otto Frank played a significant editorial role in the production of the published Diary has long been understood by both scholars and general readers. My copy of the Diary identifies him as editor on the cover (along with Mirjam Pressler). But Otto’s editorial role has come under further scrutiny around the question of whether “editor,” in this instance, equates with “co-author.”

While the debate may be new to Frank Studies, this is a question commonly confronted by literary critics, particularly around texts in which an editor/amanuensis possessed greater power or social status than the author/subject. In my Life Writing classes last semester, we studied the Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge (1838), which precisely exhibits these conditions: authored by a white woman, Frances H. Whipple, the memoir recounts the life of a mixed race (indigenous, African American) woman, Eldridge, who appears to have been illiterate. The contemporary editor of this recovered text, Joycelyn Moody, makes the provocative claim that Whipple and Eldridge should be considered co-authors, thereby upsetting the expected characterization of the (white, powerful) editor stealing and suppressing the voice of the (non-white, disempowered) subject (which is how texts of this kind have often been interpreted by literary critics). My students and I struggled with this characterization — we had many productive but unresolved conversations about what it would mean to consider these two women co-authors, what the implications were for the definition of authorship, whether or not Eldridge could be considered to be “speaking” through the text, etc. These discussions have been on my mind as I’ve been reading about the Otto Frank issue: What does it mean to view Otto as Anne’s co-author? There are similar issues regarding power and authority: Otto is male, adult, and living; Anne is female, young, and deceased; obviously, she does not have the ability to control or craft her text. To move Otto from editor to co-author appears to reinforce this power dynamic, to further Anne’s marginalization within or through her own life writing. It also calls into question the accuracy and legitimacy of the text itself — a question that always hovers around published diaries, but one that is particularly exacerbated when an editor (or co-author?) has played a role in bringing the text to the public view.

The claim that Otto is co-author is made by the Swiss foundation, Anne Frank Fonds — a fact steeped in irony. You would think that the Fonds would have the strongest stake in affirming the authenticity of Frank’s Diary, which appears to be eroded by the “co-authorship” claim. Yet, the Fonds also has a strong financial interest in extending the copyright of Frank’s book. According to European law, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author. As a result, Frank’s Diary should enter the pubic domain on January 1, 2016. But, if Otto is a co-author, the copyright would be extended until 2050. Hence the counter-claim, the lawsuits, and the controversy.

As I understand it, the co-authorship claim did not prevent several Dutch editions of Frank’s Diary from being posted on the internet on January 1, 2016. English (and other language) editions remain copyrighted according to the date of their translation and publication.

It’s the interpretive questions that this debate raise that interest me: If a diary is edited after the diarist’s death, under what circumstances can/should the editor be considered a co-author? And, if the diary is considered co-authored, is it still a diary? Does it still possess the status of truthful authenticity that diaries are expected to have? Extending these questions from Frank’s Diary to other published diaries is, I think, a necessary step for those of us interested in the past and future of the diary genre.

For further reading:

“Anne Frank Foundation fights plans to publish diary online” (The Guardian)

Cory Doctorow, “Anne Frank’s diary is in the public domain” (Boing-Boing)

Rich McCormic, “Anne Frank’s diary is now in free to download” (The Verge)

Quill & Quire posted competing op-eds, for and against the co-authorship claim: John Degan FOR and Michael Wolfe AGAINST



The Diary Art Book

Are diaries art? Each of these books treats the material object of the diary as a form of visual art.

Beyond Words: 200 Years of Illustrated Diaries by Susan Snyder (Bancroft Library, 2011)

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Un Journal A Soi: Histoire d’une Pratique, Philippe Lejeune and Catherine Bogaert (Textuel, 2003) 

IMG_1742 IMG_1744 IMG_1746 IMG_1747 IMG_1748 IMG_1751 IMG_1752Sophie du Pont: A Young Lady in America, Sketches, Diaries & Letters, 1823-1833, Betty-Bright Low and Jacqueline Hinsley (Harry N. Abrams Pub, 1987)

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Itsy-Bitsy Adorable Diary-ette

It’s so cute you just want to pinch its cheeks, right?

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I spent the past few weeks doing archival research on (naturally) diaries. This is one of the many different varieties of nineteenth-century diaries I encountered: no bigger than a matchbox, but with an ornate latching mechanism. The author used it to record major life events: a single line on each tiny page commemorating the date of her marriage, birth of her children, etc. It’s the antithesis of the typical diary — though this research has driven home for me the fact that there is no such thing as a “typical” diary, despite the fact that so many of them follow recognizable formulas or are written in pre-formatted notebooks. I have a soft spot in my heart for this one, which is such a beautiful artifact and a testament to the durability of small, precious objects.

The Case of the Missing Diary

MISSINGMISSING. Have you seen me?

So, I lost my diary.

It’s the most peculiar thing. It has completely vanished. We’ve turned the house over several times, to no avail.

It’s peculiar because I never take my diary out of the house. I distinctly remember the most recent time I wrote in it (last weekend) and where I was sitting (dining table), but after that …?

It’s peculiar because there are not many places it could be. Our house is small and pretty tidy. We’ve checked all the obvious places and even some absurdly unlikely places. At this point, we don’t know where else to look.

But it is emphatically peculiar because I am working so much on diaries these days. I am reading diaries and reading literary criticism about diaries. I am writing about diaries here and in more formal academic arenas. I am presenting on diaries at conferences. I am driving my partner and friends crazy by talking endlessly about diaries.

And now I cannot find my own diary. You’ve got to admit, that’s peculiar.

And, frankly, it is upsetting. The diary that I lost is an Apica notebook, started in late 2013. The thought that I have lost the record of that time is hard to take — not because I was a consistent writer during this period or because I had anything important or lyrical to say — I’ve read too many really good diaries to recognize that my own is not particularly “good” in an aesthetic or literary sense. But, the record of those years is meaningful to me. This past year has been a really difficult one for my family; we’ve experienced some life-altering challenges, which I wrote about as they happened. I want to have those words somewhere, to know that they are there if and when I want to read them again. The thought that those words have disappeared makes them seem, suddenly, all the more precious and important.

I worry that somehow my diary was thrown away. In my more paranoid moments, I imagine that someone came into the house and took my diary. Who would that be? A very selective and ineffective thief? House elves? I know it’s illogical but I can’t quite shake the image of a stranger somewhere reading and cackling over my diary.

Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of experience I would write about in my diary but I cannot bring myself to start a new diary. I have not given up hope that it’s going to turn up. But I feel incomplete not having one; I’ve kept a diary regularly for over 25 years. 25 years and I’ve never lost a diary before. It’s very, very peculiar.

UPDATED: I found my diary. Almost two weeks later. In the most obvious place, where I swear I looked several times but, apparently, I did not see what was right before my eyes. I’m relieved, a little wierded out, but definitely relieved.

Diary and Diary Fiction at MLA 2015

I’ve been deep in diary research the past few weeks as I prepare a talk for MLA 2015. I organized a panel on diaries and diary fiction, and was gratified by the large number of excellent proposals I received. My fellow presenters represent a variety of critical approaches to the study of diary and diary fiction, as well as different national literary traditions and time periods. I cannot wait to hear their papers.

My own talk is a bit of a stretch for me. Here’s how it came to be:

Me (in my pajamas, reading the New York Times Book Review on a Sunday morning, circa 2013): Huh. There’s another review of another novel that prominently features a diary. Isn’t that strange? (Adds book title to growing list.) I wonder why so many contemporary novelists are relying on the diary? What does it mean? Maybe I could write a paper about this?

Well, a few years later and I’ve been reading contemporary diary fiction and hopefully by Sunday I’ll have something productive to say about a selection of these novels. I will be talking about:

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)
Tim Parks, Sex is Forbidden (2012)
Scott Hutchins, A Working Theory of Love (2012)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
Stephen Lloyd Jones, The String Diaries (2014)

One of the questions I am considering is why, although each of these novels is set in the present, none of the diary writers keeps their diaries on a computer or blog or any other digital format. While I myself am dedicated to my handwritten diary and cannot imagine typing my diary onto a screen, the common theme across the five books of eschewing available technology in favor of the old fashioned manuscript diary really interests me. I have some theories about why this is and how it impacts each novels’ representation of a diverse range of media and technologies.

Something I’ve learned working on the talk: it’s very hard to discuss five novels in 15 minutes. Hopefully the audience will be understanding about my thumbnail analysis.

Here’s the line up …

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Vancouver, here we come!