Sample Abstracts

Below are links to some sample abstracts that I've written for past conference presentations. These examples are about 500 words in length and fit on one page, single-spaced. They all follow a similar format: the introductory paragraph generally introduces the topic and may include the thesis claim of the paper; a second (and sometimes a third) paragraph outlines the trajectory of the argument, naming examples or texts which will be discussed; and a final paragraph offers provisional conclusions and contains the thesis if it was not presented in the introductory paragraph. (Also note that each is tailored to the topic or theme of the panel or conference -- not a concern for your assignment, but one that you should keep in mind when submitting abstracts for consideration for presentation.)

"'A kind of manual for the times': Self-Help for the Culturally Schizophrenic

in Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary"

Karin E. Westman, College of Charleston

A reader from Yorkshire, England posted to the "Customer Comments" at that she found the favorable response elicited by Helen Fielding's wildly popular, best-selling Bridget Jones's Diary to be troubling: "I do find it slightly worrying," she writes, "to see so many people who genuinely see this book as a kind of manual for the times. No-one is saying Bridget is real. God help us, surely no-one is saying we should be like Bridget" (Comments, 4/19/99). Yet hers is the minority opinion expressed in the now 520 customer comments posted at since the book's publication in 1998. The prevailing response could be summed up in the phrase "Bridget, c'est moi": readers (and predominately self-identified female readers) who post to find Fielding's comic novel entertaining because it allows them both to identify with and to laugh at the slings and arrows of humorous misfortune which greet Fielding's thirty-something "Singleton" heroine. Struggling with diet, drink, smoking, "smug marrieds," the "emotional fuckwittage" of unhealthy boyfriends, and tangled-up black tights in the laundry basket, Bridget's first-person narration, presented in diary form and often in sentence fragments and abbreviations ("v.g."), writes these readers' lives for them with a comic and only slightly critical eye, often regardless of readers' nationality or age.

The line between "real" and "fictional," then, blurs, as female readers turn to Fielding's novel for self-discovery as well as laughter. For many, Bridget's diary reveals a "real 90's woman" (; Comments, 2/15/99), one who allows the reader to "find comfort in that at least you are not alone" (Comments, 2/28/99). Like their fictional counterpart who is obsessed with self-help books and trends, such readers therefore seek Bridget's reflections as a form of self-help. Fielding's sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, released in the U.S. just a month ago, seems to offer similar solace and aid, as Renee from Ohio remarks: "Makes you want to throw all your self help books into the dustbin and avoid Thai food at all costs. Throw away The Rules and read Edge of Reason. Hurrah!" (Comments, 3/21/00). Yet, what kind of "help" do Fielding's novels provide? As a few other readers and reviewers have noted, Fielding's creation may "only confirm a stereotype of women as neurotic and empty-headed" (Comments, 2/11/99) through an autobiographical narrative which is hardly "a dramatic performance of the self" but instead "a ledger," with "alarmingly little 'self' in it" (Shalit 36). Trapped in a Cosmo world where self-sufficiency can be purchased through the right clothes or the latest self-help book, Bridget and her diary exist within and also represent a "cultural schizophrenia" (Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are, 1996) faced particularly by middle-class Western women negotiating the shifting shoals of late capitalism and revised gender roles. Readers recognize this cultural split in Bridget's character, and most embrace it with relief rather than rejecting it as debilitating or troubling.

The interpretative community posting to certainly represents a self-selected group of readers from a potentially narrow demographic, yet the overwhelming self-identification with Bridget's middle-class Anglo-American 1990s femininity is striking, and, I think, revealing. A reflection as much as a "manual," Bridget Jones's Diary does criticize the society which has created Bridget even as it mirrors that recognizable world of counting calories, wearing the little black skirt, and drinking Chardonnay after work with "the girls." However, if readers are more likely to laugh with Bridget rather than at her, her autobiographical narrative reiterates the existing cultural schizophrenia rather than altering it, shoring up an already conflicted feminism that is decidedly fractured in its popular form.

"'History in Live Performance': Revising History's Script in Roy's The God of Small Things"

Karin E. Westman, College of Charleston

While reviewers such as Alex Clark of The Guardian feel "Roy's big theme is inexorability, and how individuals often unwittingly contribute to the relentless progress of events which comes later to seem as their fate," my paper will argue that Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) emphasizes the performance of those events to illustrate the possibility of challenging, if not immediately changing, the course of History. Roy's novel does invest "History" with the power to shape characters' lives, but through metaphor, allegory, and non-linear narrative form, her novel encourages readers to see "History" as a script written by those in power for others to enact. Through this very construction comes a possibility for change.

Chako's metaphor for India's post-colonial history -- "history was like an old house at night," "the ancestors whispering inside," but from "which we have been locked out" by the Anglo enemy (51-2) -- has a literal referent for the seven-year old twins, Rahel and Estha: they think of the History House across the river, once owned by "Ayemenem's own Kurtz" (51), its beauty now fallen into disrepair. This History House is the stage from which their divorced mother Ammu and the Untouchable family servant Velutha challenge the Love Laws, but their brief attempt to re-script India's caste system fails. The History House in turn becomes the stage from which the young Rahel and Estha watch the police, "history's henchmen," "collect the dues from those who broke [History's] laws" (293) through their violent, ultimately fatal, beating of Velutha.

The tragic result of Ammu and Velutha's challenge to the Love Laws would seem to insist not only upon a determining link between private acts and public histories, but to identify their attempt to usurp the authoritative script as quixotic. But if the events at the History House represent "human history masquerading as God's Purpose" -- "History in live performance" (293) -- then Roy's narrative insists upon the human authors of that script: the twins' aunt, Baby Kochmama, with the help of a willing police department. The "inexorable" force of History exists, but it is not absolute, and its power comes from the power of narrative, not fate. And it is not where Roy ends her story: on the last page, we read not of their impending deaths, but of Ammu and Velutha imagining their next meeting, "tomorrow."

"Keeping It Local, Keeping It Real: Global Capitalism, American Culture,

and British Identity in Zadie Smith's White Teeth"

Karin E. Westman, Kansas State University

My paper will explore the intersection of global marketing and Smith's study of British culture in her novel White Teeth (2000). While the novel's mimetic representation of a multi-ethnic London at the turn of the 21st century might at first glance encourage its free circulation in the global market place, Smith tethers her characters to a particularly British past and present. Smith's continual re-insertion of the novel into a British context further emphasizes the novel's connection to a national, rather than international, identity. Keeping it local -- in Cricklewood, in Willisden, in London -- allows Smith to keep it real.

Smith and her novel have received a warm welcome inside and outside her home country, fulfilling the promise her editor, Simon Prosser of Hamish Hamiliton (part of Penguin UK), was banking on: "What we saw was this work that appealed to anyone, regardless of age, gender or political position" (Russo), Prosser explains, when asked about Penguin's willingness to purchase the rights to Smith's first book for an unheard of sum. That the prestigious Andrew Wylie agency signed Smith to their ranks alongside Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie signaled to the literary press at home and abroad that Smith would be an international star. Going global, however, demanded losing some of the complexities of British life for which the novel's narrative is often praised: while UK dust jackets featured a rich mosaic of pink, turquoise, and gold textures reminiscent of a sari, the United States and other countries received a pure white dust jacket for the mosaic within. To be a British woman writer marketed abroad also cast Smith alongside "the infamous British 'lad lit' of Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Will Self, Nick Hornby et al" (O'Grady), a rare woman -- and a Black British woman at that -- amidst this white male club. In America, in order separate her work from the successful British export Helen Fielding, Smith took pains to pre-empt inevitable comparisons between her work and the "chick-lit" ("Face to Face") of the best-selling Bridget Jones's Diary, a genre for which Smith has little regard (O'Grady). When approached by Hollywood execs for the film rights to her novel, Smith declined their lucrative offers, granting permission for a miniseries to the BBC and the Independent Company Television instead: she believes these British organizations will retain "the integrity of her work" ("Willisden to Whitbread"). Smith's resistance to the pressures of the international marketplace suggests that the novel's and the author's global circulation, particularly in America, undermines their artistic aims rather than advancing them.

The narrative of White Teeth itself already resists this degree of circulation within the global marketplace. If the genealogies of people, places, and things in Smith's novel reveal a multi-ethnic legacy transmuted into a vibrant and often contentious present, it is the British past and present which Smith emphasizes in her novel. The novel raises the spectres of Britain's colonial and imperial past upon the world of her characters but does so to link those spectres to their current lives as Britons. The narrative's relationship to American culture, while more complicated, still accentuates a British experience and incorporation of America into British culture. The Britishness of the narrative stands out to the British reader: a Guardian reviewer declares White Teeth to be "perhaps the best novel ... we have ever read ... about contemporary London" (qtd in "Willesden to Whitbread"), while a West Indian Muslim who lives in London, NW10 posted to that he sees the novel as "a window into the life of the community where I have made my home." Smith's emphasis on multiculturalism, then, serves to emphasize the novel's investigation into contemporary British identity -- a focus that even the American dust-jacket cannot white-wash away.

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Last updated 22 November 2002