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Expect to field a range of questions on authorship, from classic questions over the role of the author through to issues around a lack of representation of female writers in the very course that you might be studying. This article looks at three questions that have been asked of Oxbridge English Literature students before.

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Discuss the imbalance of male to female writers in the Canon of English Literature.

The first thing to consider here is defining the Canon. We’ve done that in a separate article, but in case you need a reminder, the Canon is a particular group of works that were initially selected as ‘modern greats’ – and over time it has evolved, although retains a rather male-centric skew. The original development of the Canon concept would have involved a significant number of White men, simply because it was created by White men at a time when publishing works was the preserve of that same group. As such this question really asks us to interrogate previous societal roles, and then to consider whether we now ought to ‘undo’ the Canon to some extent, and remake it in a manner that is more representative. If we were to do this, we’d need to consider questions around meritocracy vs diversity – i.e. should we include more women despite potentially losing some of the ‘quality’ of the Canon – simply due to there being as much smaller pool of women writers to draw upon from the time of the original Canon? Alternatively, is it worth such a sacrifice to better represent the population? Or, indeed, is there a pool of undiscovered female writers from that time that deserve more attention, and it should be our responsibility as students of Literature to unearth them? This is a difficult question that is a good opportunity to show both an awareness of diversity and a sense of realism – in truth it is likely that there are fewer ‘great works’ from the late 1700s and early 1800s written by women than men, but this simply reflects poorly on the men of that era, who perhaps would have sought to control women and prevent them being able to publish works.

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Is an author’s life important when discussing their work?

This is a question that you ought to be well prepared for. Firstly, think about whether biography in the purest sense is important – is it worth reading biographies of authors? How might one assess an author’s life? Would one rely on autobiography and their own essays and writings, or try to find a biography that is reputable and able to shed light on their life and motivations.

In essence, this question is one of meaning. Do we find meaning in the work itself, or do we find meaning through the author, and what we know of them? If we decide that we will follow the former path, then we might see the reader as bringing the work to life, and giving meaning to the work. It is through the act of reading that the work is birthed. This is a viewpoint that might be seen in Barthes’ The Death of the Author, for example. The writer becomes less important, and we are able to interact with the work on its own merits, with no outside influence – or at least, outside influence on the part of the author. However, our own biases and experiences will alter the reading process.

On the other hand, we might decide that the author and their context allows us to better understand a piece. Perhaps we don’t need to entirely remove the author, and instead we can learn about them and take their life into account. This can be particularly true for some novels in which the author’s own views, or the time and situation in which they were writing, are essential in understanding the narrative or the work itself.

Have you ever been to an author’s birthplace, or the setting of a text? Is that a valuable thing to do?

This question could be interpreted as either one asking whether it’s enjoyable to visit an author’s birthplace, or one asking whether we might find value in visiting their birthplace (in terms of better understanding their work). You can separate this further into the birthplace vs setting: visiting a setting can undoubtedly allow us to better understand an author’s vision, and bring a piece to life. You might choose to frame this as a personal journey – one in which you set out to find more about a work that you particularly like. Considering birthplace brings us back to the idea of authorship – what might we learn about an author from where they grew up, and in turn what might this mean for their works? Indeed, should it have any effect on their works or should we let their works stand alone?

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