Visualising War

War Writing from Antiquity to the 21st Century with Prof. Kate McLoughlin

July 07, 2021 The University of St Andrews Season 1 Episode 16
Visualising War
War Writing from Antiquity to the 21st Century with Prof. Kate McLoughlin
Show Notes

In this episode, Alice and Nicolas interview Prof. Kate McLoughlin. A Professor of English at Oxford University and Tutorial Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Kate works on the representation of war in literature in many different genres, from the ancient world to the present day. Among other books, she is the author of Martha Gellhorn: The War Writer in the Field and in the Text, which explores Gellhorn's fictional writing alongside her journalism. She also wrote Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq; and, most recently, Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015. She is currently working on a literary history of silence, partly inspired by her research into veteran experiences and their representation.

In Authoring War, Kate argues that ‘war, as a subject, is the greatest test of a writer’s skills of evocation’ - so in the podcast we talk about some of the challenges involved in representing war in writing: for example, how authors convey a structured sense of time as events unfold, how they conjure the physical dimensions of a war zone and spatial awareness, and how they describe the indescribable. Kate explains the term 'combat gnosticism' - the idea that authors must know what they are talking about, either through going to war themselves or seeing it close up - and how that has traditionally marginalised women writers on war. She also talks about the expectations which readers have of war stories (that they will be vivid, full of action and emotion, etc) and what happens when authors or narrators do not meet those expectations - for example, the veteran who prefers not to speak of his/her experiences. As the conversation goes on, we discuss the ways in which war stories from the past not only influence later representations of war but also how people actually experience conflict in real time - which then feeds back into a network of established war stories, making it difficult to distinguish representation from reality. 

Among other questions, we asked Kate: 

  • What does the study of war writing bring to wider studies of war and conflict? 
  • How do age-old war stories continue to influence war writing and the experience of war today? 
  • What challenges do war writers face when trying to convey the complexities of war?  
  • What do readers/audiences tend to expect of war writing, and why? 
  • Have some genres of war writing been more dominated by male or female voices, and has that changed over time? 
  • What groups of people or conflict experiences have often been marginalised by traditions of war writing? 
  • How has the literary representation of veterans changed over time? 
  • What can the study of silence bring to our understanding and appreciation of war stories?  

We hope you enjoy the episode!

For a version of our podcast with close captions, please use this link. You can find out more about Kate's research here.

For more information about individuals and their projects, access to resources and more, please have a look on the University of St Andrews Visualising War website.  

Music composed by Jonathan Young
 Sound mixing by Zofia Guertin