The Literary Twilight Zone: Nonfictional Fiction, 1820–1920

Muirhead Tower 12th Floor Suite
Wednesday 28 June 2023 (00:00)

"The mystical student of psychology, who knows the inadequacy of a bare statement of facts for the presentation of psychic incidents, will hardly need an apology for the form in which the narratives are cast."
Mohini Chatterji and Laura Holloway, Man: Fragments of Forgotten History (1885)

Keynote: Dr Tatiana Kontou Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Literature, Oxford Brookes University

Fiction is not always entirely fictional. Indeed, many of the long nineteenth century’s most famous writers – including Edgar Allan Poe, Marie Corelli, and Émile Zola – wilfully blurred the boundary with nonfiction. Scientific and paranormal romances provided unrepentantly literary spaces to contribute to modern thought, while other authors opted for experimental naturalism, impeccably researched historical novels, hoaxes, thought experiments, and truth claims disguised as fiction.

Fascinating scholarship has analysed twentieth-century writings that sit uneasily on the fact-fiction binary, from Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned (1919) to the space opera origins of Scientology. This work has rarely been linked in detail to its nineteenth-century origins, despite burgeoning research on occult writers like Edward Bulwer Lytton, whose novels were interpreted by some readers as partially true. Scholars of nineteenth-century literature still have much to bring to a conversation which has been flourishing in research on science fiction, esotericism, and popular culture. During this period modern disciplines and literary genres were gestating, as were (fragile) boundaries between the scholarly and the popular, the aesthetic and the scientific, the scientific and the pseudoscientific. What advantages did fiction hold for authors who chose it over nonfiction journalism or scholarly articles? And how did their readers interpret works – from the conventional to the bizarre and avant-garde – that combined Wissenschaft and fantasy?

This one-day academic workshop, hosted by the Nineteenth-Century Centre, brings together scholars interested in fiction’s relationships with the creation of knowledge. Global subject matter is welcomed, and potential topics include:

  • Scientific romance
  • Paranormal narratives
  • Marginalised authors
  • Footnotes and fiction
  • Hoaxes and fraud
  • Generic fluidity
  • Creative nonfiction
  • Pseudoarchaeology
  • Imaginary portraits
  • Semifiction
  • The experimental novel
  • Roman à thèse

Papers can be 20 minutes in length, but we also welcome proposals for alternate formats. The deadline for abstracts of up to 250 words and bios of 150 words is 17 March 2023. Send enquiries to  A limited number of travel bursaries available on request for unsalaried, PGR, and ECR researchers. 

This event is hosted by the Nineteenth-Century Centre at the University of Birmingham, which provides a collaborative network for scholars working across traditional disciplinary, national, and temporal boundaries. They host regular events of interest to members and mobilise the rich resources of the local area to support both research and teaching.

This event is funded by grants from the Leverhulme Trust and the British Society for Literature and Science.

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