Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

The Art of Confession

The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV 


What do midcentury “confessional” poets have in common with today’s reality TV stars? They share an inexplicable urge to make their lives an open book, and also a sense that this book can never be finished. Christopher Grobe argues that, in postwar America, artists like these forged a new way of being in the world. Identity became a kind of work—always ongoing, never complete—to be performed on the public stage.

The Art of Confession tells the history of this cultural shift and of the movement it created in American art: confessionalism. Like realism or romanticism, confessionalism began in one art form, but soon pervaded them all: poetry and comedy in the 1950s and ’60s, performance art in the ’70s, theater in the ’80s, television in the ’90s, and online video and social media in the 2000s. Everywhere confessionalism went, it stood against autobiography, the art of the closed book. Instead of just publishing, these artists performed—with, around, and against the text of their lives. 

A blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and performance theory, The Art of Confession explores iconic works of art and draws surprising connections among artists who may seem far apart, but who were influenced directly by one another. Studying extraordinary art alongside ordinary experiences of self-betrayal and -revelation, Christopher Grobe argues that a tradition of “confessional performance” unites poets with comedians, performance artists with social media users, reality TV stars with actors—and all of them with us. There is art, this book shows, in our most artless acts.

Praise for The Art of Confession

“I must confess: I love The Art of Confession. In clear and stylish prose, with gusto and flourish, and through original arguments about the compulsion to confess and the compulsion to perform, Grobe has produced a stunning book. Broadly engaged, yet sharply focused, this work is cultural criticism of the highest standard.”

—Nick Salvato, Cornell University

“With this ambitious and engaging book, Christopher Grobe elucidates the centrality of confession to performance, poetry, and reality TV, deftly unfolding the often-paradoxical politics of making and sharing secret selves.”

—Peggy Phelan, Stanford University

Reviews of The Art of Confession

“Every generation wants to believe its own narcissism is special, and it has seemed to many that oversharing on such a scale is a novelty. But Grobe helps uncover continuities between Robert Lowell and reality television, revealing that all along confession has been a matter of art as much as truth. . . . The Art of Confession is itself . . . an impressive performance, written with an eloquence and uncommon verve that breathes vitality into the genres of academic writing and testifies to the ability of scholarship to move freely between the page, the classroom, and back into life.”

—Brian Glavey, Los Angeles Review of Books (full review here)

“By framing confessionalism as a styled media ecology Grobe grants himself the room to roam into literary and media studies, and his theoretical heterodoxy marks an important intervention in an era in which performance, text, and everyday life overlap in messy, fascinating ways. It is precisely from this space in between one thing and the next that, Grobe argues, confessionalism emerges. What his book demonstrates is that innovative analysis and inventive scholarly forms have the potential to emerge from these spaces as well.”

—Kimberly A. Hall, TDR: The Drama Review (full review here)

"Grobe traces the history and evolution of modern American confessional art in this impressive and wide-ranging debut . . . an engrossing, dense work of literary scholarship for the 21st century . . ."

Publisher's Weekly (full review here)

"In this work, Grobe . . . explores 'the performance of self' . . . with just the right balance of theoretical acumen, playfulness, tongue-in-cheek observations, and historical, literary, political, and cultural accuracy . . ."

—Emily Bowles, Library Journal (starred review) (full review here)

"Grobe's study of confession and performance is impressive. It is erudite yet accessible, offers insights on every page, and is energized by stylistically engaging prose. Covering such disparate subjects as confessional poetry, stand-up comedy, television, memoirs, music, art, and film, Grobe offers a compelling narrative of confession as a mediated performance of selfhood. . . . This scholarly study is as creative in its writing as it is in its analysis . . . a model for what outstanding academic writing should be. — Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."

—D.E. Magill, Choice Reviews (quoted with permission; ©️ American Library Association)

"A feeling that Grobe is working to piece things together, and take them apart, to present them to the reader for further contemplation. . . . resonates strongly throughout the book. Seeing the author arrive at his conclusions, rather than present them as a fait accompli, offers a compelling act of reading."

—Linda Levitt, Popmatters (full review here)

“In the book’s coda, Grobe offers a deeply moving account of the 2015 Amherst College sit-in, in which students protested the College’s failure to support and protect students and faculty of color. At the sit-in, Amherst students shared stories of their own experiences of racism on campus. Grobe argues that these narrative performances stand not only as evidence of confession’s full integration into performances of the self, but also its political stakes.”

—Rachel Carroll, ASAP/Journal (full review here)

Podcast interviews about The Art of Confession

New Books in Literary Studies (New Books Network), interviewed by Petal Samuel, released 16 February 2018. (listen here)

Tourniquet Pod , ep. 1 (Tourniquet Review), interviewed by John Ebersole, released 17 March 2018. (listen here)

Open Stacks Podcast (The Seminary Co-op), interviewed by John Muse, forthcoming.

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Imitation Games

Actors, Robots, and the Art of Seeming Human

(critical monograph in progress)

Imitation Games tells the conjoined cultural history of two experiments in the art of seeming human: realist acting and artificial intelligence (A.I.). Since the late 19th century, realist actors have understood their own bodies as complex, responsive, intelligent machines. Since the mid-20th century, roboticists and theorists of A.I. have seen machines as actors playing at humanity. Imitation Games shows how intertwined these two histories are. Through new readings of classic texts in acting theory; through close study of plays, films, and TV dramas on technological themes; and through a performance-minded analysis of technological culture from the telegraph machine to the intelligent social robot, this book shows how people have fashioned “humanity”—onstage, onscreen, and in the engineer’s lab.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe