Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance
Release date: 10/01/2014
Modernism and the Middlebrow: A Review of Recent Critical Developments
1No matter how slim a slice this topic looks in the area of literary criticism, in this short review I cannot even undertake to cover all the aspects—and the publications on all the aspects—of the critical engagements between modernism and the middlebrow, which seem to be at a constant tug of war, in the more recent critical debates, nevertheless, with the promise of an appeasement. I will start off from a tilted angle, that of Virginia Woolf, the iconic female modernist woman writer of English literature, who takes a very firm stand concerning the middlebrow: ‘But if your reviewer, or any other reviewer, dares hint that I live in South Kensington, I will sue him for libel. If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me middlebrow, I will take my pen and stab him dead’ (Woolf 1969, 203). This is a very sharply articulated position whose validity can also be extended to the general relation between high modernism and the middlebrow. Contemporary research of the past one and a half decade, however, makes this clear binary a lot more problematic and blurred, with critical investigation focusing on the reinterpretation of this binary opposition.
2A monograph crucial in the reinvestigation of this issue is Modernism by Peter Childs (2000; revised edition 2007), in which he no longer sees modernism as a ‘progressive model’ in the sense that ‘modes of literary discourse blur . . . or overwrite . . . the ones before’; rather, his concept of modernism ‘accepts and acknowledges the coexistence of various styles in texts’ and also considers modernism ‘individable from wider social structures like mass movements and popular culture’. Modernism defined in this way can be seen as ‘efforts of those creative art forms that have moved away from the fixed terms of representation either in formal or political terms’ (133). On the basis of this extended concept, it is difficult to draw the boundaries of modernism: first, chronologically; second, in terms of areas of cultural and artistic production; and, third, concerning the various academic disciplines whose investigations focus on the ‘same’ object. Childs’ monograph, thus, can be understood both as a summary of underlying tendencies so far and at the same time as opening new vistas for further explorations. In the following, I will concentrate on five monographs: Julia Prewitt Brown’s The Bourgois Interior (2008), Emily Blair’s Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel (2007), Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010), Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei’s Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and E.H. Young (2006) and Ina Habermann’s Myth, Memory and the Middlebrow: Priestly, du Maurier and the Symbolic Form of Englishness (2010).
3These titles offer an approach that is different from explorations of the formal features of modernism, but one encounters difficulties when trying to unravel how the processes of reinterpretation started. To me, the reconsideration of modernism is deeply rooted in cultural theory and cultural studies, most specifically in the investigation of the semiotics of space, whether urban and public, or rural, domestic and private. No matter how some of these concepts are traditionally considered non-political, none of these is exempt from the political, including the politics of gender, which, in my opinion, is also closely related to the division between modernism and the middlebrow. What took place can be seen not only as a revision of the concepts of modernism, but also a reconsideration of the discourse on modernism. In broad terms, the result is not only the acknowledgement of the middlebrow and the feminine as legitimate topics of critical investigation (like Daphne du Maurier in parallel with high modernism), but what we can see is also blurring the boundaries of modernism in several directions: in its relation both to the Victorian and Edwardian past and to the thirties, and between high/elite culture and popular/middlebrow culture. In general, the semiotics of the cultural context in the narrower and broader sense of the word has taken the centre stage of critical investigation.
4When it comes to the middlebrow (and its long-established opposition to modernism), the first associations are that the middlebrow is tied to the bourgeois, to the middle classes; also that it is not very sophisticated intellectually, it lacks narrative and technical innovation, and in spatial and gender terms it is related to the domestic and (as such) to the feminine, hence the proliferation of monographs on the semiotics of space—of domestic space—when it comes to the middlebrow. From among the chosen monographs, Julia Prewitt Brown’s The Bourgeois Interior (2008) is of primary significance here, all the more so as apart from exploring the classic domestic space, her argument also ties in with the challenge to the Victorian/modernist divide. One of her primary claims is that ‘the mythology of bourgeois domesticity is with us still’, but she also adds that ‘[o]ne of the most powerful components of this mythology is the imagination—and memory—of security’ (6), by which she means that the loss of bourgeois security appeared well before modernism, in what is usually read as the textual space of homeliness: in the Victorian novel. Security, in her view, has never been present, rather absent, and she argues that ‘[t]he constant encroachment of the outside world on the middle-class home in Dickens's novels is an especially powerful evocation of this loss’ (5).
5The Victorian bourgeois interior—and its central space, the drawing room—, thus, is a complex space that includes the memory of security, that of a never existing myth, which, as a result, can only be lost. The closely covered Victorian home, with its wallpapers, curtains, carpets, upholstery and table cloths, hermetically sealing off everything, while it seems to suggest security and protection, is rather engaged in a desperate and hopeless fight against the loss of the myth of security. So although it is undeniable that ‘[a]fter World War I, the bourgeois home as mythological configuration came to an end’, and ‘the domestic interior was reconceived by the antibourgeois energies’ (103) of Bloomsbury, of the Omega workshops and of Le Corbusier, whose ‘writings articulate the modernist antagonism to the conventional function of the Victorian home as a private refuge’ (104), one can also consider the Victorian and the modernist spaces in less antagonistic terms, both in their cultural-spatial and in their textual versions.
6In this respect, it is particularly relevant to see how the creation of textual spaces by major modernist writers is related to genres as spaces and to concrete textual spaces. This is an exploration that Emily Blair in her monograph on Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth–Century Domestic Novel (2007) undertakes. Woolf’s attitude to the domestic novel and the nineteenth–century novel is crucial once we accept as an assumption that the domestic spaces of the nineteenth–century novel are feminine spaces; that the middle-class domesticity of nineteenth–century fiction has made its way more or less directly to mid-war middlebrow fiction; and that Woolf’s rejection of the Edwardian materialists both in ‘Modern Fiction’ and in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ can be extended to the Victorian novel as well, and as such, Woolf’s modernism is hardly reconcilable with the nineteenth-century domestic novel. Yet, despite these assumptions that ultimately separate Woolf from the Victorian domestic novel, Blair argues for a more subtle position which reinterprets the relationship between Woolf and the middlebrow as well. Blair’s proposition is that the discourse of domesticity and its aestheticization in mainstream nineteenth–century literature provide Woolf with a language and an aesthetic framework that continue to offer the terms for defining new images of women and the writing of fiction (7). Even more significantly, she claims that ‘[i]nscribing her vexed relationship to Victorian domestic models, [Woolf’s] modernist projects thus merge into her feminist projects as she attempts to “span” the curious division of the two realms of experience—“convention” and “intellect”’ (7–8), a problem of her youth that she so memorably recollects in ‘A Sketch of the Past’ when she writes: ‘[t]he division in our lives was curious. Downstairs there was pure convention; upstairs pure intellect. But there was no connection between them’ (Woolf 1976, 171).
7Blair’s point is that this division is never fully bridged in Woolf, as indicated by her own canon of nineteenth–century women writers that includes Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë and George Eliot; Elizabeth Gaskell and Margaret Oliphant, however, are omitted for example. This exclusion, according to Blair, betrays Woolf’s ambivalence toward nineteenth–century domestic fiction (3), an ambivalence that surfaces in what Katharine Hilbery’s mother calls ‘poetry the wrong side out’ in Night and Day (cited by Blair 1). By this she means domestic work, the representation of which in Woolf’s texts is characterised by Blair as ‘reflect[ing] the untidy connections among literature, women, their conduct and their houses’ (2). This ‘untidiness’, in turn, results in Woolf’s ambivalence towards ‘the valuations’—or I would rather say: revalorisation—‘of domestic artistry and critiques of women’s indirect influence’ in Woolf’s modernist masterpieces (9), and is visible also in her ambivalence towards the representation of ‘the feminine as spiritually “dispersed”’ among others as hostesses, while representations of femininity also ‘advise women to “assemble” in the practice of domestic arts’, a tradition that ‘Woolf both inherits and invents’ (9). This interpretation of Blair’s is a subtle approach to Woolf’s relation to the Victorian literary tradition in general and the domestic novel in particular, which, on the other hand, is tangibly present in the middlebrow literature of the midwar period, and as such sheds new light on the relationship between modernism and the middlebrow as well.
8Alexandra Harris’s monograph, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010) also bases the argument on a binary polarity: that between modernism and the cultural past, but instead of setting them up as irreconcilable binaries, Harris rather argues for the blurring of boundaries between modernism and the past, and between constructivism and conservatism alike. Focusing on the 1930s and 1940s, she argues that this imaginative project of rethinking the past, or ‘the imaginative claiming of England’ (10), shared by artists of all kinds in the widest sense of the word, was fuelled and carried out by ‘a culture fascinated by the decline of aristocracy and the symbolism of the country estate, interested in the future of village churches, and drawn to the Romantic tradition in the arts’ (12), often manifest in being in ‘love with old churches and tea-shops’ (12)—usually not considered as characteristics of modernism and its constructivist philosophy of space. Adolf Loos, for example, famously ‘denounced twiddles and curlicues as the symptoms of moral degeneration’ and argued that ‘the value placed on surface decoration was allowing a whole society to go rotten at the core. Decoration, he suggested, encouraged vices by concealing them; ornament was the beguiling accomplice of the century’s many crimes’ (41).
9Seen from this perspective, Harris’s monograph raises intriguing questions concerning the middlebrow and the modernist, for example with its comparison of the uses of ‘houses packed with strange items’ in text by the iconic modernist female writer, Virginia Woolf, and by her contemporary, Elizabeth Bowen, who, on the other hand, is usually categorised as middlebrow (cf. Humble; Beauman). In Harris’s interpretation, while Woolf ‘couched her own modernist project in terms of an escape from clutter, opening windows in the crammed, airtight houses’, and thus ‘documents a power struggle between objects and their owners, the struggle reaches its uncanny climax in the work of … Elizabeth Bowen. Her objects become overbearing and vindictive: they are watchful, they wear expressions, and they do not give in to their owners’ (56). It is needless to emphasise how crucial the knick-knacks of the bourgois domestic space are in the construction of the textual space of the middlebrow. Bowen, however, puts the paraphernalia of the domestic space to a new use: as Harris argues, ‘Bowen admires the ambition of houses without crannies, houses where entrances are made publicly through the front door and where there is nowhere to hide. At the same time she feels a strong temptation to creep in by the back door and feed on the decoration of English villas’ (57), and she also ‘spent much of her writing life imagining these architectural releases and containment as the causes (and symptoms) of her characters’ various emotional ailments’ (57). Following this argument, it is not difficult to see that the middlebrow Bowen’s use of objects is not very far from how the modernist Woolf uses them, ‘inducing claustrophobia’ (56), an element that also makes the distinction between modernism and the middlebrow less obvious than was thought for a long time.
10Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei’s monograph Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and E.H. Young (2006) seems to sum up in a paradoxical (or for a long time perhaps even almost oxymoronic) syntagm the basic issues discussed here concerning modernism and the middlebrow in what at one point the authors call ‘The Battle of the Domestic and the Modern’ (33). In contrast to Harris’s focus on artists of all kinds, Domestic Modernism interprets literary texts, and performs a double move: it not only reads the middlebrow domesticity in, and from, the perspective of modernism, but also reads texts by modernist writers (like Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, The Years, The Voyage Out) from the perspective of the middlebrow and the domestic feminine, and the intention is not to write these texts into the discourse of realism as what, using Catherine Belsey’s term, I would call declarative texts; quite the contrary, they intend to open up these textual spaces to subversive readings. While exploring the meaning of home, vicarages and lodging houses alike (that is, some of the places that constructivist modernism tends to deny as spaces of moral degeneration and vice), Briganti and Mezei also explore how these modernist texts remember their own (domestic) past, or their embeddedness in the (domestic) past. In my reading, this is a moment of cultural self-reflexivity, which obviously goes against some modernist slogans like Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new’ or Woolf’s rather harsh breaking with the materialist Edwardians, whereas it certainly tackles issues that are in the focus of recent critical discussions of the literature of the 1930s, whether labelled modernist or middlebrow. Briganti and Mezei find this period similar to the period of the emergence of the novel, claiming that ‘[s]imilar to the conditions that propelled the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, the interwar period also experienced a domestication, feminization and privatization of society‘ (2).
11In this respect, Ina Habermann’s Myth, Memory and the Middlebrow: Priestley, du Maurier and the Symbolic Form of Englishness (2010) seems to pull together the lines of the previous monographs mentioned by focusing on the middlebrow, on nostalgia, on memory, on the mythical past and mythified present, and on the ideological implications of all these. Her theoretical assumptions are
first, that the notion of Englishness has a mythical dimension that is beyond the scope of ‘mere’ cultural stereotyping; second, that identity is intrinsically connected to various forms of memory; and third, that it is crucial for a historically specific analysis to pay attention to how the media shape representations and interrogations of Englishness. (2)
12She explores the Englishness of the interwar period as a ‘symbolic form, created by the interaction of various kinds of mythmaking and memory, and disseminated in medialized form to shape the cultural imaginary of the community’ (2). With this intention, Habermann not only engages in a dialogue with recent critical interest in ‘imagined communities’ as conceptualised by Benedict Anderson and ‘cultural memory’ as discussed by Jan Assmann, but she also takes us back to where this review started off from: to Julia Prewitt Brown’s concept of the bourgeois interior as the imagination—and memory of—security, which in this sense is obviously not only a physical space but also a textual and cultural space (re-)created and (re-)investigated in the midwar period as a result of what by now seems the undeniable and undividable coexistence and mutual impact of modernism and the middlebrow.
Recent research on contemporary British Fiction
13My intention today is not to offer a detailed map of all the critical essays published on British fiction in the past twenty years, but rather to highlight what I perceive to be recent inflections in the collective take on that specific corpus.
14A vast number of monographs have been published recently on specific authors. Palgrave Macmillan have for instance initiated a series—‘New British Fiction’—, under the editorship of two of the best specialists of the field—Philip Tew and Rod Mengham—which features introductions to the key figures of contemporary British fiction: from A. S. Byatt to Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, A. L. Kennedy or Salman Rushdie. Special mention should be made of Peter Childs’ stimulating introduction: Contemporary Novelists. British Fiction since 1970 and of the primer published by Nick Rennison for Routledge the same year: Contemporary British Novelists, including some fifty brief introductions to a wide array of authors, from Martin Amis to John Lanchester, Shena Mackay, Howard Jacobson, Tibor Fisher, etc.
15I will not turn in detail either to the various collections of interviews of contemporary novelists recently published, in the wake of the seminal collection edited by John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (1985), although they very often offer extremely enlightening openings onto the writers’ works. Suffice it to mention: by Philip Tew, Fiona Tolan and Leigh Wilson, Writers Talk: Interviews with Contemporary British Novelists and, by our colleague Vanessa Guignery, Novelists in the New Millenium: Conversations with Writers. A brief look at the choice of writers included is enough to inform us of the evolution of the corpus and the canon. In 1985, John Haffenden already featured Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rusdhie, but also included better-established writers of the previous generation: Angela Carter, Malcolm Bradbury, William Golding, Iris Murdoch or David Storey. Tew’s list includes: Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Coe, Jim Crace, David Mitchell, Graham Swift and also Matt Thorne and Toby Litt. Vanessa Guignery, for her part, produces what could be defined as a synthesis with well-established writers like David Lodge while leaving room for a younger generation with Will Self and Arundhati Roy.
16As such, these general books should be taken as yardsticks by which one measures a changing canon, in like manner to the much-awaited ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ issues of Granta, a series that was initiated in 1983 with issue 7 of the magazine (then Granta 43, in 1993, and Granta 81, in 2003) the fourth ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ issue has just been published (Granta 123). It numbers twenty names, among which Zadie Smith, Sarah Hall, or Adam Thirlwell, but also a whole spectrum of new voices, some of which have not yet achieved complete recognition. The collection makes for a vibrant array of voices, speaking from very varied cultural backgrounds, not only coming from the Indian sub-continent, but also from Africa (Taiye Selasi and Helen Oyeyemi both of Nigerian origin) and China (Xiaolu Guo). This is yet another indication of how much ‘British fiction’ has become a world fiction and is mapped and marketed as such, an issue Madelena Gonzalez addresses underneath. I would like to insist here on how difficult it is today to speak of ‘British literature’ as such, in a cultural environment which has become increasingly globalized.
17Such a complex turn is registered in many recent essays devoted to contemporary British fiction, and I would like now to turn to what will be my main argument for this round table.
18The first wave of monographs devoted to that corpus placed specific emphasis on the ‘postmodernist’ nature of the synthesis achieved by British fiction between self-reflexiveness and a persistent belief in the capacity of fiction to take on reality. As you all know, much was said by the likes of Linda Hutcheon (A Poetics of Postmodernism, 1988) or Alison Lee, who had studied with Hutcheon, on the ‘historiographic metafictional’ bias of the works of Graham Swift, Alasdair Gray or Julian Barnes (see Alison Lee, Realism and Power. Postmodern British Fiction).
19But quite soon a different reading of this now canonized set of writers chose to recontextualize those texts in order to focus on Britain’s relation to its own history and sense of cultural identity. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking essays of Steven Connor, The English Novel in History (1995) or of Volume 12 of the Oxford English Literary History, The Last of England?, by Randall Stevenson. A similar approach was developed by Andrzej Gasiorek in Post-War British Fiction. Realism and After (1995).
20Many essays that followed also developed the argument that post-modernist self-reflexiveness could provide a form of aesthetic and ethical leverage allowing fiction to explore a changing and complex sense of collective identity, or what Richard Bradford defines, in the last chapter of his essay, The Novel Now. Contemporary British Fiction, as the articulation of ‘Nation, Race and Place’.
21Connor’s and Bradford’s essays opened up new perspectives and new possibilities to reconcile readings which hitherto seemed difficult to bring into conjunction: i.e. the poetic and formalist approach placing emphasis on, for instance, the playful intertextuality of much of British contemporary fiction (from Ackroyd to Sarah Hall) and fiction’s concern with its ideological and historical relevance and accountability. They thus built on Margaret Scanlan’s important work, Traces of Another Time: History and Politics in Postwar British Fiction (1990).
22Such a conjunction is at the heart of many essays recently devoted precisely to the way fiction explores Britain’s conflicted identity and its relation to the national narrative, as it is built by fiction itself and the canon. I am thinking here of Elizabeth Ho’s essay Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire, as well as of the essay of our colleague Christian Gutleben, written in collaboration with Marie-Louise Kohlke, Neo-Victorian Gothic, which builds on research Christian Gutleben has been developing on the politics of intertextuality. But this is also true of analyses turning to the ‘margins’ of British fiction and the way both Scottish and Irish fiction develop counter-histories: see Stefanie Lehner’s recent Subaltern Ethics in Contemporary Scottish and Irish Literature. As the appropriation of the metaphor of the subaltern from post-colonial studies suggests, the focus has increasingly turned to the plurality of voices and of narratives within a British cultural context that has become not so much embattled as plural.
23The argument is also central to Hywel Dix’s recent Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Britain. In his essay, Dix explores what he calls a ‘ubiquitous present’, which would be best exemplified by Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club (2001) and which derives from the pluralization of British ethnicities and from devolution politics. The emphasis on devolution being but a domestic inflection of the broader ‘postcolonial predicament’, in which ‘Britishness itself has become unravelled’ (157).
24Such a cultural turn that harnesses postmodernist self-reflexiveness to an analysis of changing collective agencies may explain the specific emphasis on the urban novel and on what David James defines as ‘the artistry of space’, in his 2012 book. I am thinking here of the volume edited by our colleague Philippe Laplace, Cities on the Margin, On the Margin of Cities: Representation of Urban Space in Contemporary Irish and British Fiction and of Sebastian Groes’ very enlightening essay The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Groes chooses to revisit the motif of cultural pluralism by emphasizing in fact what he calls a process of cultural dispersal that has to do with the psycho-geography of the city best illustrated by Ian Sinclair.
25Above all, such dispersal or plurality cannot be distinguished from the poetic influence of multiculturalism that features prominently in three essays: Fiona McCulloch’s Cosmopolitanism in Contemporary British Fiction, Graham McPhee’s Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies and Tracy J. Prince’s Culture Wars in British Literature. All three insist on the increased fluidity of identity, as well as on fiction’s capacity to capture that fluidity in texts that constantly question the established cultural identity categories inherited from cultural structures. These essays show thus how much one may learn from reading British fiction from a more globalized perspective which is that of world-literature, as Madelena Gonzalez argues.
26The last element I meant to emphasize is the way such reflexions impact the very ethical agenda of British fiction. This is best shown in Jean-Michel Ganteau’s two volumes edited with Susana Onega. These two volumes testify once more to the complex intrication of the poetics / politics and ethics of fiction, the phenomenology of reading tying in with a reflexion on its political responsibility.
27To conclude, recent essays devoted to British fiction have come to acknowledge the complex and subtle interaction of formal experimentation with the renewal of fiction’s political and ethical agenda in a British culture that is ever more global and constantly queering its own sense of collective memory. Taking stock of such critical evolutions is crucial when it comes to understanding the dialogue British fiction entertains with the multiple voices of a complex cultural landscape.
Global Studies / Postcolonial Studies
28The bibliography here compiled deals with three interlinked categories in contemporary critical thought. The new focus on globalization as a prism for studying literature and culture goes hand in hand with a questioning of the postcolonial paradigm and an attempt to reconfigure it under the aegis of critics who possess a recognized affiliation with Postcolonial Studies (Ania Loomba, Benita Parry). Although a renewed interest in a return to the aesthetic, our third category, may initially seem to complement these stances, the works discussed within that category very often position themselves in reaction to what their authors see as a dominant critical consensus based on Marxist, materialist, feminist, postcolonial, poststructuralist and deconstructive approaches and, in the English-speaking academic world at least, grouped under the umbrella term of Theory or sometimes, even, ‘French Theory’.
The Rise of Globalization Studies
29The Marxist critic and professor of comparative literature, Timothy Brennan, was one of the first in his field to engage with globalization as a prism for our readings of contemporary culture. As the title of the work under discussion here suggests, Brennan reconfigures globalization as a form of cosmopolitanism and links it back to colonialism as one of the hegemonic forms by which metropolitan and colonial states justify the spread of their power. He provides a Marxist/materialist analysis of cosmopolitanism, suggesting that the current focus on hybridity, transnationalism and globalization as positive vectors of development is complicit with the U.S. model of cultural imperialism and capitalism. Invoking an eclectic array of cultural sources and models from Cuban music to the writings of C.L.R. James, he advocates a return to the values of community and a sense of collective identity. His source material is not used to provide sustained critical readings so much as to serve as a pretext for an attack on what he sees as the dominant critical mode of Culturalism and the metropolitan norm, for, as he argues, Cultural Studies leaves the U.S. national sense of pre-eminence largely untouched.
30One of the strongest chapters concerns the business of academic publishing. Brennan discusses the way in which Third World writers enter and are received within the U.S. academic canon, illustrating the mechanisms of appropriation and commodification of their work. Like many other Marxist-oriented critics, he seeks to make visible the dominant ideology and the role academics play in circulating and formulating ideology. In conclusion he calls for a ‘new comparatism’ which would mean organizing knowledge in terms of different sub specializations within national literatures, something which is discussed by the contributors to the volume of articles edited by Haun Saussy (see below). Ultimately, Brennan proposes resisting the ‘universalizing impetus of hegemonic forms of cosmopolitanism’ with internationalism in a Gramscian vein.
31Separated by a distance of fourteen years from Brennan’s work, Liam Connell and Nicky Marsh’s study is intended as a ‘guide to exploring the nature of literature’s contribution to the debate about the meaning of globalization in a broad and heterogeneous conversation’. One in a series of works published by Routledge as ‘Readers’ and aimed at post- and undergraduate students as well as scholars, it comprises a collection of articles already published over the last twenty years, ranging from economics, the social sciences, geography, anthropology, history, political theory and philosophy, to more specific studies of literature, authored by recognized specialists in their respective fields.
32Divided into three parts: ‘Theorizing Globalization’, ‘Literature in the Discipline’ and ‘Literary Readings’, the volume does indeed fulfil its ambition to give ‘an overview of theory and influential works in the field’, but the first part, for example, situates the phenomenon rather than defines it. The problem seems to be the plethora of literature on the subject and the shortened extracts selected by the editors tend to result in a series of contradictory hypotheses about what globalization might actually be.
33The literary readings are arranged in thematic subdivisions, organized around keywords employed by literary critics: ‘environmentalism’, ‘money and markets’, ‘technology and cyberculture’, ‘migration and labour’, ‘worldliness’ and ‘cosmopolitanisms’, preceded by an initial theoretically-led essay in each subsection. However, these essays, although relevant in themselves, are more often than not only tenuously related to what follows and sometimes express a very specific political agenda not really consonant with the other articles in the section. As the editors admit, some of the essays could happily sit in other subgroupings… The justification for this modus operandi is the openness and fluidity of a vast field of on-going research but the disadvantage is that it leaves the reader whirling in a welter of contradictory definitions, opinions and hypotheses.
34A few essays stand out, such as Fredric Jameson’s exegesis of Wiliam Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition, where the reader finds the original concept of ‘the e bay imaginary’ (‘style has become a hyped-up namedropping’), as well as the ‘absent utopian sublime’ of ‘a novel that carries the unrealized work of art inside itself like a black hole, a future indeterminacy suddenly shimmering in the present and suddenly opening up like a wormhole in the everyday’. Also worthy of note is Bruce Robbins’s passionate plea for a Marxist-inflected internationalism or ‘international popular’ (to replace the global popular), reminiscent of Brennan’s call for internationalism in place of elite cosmopolitanism. Via a reading of Lodge’s Nice Work and a cartoon in The New Yorker, he invents the concept of the ‘sweatshop sublime’, which explains the initial surge of power felt by the individual consumer connected with a world economic system of inconceivable magnitude, followed by the realization that despite this connection, he is powerless to intervene in any significant measure: ‘the sudden heady access to the global scale is not access to a commensurate power of action on the global scale. You have a cup of tea or coffee. You get dressed. Just as suddenly, just as shockingly, you are returned to yourself in all our everyday smallness’.
35Overall, the volume is characterised by a culturalist theoretical paradigm based on sexual identity, gender, race and historical contextualisation, and it does not engage intimately with the question of how globalization may have affected literary aesthetics. For the authors in our third category, this could be interpreted as a manifestation of a tendency for culture to predominate over literature where the activity of criticism is concerned, at least within the English-speaking academy…
36One interesting feature is the large number of contributions from comparative scholars such as Masao Miyoshi, Franco Moretti, and Emily Apter, an aspect which throws into question the continuing influence of the nation as a structure for the study of literature, an issue that is also central to the Saussy volume. If, in practice, many scholars working in English Literature departments study literature from many nations, the tendency to organize literature into national groupings remains the dominant model for literary studies. The editors of the volume recognize that, ‘while it may be reductive to read globalization as a phase of post-nationalism, the persistence of national models for literary study has served as an impediment to the engagement with globalization as a critical idea’. Emily Apter’s essay, ‘Untranslatable Algeria’: The Politics of Linguicide’, echoes her contribution to Saussy’s Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization where she defends Chamoiseau’s concept of ‘omniphonie’, ‘a condition of all-language-ness’ modelled after the vernacular experimentalism of Rabelais, Dante, Joyce, Faulkner, Mallarmé, Céline, Frankétienne and Glissant’. In her discussion of the fetishization of the politics of difference and her desire to reactivate the aesthetic, she seems to be close to the later Said and Spivak and indeed their concepts of ‘expanded worldliness’ (Said) and ‘planetary comparatism’ (Spivak) which would subsume all previous models, such as the postcolonial.
37The debate as to the validity of the comparatist paradigm of criticism and the category of world literature is also present in Moretti’s essays, the first of which is reprinted in Connell and Marsh, and is summarized in his subsequent book which pursues the same arguments. Moretti dismisses close reading as a theological exercise and advocates what he calls ‘distant reading’ using a Lotman-inspired sociological formalism that ‘allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems’. Calling on a wide range of examples ranging from traditional Japanese literature to the contemporary African novel in English, Moretti imagines world literature as a structure of connection, of modular repetition and examines the complex cultural exchanges between centre and periphery in order to conclude that ‘world literature was indeed a system—but a system of variations’, confirming the inequality of the world literary system as a whole. Criticised for practising ‘formalism without close reading’, Moretti happily embraces this definition which is consonant with his overall philosophy of comparatism: ‘you become a comparatist for a very simple reason: because you are convinced that that viewpoint is better. It has greater explanatory power; it’s conceptually more elegant; it avoids that ugly “one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness”; whatever.’
38Suman Gupta takes up the theme of world literature as a reorientation of comparative literature and ‘perhaps even a component of English studies’ and identifies the ‘idea of the institutional practice of literary studies which is increasingly described not by linguistic or national norms but in terms of an extensive field of literature, which is, at least conceptually, all-encompassing’. In doing so, he provides an insightful critique of some theories of world literature, most notably Moretti’s. Gupta’s overall aim is to show how ‘globalization is thematized in literary works, the relationship between globalization theory and literary theory and the impact of globalization on the production and reception of literary texts’. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, in view of the importance given to the word ‘thematized’, the primary sources chosen for close analysis, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, De Lillo’s Cosmopolis and McEwan’s Saturday, among others, do not really yield any clues as to the aesthetics of globalization in literature, although they do allow the author to trace a broad thematic link to the phenomenon as a world system.
39Gupta is at his most incisive and innovative in the last two chapters, ‘Academic Institutional Spaces’ and ‘The Globalization of Literature’ which illustrate his double competence as professor of literature and cultural history. They offer a well-researched and convincingly theorised sociological approach to such questions as the current position and future development of English Studies within a globalized literary economy, as well as the status, the marketing and even the ‘manufacturing’ of contemporary authors from Don DeLillo to J. K. Rowling. The examination of the impact of digitization and the development of the Internet on publishing with which the study closes tends to reinforce the now familiar definitions of globalization sketched out in the introductory chapter, that is to say, those that consider the phenomenon as the manifestation of the universal domination of market capitalism in its advanced phase. However, Gupta, to his credit, does examine minutely the multiple uses and abuses of the term, which, he avers, ‘is now available as one of the most markedly protean and thickly connotative words in our language’.
40Susie O’Brien and Imre Szeman’s introduction to a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly dedicated to ‘The Globalization of Fiction/The Fiction of Globalization’ contributes to the debate on the viability of national literature as a concept in a globalized world and claims that Anglophone literature in particular has always been globalized. For the authors, both Postmodernism and Postcolonialism ‘address, more or less explicitly, the relationship between literature and globalization’. In fact, they consider, in agreement with Simon Gikandi, one of the contributors to the issue and also the author of an essay in O’Connell and Marsh, that ‘the emergence of postcolonial literature marks the emergence of global culture’, that postcolonial novels are ‘novels of globalization’ and that Postmodernism is part of the cultural logic of globalization. At the same time they are aware of the possible pitfalls of this ‘levelling manœuvre’ which is in danger of flattening Postcolonialism’s critical impulse; indeed they point to the eroding of its political purchase and ability to position itself critically in relation to globalization, as it becomes incorporated into the Western academy. Drawing attention to the danger of seeing globalization as simply ‘neoimperialism’: something new, but not different in kind from earlier moments of global capitalist expansion and exploitation, they hope that the confrontation between ‘Postcolonialism’ and ‘globalization’ will result in a rethinking of the whole relationship of contemporary culture to power and politics. They suggest that Postcolonial Studies as a discipline has failed to address the conditions of globalization so far, as well as recognizing some of the limits of what they call Western culturalist readings and the strategic silences in postcolonial scholarship about its own implication in networks of global capital. This special issue is conceived of as an opportunity to fill in the gaps and is notable for engaging head-on with the complex phenomenon of globalization in relation to fiction.
41The questioning of the traditional postcolonial paradigm due to this feeling of dissatisfaction with its continuing relevance constitutes our second category. For Ania Loomba et al, Postcolonial Studies is only now in a position to be critical of itself because it has become established as a discipline within universities. The suggestion made by the multiple authors in the introduction is that it may indeed be an exhausted paradigm: ‘does it have a future beyond its existing life span, identified by Vilashini Cooppan in this volume as the period from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000)?’ The volume’s upward trajectory seems to indicate that it does, for it takes us from ‘Globalization and the Postcolonial Eclipse’ in part one to ‘Postcolonial Studies and the Disciplines in Transformation’ in its final chapter. Like O’Brien and Szeman, the authors claim that ‘stringent assessments of the limitations of the postcolonial paradigm’ clear a space for a wide-ranging and productive future in a field undergoing present transformation. The concluding essay in the volume, ‘The Politics of Postcolonial Modernism’ suggests a way forward through a return to aesthetic concerns. Its author NeilLazarus proposes the term ‘disconsolation’ (431) to describe a certain type of writing ‘which resists the accommodationism of what has been canonized as modernism and that does at least what some modernist work has done from the outset: namely, says ‘no’; refuses integration, resolution, consolation, comfort; protests and criticizes’. He suggests redrawing the postcolonial map via a transcendental critique, capable of ‘specifying the conceptual underpinnings of a certain kind of writing, a particular mode of literary practice’ and thus formulating a new theory of postcolonial literature. This is a tall order but strikes an optimistic note that allows the reader to start projecting himself into the ‘beyond’, suggested by the title of the volume.
42Revathi Krishnaswamy and John C. Hawley’s collection, The Postcolonial and theGlobal, reprises many of the questions and concerns of Loomba et al as well as those of O’Brien and Szeman; the aim, once again, is to suggest a way forward for Postcolonial Studies, now at a crossroads, if the editors are to be believed. They point out that Postcolonialism and globalization theory have so far evolved separately, in the field of the humanities in the case of the former and in the social sciences in the case of the latter; thus they feel that it is urgent to scrutinize the links between the two and offer the volume as an occasion for them to seek a common cause. However, like O’Brien and Szeman, they start from the premise that ‘to be global is first and foremost to be postcolonial and to be postcolonial is always already to be global’. This presumed historical convergence, based in part on what they see as the ‘shared grammar’ of the phenomena in question, directly references Simon During’s proposition (1998) that globalization is the category that has superseded Postcolonialism and his subsequent assertion of a dialectical relationship between the two. This dialectic is examined with precise and apposite examples drawn from cinema and fiction in the essays by Harish Trivedi and John McMurty but is also part of the very rationale for the volume as a whole. Its working principle is one of juxtaposition, illustrated by the variety of contributions within and across disciplinary boundaries, ranging from Geoffery Bowker’s study of global technoscience to E. San Juan Jr’s discussion of the postcolonial sublime as manifested in the post 9/11 War on Terror and its attendant emotions of fear and awe. Like other works in the corpus under examination here, this volume both appeals to and questions a comparativist approach. In order to create a ‘critical comparative studies’, a productive confrontation between postcolonial and globalization studies is deemed indispensable and a sympathetic, but realistic assessment of the limitations and shortcomings in postcolonial conceptions of comparison are intended as a stimulus for rethinking the possibilities of comparativity. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s essay, ‘Culture Debates in Translation’, for example, illustrates a wariness of an empirical pluralism that provides grist for the multiculturalism mill, and an alibi for global capitalism.
43This self-reflexive and self-critical tendency is apparent in much current postcolonial criticism and the manifestation of a malaise first brought to light by several Marxist-inspired analyses. As early as 1994, Arif Dirlik wrote a virulent critique of the academic institutionalization of Postcolonial Studies and the silence of critics on the relationship of the postcolonial to contemporary capitalism, while Arun Mukherjee (1990) pinpointed what he saw as the ‘proprietary tendencies’ and ‘totalizations’ effected by postcolonialists prone to assimilate and homogenize literature ‘within a ‘Eurocentric cultural economy’. As for Aijaz Ahmad, he decreed in 1995 that ‘Postcoloniality is also, like most things, a matter of class’.
44Benita Parry’s latest monograph is largely a rejigging of earlier pieces published in the field between 1987 and 2004 and, as such, perpetuates and stresses this Marxist/materialist tradition of dissent in relation to a postcolonial orthodoxy, although she adopts a more accommodating and less polemical stance towards her object of study. Emphasising the necessity of studying the political and economic conditions of cultural production and urging for an historically grounded analysis of literary phenomena, she remains faithful to the idea of a global emancipatory project and a revamped internationalism. In order to demonstrate her theoretical position set out in part one, ‘Directions and Dead Ends in Postcolonial Studies’, her second part, ‘The Imperial Imaginary’ provides close textual and contextual readings of well-known novels by Conrad, Kipling, Forster and Wells. She concludes with a coda on her native South Africa in its post-apartheid phase and the necessity of combining a remembrance of past histories of injustice with a critique of our contemporary condition as a means of working towards universal emancipation.
45Terry Eagleton’s provocative contribution to the debate is, at first sight, more dystopian and decidedly more scathing in its treatment of what he sees as an institutionalized critical consensus. Postcolonialism is indicted as rampant culturalism and Theory in general is lambasted as a ‘minority art-form . . . the refuge of a disinherited Western intellect cut loose from its traditional humanistic bearing’. This curious reversal, or indeed epitaph, for his previous positions, coming from a figure responsible for circulating Theory within academia for the past twenty years is, perhaps ironically, close to some of the more extreme rejections and rebuttals of Theory’s empire that will be discussed in our third and final section. The first half of the book is a detailed critique of Postcolonialism which the author is happy to conflate with Postmodernism and more generally with what he terms, ‘cultural theory’. This three-headed beast is accused of having devoured our sense of history and agency by subordinating them to an obsession with ethnicity, difference and, above all, identity politics, instead of class politics. At all points, the culturalist mind-set is excoriated as being complicit with the capitalist model. What the author deems the fashionable obsession with sexuality and popular culture, for example, is only part of a more ‘canny, consumerist kind of capitalism’, which helps us to identify our own fulfilment with the survival of the system. For Eagleton, the much-championed instability of identity and its postcolonial connotations of radical subversion, the pluralism it favours, is merely a camouflage for the unjust realities of class society and part of the inclusive creed of capitalism, ‘eager to mix together as many diverse cultures as possible, so that it can peddle its commodities to them all’.
46On reaching chapter four, ‘Losses and Gains’, and having sustained the author’s unrelenting attack on all things ‘post’, the reader is anxious for a way out of the deterministic dead end of the grand narrative of capitalist globalization which is considered as subsuming all intellectual life. Having once settled its scores, this is where the book changes tack and the remaining two thirds take a metaphysical turn in order to propose, finally, what resembles a benign form of humanistic socialism as an antidote to fundamentalism in all its guises and ‘the death-dealing ideology of the will’. The conclusion is both somewhat vague, exhorting criticism to ‘chance its arm, break out of a rather stifling orthodoxy and explore new topics’, as well as unexpectedly utopian, ‘The non-being at the heart of us is what disturbs our dreams and flaws our projects. But it is also the price we pay for the chance of a brighter future. It is the way we keep faith with the open-ended nature of humanity, and is thus a source of hope’.
The Return to the Aesthetic
47Eagleton’s rejection of the grand narrative of Theory and what he considers to be its attendant little narratives of Postcolonialism, Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism echoes throughout another strand of contemporary criticism, albeit for different reasons. An increasing preoccupation with a return to the aesthetic is clearly discernible in the work of the opponents of what is considered to be Theory’s orthodoxy (Bradford, Cunningham, Lentricchia, Patai and Corral) and also in that of key figures at the very heart of Postcolonial Studies. Nobody has yet done for Postcolonialism what Linda Hutcheon did for Postmodernism, that is to say develop a clear poetics and aesthetics of the discipline, as indeed Elleke Boehmer, a celebrated specialist in the field, points out: ‘The second edition of the Routledge Post-Colonial Studies Reader (Ashcroft et al, 2005) typically refers postcolonial representation without fail to “issues and debates”: globalization, the environment, resistance, diaspora. There is no overt mention of an aesthetic discernible’.
48Her article attempts to address this lack. She takes as examples three works of fiction seemingly easily identifiable as postcolonial: Achmat Dangor’s post-apartheid novel Bitter Fruit (2003), Manju Kapur’s Home (2006) and Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins (2002), set during the civil war in Zimbabwe in the 80s, and starts with a clear definition: ‘I take the term “aesthetic” broadly speaking as referring to a concern with the form and structure of a work of art over its raw content, or with form as a critical part of its content’. Analysing her corpus outside a purely national matrix and attempting to read each novel ‘on its own terms’ as a ‘text-in-itself’, she pays attention to the generic aspects and connotative language of the works under examination and identifies shared and distinctive modes and moods: re-dreaming and re-mythifying through magic realism, valediction and mourning, and, above all, the subversion of language from within. However, in the face of the complex task of ‘isolating aesthetic features in common which might invite the label postcolonial’, she ultimately falls back on hybridity and its Bhabhaian heritage. Overall, Boehmer displays a guilty wariness of the aesthetic as a ‘middle-class indulgence’ and is candid about the difficulty of escaping from the ‘postcolonial versus aesthetic divide’. This leads her to a dead end where she admits, ‘I point to what a postcolonial aesthetic might do rather than define what it is—indeed it may be nothing at all’ and she concludes with its ultimate unknowability, leaving it shrouded in mystery: ‘it allows us to interrogate, and as a compensation to our questioning selves, tell stories about the mystery that is not so much the Other, generically speaking, as the ultimately unknowable other human being’.
49Spivak’s latest collection of updated essays is similarly concerned with the neglect of the aesthetic, as its title suggests, and the introduction demonstrates a marked sympathy for a German Romantic and idealist conception of art as an instrument for moral enlightenment. Stressing the importance of feeling, she champions the arts and humanities against global capitalism, a move that is reminiscent of some aspects of Eagleton’s After Theory. Trapped in what she considers a post-revolutionary age, she advocates ‘affirmative sabotage’ through ‘deep language learning’ and attention to the ‘ethical impulse’. Reliably aware of her responsibilities as a pedagogue in an age of mass culture, she proposes a programme that would ‘train minds to use new resources in the interest of the humanities’ and ‘train the imagination as in 18th and 19th century Europe’. Convinced that the postcolonial paradigm is no longer equal to the challenges of globalization, she offers an interesting example of a post-postcolonial aesthetics in the chapter entitled ‘Reading with Stuart Hall in “Pure” Literary Terms’. She chooses a typical postcolonial text, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, and proceeds to read it against the grain, focusing on the absence of connection displayed by its dominant mode of parataxis and discerning therein a resistance to multicultural hybridization, capable of transforming the heroine from migrant as victim to politically empowered ethical agent.
50The necessity for a different kind of reading is at the centre of Lentricchia’s rejection of the protocols of the politicized literary theory to which he once showed unquestioning obeisance: ‘I would show my students that what is called ‘literature’ is nothing but the most devious of rhetorical discourses (writing with political designs upon us all), either in opposition to or in complicity with the power in place’. His disillusionment comes from the conviction that since the demise of the New Criticism in the 70s and the rise of Theory, literary criticism has lost its way and become disconnected from literature and, above all, from the text. Preoccupied, like Spivak, with the difficulty of teaching students how to study literature, he gestures towards both formalism and aesthetics, but in a much vaguer and more fervently Romantic way than the celebrated postcolonial critic. He proposes paying attention to ‘all that the writing incarnates, thanks to its specific shape and texture’ while also ‘submit[ting] to the text . . . relinquish[ing] yourself, because you need to be transported’. Ultimately his classes are an attempt at ‘sharing’ a text, ‘feeling about in the dark, then reporting back from the dark in words that would describe the encounter with strange combinations of words’, which will subsequently give birth to a ‘cohesive and intimate . . . enworded community’. At the time of its publication in 1996, Lentricchia’s article sent major shock waves through the academic community in the U.S., but his impassioned plea for a return to what bears a close resemblance to a Leavisite philosophy of reading, with some formalist procedures thrown in, or indeed to a prelapsarian age before the advent of Theory, has since gained ground and has evolved to suggest a new direction in criticism.
51Richard Bradford, a prolific author of literary biography and scholarly works on contemporary fiction, points the way in his collection of essays aimed at assessing the impact of Theory upon degree courses in English-speaking universities. Prefaced by a useful chronological table of Theory landmarks, the study starts from the premise that Theory has forever altered the landscape of literary studies. The essays in the volume not only engage with the practicalities of teaching Theory as a subject in universities, but also examine the future and rationale for literary studies. In his conclusion, ‘Do I hate Theory?’, Bradford starts to sketch out the main ideas for his forthcoming study on the question of value in literature, namely, ‘what is literature, why do we study and write about it and, worst of all: how can we distinguish important literature from everything else?’ His plan is to replace what he sees as the anti-aesthetic thrust of Theory with ‘the confidence and ability to evaluate, judge and assess the quality of texts’.
52Bradford is first and foremost a pragmatist and But Is it any Good?’ proposes something akin to a form of Practical Criticism: ‘It will be the principal purpose of this book to build bridges between instinctive judgement and reasoned assessment … what I will do is to enable readers to articulate and formulate arguments’.1 In order to do so, he proposes what he calls the ‘double pattern’ that concerns ‘the relationship between those features of a work which are exclusive to literature and those which the work shares with all other statements and texts’. According to Bradford, the dynamic between these two elements is both the defining feature of the work as literature and the platform for our assessment of the work’s qualities. The evaluative process is based on a three-step programme starting with ‘Discovery Procedures’: Noticing two parts of the double pattern and becoming consciously aware of their interaction; ‘Reading’: Thinking about and naturalising the work; translating those aspects of it that are self-consciously unfamiliar into a paraphraseable notion of what the work is actually about and, finally, ‘Judgement’. The assessment of quality is to be based on the uses different authors make of the double pattern and a series of comparative exercises will involve a contest between the following trios of great and lesser literary and cultural icons: Shakespeare v. Beckett v. CoronationStreet; Philip Larkin v. Ezra Pound v. E. J. Thribb; Salman Rushdie v. Kingsley Amis v. Tom Wolfe.
53Bradford’s method relies heavily on ideas of (‘good’) taste, reason, instinct, individual perception, and even, temperament and, as such, is reminiscent of the pre–70s consensus for conventions of reading and making sense of literature which prevailed in most British universities before the importation of Post-Structuralism into literature departments. However, his overall standpoint is far from naïve and as well as being sensitively attuned to the way both market forces and academic institutions shape our literary tastes, values and judgements, his proposed study formulates some uncomfortable but important questions:
Is it possible to recognise the quality or defects of literary works without revising one’s preconceived ideas about what literature is supposed to do? For example, if you are temperamentally and ideologically committed to experiment and modernism can you distinguish between displays of craftsmanship and the replacement of skill with randomness? If you can, does recognition of ‘skill’ involve a correlate acceptance of significance? In a broader sense, does the presence of demonstrably excellent writing guarantee that the work itself is of great value?
54In its insistence on the importance of language, however, the proposed conclusion to the study goes some way towards suggesting a compromise between an anti- and pro-Theory stance and as such is symptomatic of the author’s own critical identity: ‘literature . . . is a unique means of coming to terms with the medium that defines us, language’.
55The preoccupation with a return to close reading, taste and tact informs every page of Cunningham’s study whose title echoes that of Eagleton’s, but, in marked contrast to the latter’s work, published a year later, is decidedly and deliberately un-political. Like Lentricchia, Cunningham, who is Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, is keen to assert the primacy of text over theory. A sizeable extract from his book is reprinted in Patai and Corral’s monumental collection of what, for the sake of simplicity, can be termed, ‘anti-Theory’ essays. The volume runs to more than 700 pages and ranges from early challenges to what is perceived as the ‘assault’ of Theory on literary studies and practical or formalist criticism, authored by renowned academic figures such as M. H. Abrams (1977) or René Wellek (1983) to more recent discussions of ‘Theory’s Empire’ by the philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah or Marjorie Perloff. As the volume’s title suggests, the tone is often polemical and the introduction is a case in point. The French heritage and poststructualist nihilism are seen as the root causes of the abandonment of the text in favour of ‘preposterous and unreadably convoluted theories’ which have become a new ‘orthodoxy’, only to be contested on pain of intellectual excommunication. According to the authors, Theory has assumed the ‘moral and political high ground’ and, following De Man, the resistance to Theory is in itself theory, an ideological double bind which, they suggest, risks silencing its opponents, who, in any case, are often branded as ‘out of touch’, ‘self-interested’, ‘traditional’, ‘conservative’, or worse, ‘reactionary’.
56Their aim is to trace the development of literary theory from the early heady days of the Picard-Barthes controversy in the 60s when it was perceived as ‘an exciting new domain’, through its rise to prominence in the 70s and 80s, to its current manifestation as what they consider a received religion or ‘gospel’, Theory with a capital T. Referring to Wellek’s contribution, they identify many salient characteristics of Theory as they claim it is currently implemented in English-speaking universities. According to them, these include: the ‘abolition of the aesthetic, the denial of referentiality, the blurring of the distinction between poetry and critical prose, the rejection of the ideal or correct interpretation and the displacement of artists by critics’. One of the problems engendered by many of the essays in the collection, as indeed by the introduction, is precisely the conflation of very different positions and personas under the umbrella heading of Theory. Thus Marxists, deconstructionists and feminists are assimilated into Post-Structuralism, while Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lacan, De Man and Jameson, for instance, are lumped together as part of the same critical family.
57Also problematic is the antidote proposed to the ills of Theory and the dead end in which it supposedly finds itself. Invoking ‘open discussion’, ‘logical argumentation’ ‘disinterestedness’, even ‘visceral fiat’ in place of the ‘arcane rhetoric and turgid terminology’ of an approach which, according to the editors, betrays scant or no knowledge of formalism, stylistic criticism and aesthetics, they seek to restore ‘a sense of balance, mindful of tradition and above all consistent with reason’. Their aims are indeed worthy but in the face of the continuing existence of Theory, it seems impossible now to behave as if its major precepts can be utterly discounted, however questionable they may appear. Erin O’Connor, for example, concludes her insightful essay on ‘Victorientalism’ and what she deems to be the ‘colonizing’ of Jane Eyre with the following suggestion for a ‘post-postcolonial criticism’ which would be conditioned by ‘honest enquiry’ and ‘dignity’: ‘The future of literary studies depends on our willingness to abandon the stasist security of paradigmatic thought and to search earnestly for more dynamic, less scripted ways of reading, writing and teaching about literature’. However, the obscurely utopian thrust of her programme raises many important questions which are not addressed. Ethics and ideology, for example, are central in the battle between the pro- and anti- camps, but generally the volume confines itself to a lukewarm defence of a form of liberal humanism. Failure to tackle such key issues head-on prevents the project as a whole from doing more than effectively ‘anthologising dissent’, without enabling it to propose any clear counter manifesto, which might, after all, liberate it from De Man’s double bind…
Developments in Short Fiction Research
58The short story has been the subject of renewed interest over the last few years in Great Britain and internationally. The phenomenon will undoubtedly be accentuated by the attribution of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature to Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro. As a form that develops in the margins of literary study, the short story has attracted variable degrees of critical attention throughout literary history, and short fiction criticism tends to circle back and dwell upon recurrent preoccupations such as generic marginality and definition, formalism, narrative wholeness, and publishing. The research in this area over the last four to five years expands upon these areas, while displaying a sense of haunting by previous critics. The persistent legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is strikingly present. Recent publications from approximately 2009 onwards present subtle, yet significant, developments in what appears to be an international, border-crossing landscape of recurrent critical preoccupations.
59Michael Toolan’s Narrative Progression in the Short Story: A Corpus Stylistic Approach, for example, studies the question of reader reception in relation to stylistics and narrativity. Toolan perpetuates a long tradition of formalist study in short story research through a close textual analysis of lexico-phrasal patterning in relation to reader expectations and narrative progression. Such emphasis on the process of reading perpetuates the work of prominent short story critics such as Susan Lohafer, who studies concepts of closure and preclosure in Reading for Storyness: Preclosure Theory, Empirical Poetics, and Culture in the Short Story. It also relates back to John Gerlach’s well-known 1985 study Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story, and Per Winther’s work in this area, particularly ‘Closure and Preclosure as Narrative Grid in Short Story Analysis.’ Toolan’s work highlights a focus on the pragmatics of narrative completeness in short story criticism.
60Threads of formalism also inform Jorge Sacido’s collection of essays Modernism, Postmodernism and the Short Story in English, and Laura Mª Lojo Rodríguez’s Moving Across a Century, collections that address the issue of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics in the short story, exploring how stories display a porosity between the two aesthetic orientations. Rodríguez’s collection, for example, pivots upon the work of Slavoj Žižek and seeks to reconsider the modernist status of stories by authors such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.
61Paul March-Russell, in his The Short Story: An Introduction, also notes the emphasis on form in short story research, yet recognizes a renewed emphasis on ethics. He suggests that formalism be addressed with caution, underlining how the focus of short story criticism on New Critical or formalist concepts has prevented it from embracing the possibilities offered by postructural critique (85). In this volume March-Russell provides not only an introduction to the study of the short story, he also seeks to re-investigate recurrent ideas about the short story form, and suggests new trends. He evokes, for example, the critical turn in British universities triggered by creative writing programs. According to March-Russell, such programmes foster playful modes and a subversion of critical writing that are wrapped up with a more radical future for short story studies (86).
62Ailsa Cox, in Writing the Short Story, and Teaching the Short Story, indeed underlines the critical evolutions that have resulted from a pronounced emphasis on creative writing in the British academy. According to Cox, creative writing B.A.s, M.A.s and Ph.D.s proposed by many universities are fostering subtle shifts in modes of criticism. Cox’s 2011 collection of essays seeks to draw attention to the diversification in critical discourse that results from a studied confrontation of critical reading and creative writing. She evokes, for example, teaching methods that involve the creative rewriting of texts. Such approaches are decidedly practice based, and are, as Cox explains, a means by which to engage writers in discussions of short story theory. Ailsa Cox is also editor of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, a recently formed (first published in 2011), academic, practice-based journal that seeks to provide an international resource and outlet for writers, readers, translators and publishers of the short story. The journal welcomes experimental, rigorous forms of critical discourse and seeks to open up the realm of short story theory to new modes of study.
63Such paradigmatic shifts in criticism and discourse might also be the result of a current emphasis on ethics and reading in the short story. Christine Reynier’s Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story, places ethics at the forefront of critical concerns in relation to the short story form, particularly of the modernist, short story as Woolf conceived it. Reynier’s emphasis on generic boundaries and the sense of ‘conversation’ that appears in Woolf’s short fiction, belies a strong interest in the performance of storytelling, placing the author-reader ‘conversation’ at the center of discussions of Woolf’s negotiations with the genre.
64Ethics and the process of ‘storytelling’ also appear in Paul March-Russell (ed) and Maggie Awadalla’s (ed) The Postcolonial Short Story with its focus on short story aesthetics and postcolonialism. The editors refer to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ (1936), and evoke postmodern recuperations of folkloric orality (2-3) in postcolonial short stories, while discussing the concept of ‘minor literature’ borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari. The editors also invoke Irish author Frank O’Connor’s famous ‘lonely voice’ premise (Frank O’Oconnor, The Lonely Voice, 1962) that the short story embraces the marginal, and is positioned on the fringes of literary production. This convergence is brought to bear upon the evolution of postcolonial studies towards issues of eclecticism, migration, diaspora and globalization. The collection focuses on stories from the 1970s to the present day, and proposes a studied interaction between the short story and the hybridization of the field of postcolonial literature with an emphasis on liminality and the fluidity of sexual, textual, national and ethnic identity. The tradition of negotiating borders and edges in the short story is brought to resonate with a series of contemporary issues in postcolonial literature.
65Heather Ingman’s A History of the Irish Short Story similarly underlines a link between Irish national identity and the short story form. The organization of the chapters displays a focus on Irish history and the short story until the present, ultimately concluding with commentaries about the fragmentation of contemporary Irish identity. Although the author observes that the Irish short story has not yet experienced the hybridization and diversity she sees in British fiction, she observes a developing interest in the self as process (266), such as in the work of Ní Dhuibhne.
66The British Short Story (written by Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, and Ruth Robbins) also engages with national and generic identity. It places the British publishing industry in the foreground, studying the different sociological forces that appear in the form of publishing trends and constraints in Great Britain with an emphasis on their shaping influence on the short story form. Like Ingman’s book, this volume concludes with a section that addresses the emerging questions of immigration and multiculturalism in the contemporary short story.
67The publishing industry is an enduring preoccupation in short story studies, as in Dean Baldwin’s Art and Commerce in the British Short Story, 1880–1950. The short story has a distinct history of publication in magazines and periodicals, thematic and historical anthologies, and much attention has been devoted to the short story cycle and collection. Baldwin’s work proposes a historical focus on the intertwined forces of the economy and the emergence of the short story tradition, with a methodology that alternates between literary study and historical statistics. Many short story writers speak of the publishing constraints and demands from their publishers to write a novel to consolidate their careers. Baldwin’s work reminds us of the importance of the literary field of publishers and critics in shaping the critical and reading reception of the short story over time.
68March-Russell, in the aforementioned The Short Story: An Introduction, also devotes chapters to the publishing industry and academia as forces that contribute to fashioning the short story, and with Awadalla, in The Postcolonial Short Story, he discusses the specificities of postcolonial short story publication. British critic Kasia Boddy’s The American Short Story since 1950, emphasizes the importance of publishing contexts in understanding the formal evolution of the American Short Story. The study of literary production and reception is indeed rarely absent from short story criticism. The special issue on ‘The Figure of the Author of the Short Story in English’ co-edited by Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, and Journal of the Short Story in English in 2012, investigates the displacement of such preoccupations to the fiction of short story authors. The collection explores various ways by which authors use short stories to engage with questions of generic legitimacy and authorship in the short story.
69One might also consider the influence of activities in the area of short story publishers. Comma Press, a publishing house that specializes in the short story, engages in various strategies to promote the short story. Comma Press has created the ‘Gimbal’ application for Iphone users, with the objective of making short stories more accessible to readers. Created in collaboration with Literature Across Frontiers (and in association with Aberystwyth University), and developed by Toru Interactive, this interactive I-phone app allows readers to read, listen to, or learn about a variety of short stories in English (including stories translated from other languages) from all over the world. We can see here an explicit enactment of the connection many contemporary theorists have made between the short story as fragment (Cox 2011, 2) and our contemporary media.
70Comma Press has also been involved in commissioning anthologies that participate in the ethical preoccupations of contemporary literature. Notable collections include Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science, an anthology for which writers were commissioned to work with famous scientists to write stories about important eureka moments. Stories by authors such as Sara Maitland, Zoe Lambert, Jane Rogers, Alison Macleod and Sarah Hall are followed by a brief note by a scientist, sometimes the actual scientist who figures in the story, as in the case of Alison Macleod’s ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’. Similarly, Biopunk: Stories from the Far Side of Research, involved inviting authors to write stories about new areas of bio-medical research. Stories by Adam Marek, Sean O’Brien, Sara Maitland, and Toby Litt, are followed by afterwords by well known scientists. These are just a few experiments in pushing ethics to the foreground of publishing, and a means of inventing challenging constraints for short story writers. The editors of Comma Press have also been involved with the formation of the European Short Story Network, that is an international network devoted to the promotion of short story writing: http://www.theshortstory.eu.
71Numerous literary prizes devoted to the short story also foster the production and recognition of the genre. Notable awards in Great Britain include the following: The Sunday Times Short Story Award (2013 winner, Cynan Jones, ‘The Dig,’ Six Shorts, The Sunday Times, 2013), the BBC National Short Story Award (2013 winner Sarah Hall, ‘Mrs Fox,’ 2013 featured an all female shortlist), The Edgehill Prize (2013 winner, Kevin Barry, Dark Lies The Island), the Frank O’Connor Award (2013 winner, British writer David Constantine, Tea at the Midland and Other Stories). Such prizes, in conjunction with creative writing programmes, have contributed to the rise of the short story, while exerting a significant force on the shape of short fiction research.
72Another significant resource is ‘THRESHOLDS: home of the international short story forum’ (blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/) based at the University of Chichester, U.K. Originally founded by Alison Macleod as a graduate student forum, this website has blossomed into an essential resource in the realm of creative writing. In academia, a notable development is the newly formed ‘European Network for Short Fiction Research’ (ENSFR), created and directed by researchers at the University of Angers and Edgehill University U.K. (current steering committee: Ailsa Cox and myself). The network currently maintains a blog (ensfr.hypotheses.org) with the intention of developing a collaborative website that would serve as a forum and resource for research in the area of short fiction
73The CRILA (Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Langue Anglaise) research group at the University of Angers, also continues to focus on the short story. Their involvement with the genre began in 1983 with the creation of Journal of the Short Story in English (JSSE), originally edited by Ben Forkner and John Paine, co-edited by the University of Angers, in collaboration with Belmont University (Nashville, Tennessee, current editor: Linda Collinge, the University of Angers). In 2013 the JSSE is celebrating its thirty–year anniversary. Recent issues include a special volume on Edith Wharton’s short fiction (JSSE 58, Spring 2012, Introduction by Virginia Ricard), and a special volume on film adaptations of short stories (JSSE 59, Autumn 2012).
74The American based ‘Society for the Short Story’ is organizing the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in Vienna July 15–July 19, 2014: (www.shortstoryconference.org/13th-international-conference-short-story-english). Maurice Lee and Susan Lohafer, with the help of a partner institution (this year: Sylvia Petter, University of Vienna), have organized this large, international conference at different sites around the world, every two years since the first conference at the Sorbonne University in 1988. Guest writers and critics are brought together to collaborate and promote scholarship and writing in the field of the short story.
75The most recent development in the field of short story criticism, however, is Charles May’s I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies (CreateSpace, 2013). May’s authority in the field of short story studies is incontestable. Although he is retired, May has continued to contribute to numerous collections, and his blog ‘Reading the Short Story’ has become an indispensable resource of reflection on the genre: (http://may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.fr/). In his recent book, May develops concepts he has addressed over the years with an overall emphasis on form and the mythic, paradigmatic quality of the short story.
76Although May’s work is turned essentially towards North American literature, his criticism crosses national boundaries, and proposes a focus on the short story as a site of generic negotiation. In its ongoing dialogue with adjacent genres, it constantly brings us back to the question of literary constraints in the storytelling process. In much of the criticism discussed above, issues such as ethics, identity, and aesthetics appear to coexist with ambivalence about incorporating contemporary literary concerns. Viorica Patea’s collection of essays, Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, exemplifies this, as it turns to the past while pondering the present, with chapters on Poe’s legacy and the history of the short story, linguistics and discourse analysis, postcolonialism and gender, and postmodernism and the twenty–first century. Ultimately, if time in the short story is known to simultaneously embrace and move beyond social and cultural contexts, the cyclical resurgence of critical figures and formal preoccupations in the field of short fiction research seems to act as a mirror to the paradigmatic, layered temporality of the genre itself. Perhaps this also attests to flagrant cycles of historical repetition within the general field of literature. In any case, the wealth of critical attention currently bestowed upon the short story form indicates a heightened sense of the genre’s significance in the realms of contemporary criticism and writing.