Sick in bed and taking a break from blogging about marginalia, idly browsing academic websites and blogs (as one does, sick in bed and in need of entertainment), I have found myself returning to a question I mulled over with a couple of colleagues a few years ago, and which we couldn’t answer then any more than I can answer it now: who matters now in literary studies — or, if that’s both too narrow and too broad a term, in English? More precisely, what book, or what books, could reasonably be described as widely influential in the “field”?

The scare quotes partly answer my question, of course: there may not be enough of a field of “English” or even of “literary studies” anymore to make the question either useful or apposite, let alone answerable. I could certainly come up with a top ten list of books published in the past 25 years in early modern studies (or, to be appropriately precise, in Elizabethan and Jacobean studies), but I have almost no sense of those books’ influence beyond my own sub-sub-speciality.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a fairly recent development. I don’t think — though hindsight might distort my vision — things were like this in the 80s, and I’m not convinced the change since then is all New Historicism’s fault (one could argue that the focus on the “new boredom” [David Kastan’s phrase, just in case that hasn’t transcended period-divides] has produced a particularism and an obsession with historical minutiae that make conversations across period-specializations neither helpful nor desirable, whereas close reading or more strictly theoretical approaches leave one open to the entire range of texts from all places and times). After all, many of the widely-read critical works of the 80s were no less specific in their interest and focus than work produced now — Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic is about Victorian literature; Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? makes its most interesting critical arguments about Milton; Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning sort of speaks for itself. It’s probably an indication of my own blinkeredness that about the only major and influential critical work of the 80s I can think of that doesn’t in some way focus on a specific period is Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men. (That’s leaving out a wealth of predominantly theoretical books and a lot of formalist and neo-formalist work, especially in poetics, but I can live with that.)

But despite the fairly specific concerns of those works, they were widely read and their methodologies were widely adapted to other fields and other concerns. New Historicism didn’t remain an early modernist enterprise. Feminism didn’t stick to the nineteenth century. Deconstruction went beyond Romanticism. And so on. But do we do that now? What are the books that, while written about a particular time or a specific author, have had an influence beyond their own sphere of interest in the last twenty years or so?

My own nominee would probably be D. F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, but that’s cheating — for one thing, it’s 26 years old; for another, it jumps across periods and fields of enquiry a fair bit, despite being a short book. And most importantly, has anyone who doesn’t work on the history of the book actually been influenced by McKenzie?

So, dear reader: help me out. Name some titles. What are the books published over the past two decades that every self-respecting English professor (or grad student) should at least have heard of?

39 Responses to Who Matters?

  1. Paul Menzer says:

    I’m late to the party, but I’ve been idly wondering if we’re in a period of — to use an inevitable locution — the new eclecticism, the residual chop of new historicism’s diminishing wake. If, like me, you came through an English department in the late 90’s/early aughts, you were trained (well, to be fair, I never received anything so calibrated as training, let’s say we were “encouraged” through mimicry) to understand the way that, say, Twelfth Night was actually about French gynecology rather than something more systematic, or total. I’m not really critiquing; in fact, Twelfth Night is about French gynecology (or, French gynecology is “about” Twelfth Night; the chiastic trick was part of the game) as much as anything else. I think we can read the effects of this trend in popular micro-history books like “Salt” and etc. that focus somewhat obsessively (I remember reading “Salt” thinking, I’ll be goddamned, this book is actually all about salt) upon, in this case, a grain of material culture to read cultural/historical developments. Our focus has grown ever more atomistic, though I think we’re coming out of that via book history, studies of the law, religion, taste/senses, cognition, etc. It’s an inevitable correction. In sum, and I confess that it’s just a facile notion, but it seems like within my own field of e.m. drama we’ve spent the last decade and more thinking about how the elements organize the system rather than the other way around.

    Here’s an ever more facile notion to close on, maybe the analogy is with popular music and the diminishing impact of major label artists making “big” records every two to three years. The making and market(ing) of popular music is ever more fractal, ever more fugitive, and ever more opportunistically employs alternative distribution avenues. Maybe in lit crit writ large, the album era is over and we’re living in a world of one hit wonders, engagingly odd collaborations, hit singles, and alternative venues (like Holger’s awesome blog, by the way) to circulate content. Frankly, I have little nostalgia for the earlier protocols.

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    I’d be interested in viewing your “top ten list of books published in the past 25 years in early modern studies (or, to be appropriately precise, in Elizabethan and Jacobean studies).” Perhaps in a separate post?

  3. Tony says:

    I’m so pleased to see that there isn’t the definitive consensus in these comments that I had sharpened my pencil for. I’m about halfway through my dissertation, and all I know about the field is that I havent read anything that I’m supposed to have read, and that I don’t know the things that I’m supposed to know. I also have no idea how to go about finding out what I am supposed to have read, or what I am supposed to know, in order that I might read and learn the “right” things. Despite the comforting murk of this thread, I remain terribly suspicious that all of you fellow commenters (and Holger!) know and have read what I should know and should have read, and take it as a given that I know and have read all that I should know and should have read, and so we never talk about it, with the perplexing result that oblivion and ignorance and a generally benighted state seem to comprise almost the entirety of my grad school experience.

    I have a headache now.

    I’m going to go read a play.

  4. Hitandrun says:

    Answer: Freddie Crews’ POSTMODERN POOH (2001).

    Has it influenced any of you?


  5. Peter C. Herman says:

    Those posts are fascinating, and I have learned a lot from them (not the least being the existence of “thing theory,” which I at first thought was a misprint for “string theory,” but apparently not). But I also found those posts and the instigating question compelling because they echo the same concerns expressed in my anthology, “Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy” (SUNY Press, 2000). The animating question for this project was really the same as Holger’s question: what are we reading now? What sort of criticism are we creating? And how are the material conditions of the 80s and 80s impacting the sorts of work we are doing? In other words, my contributors and I decided to apply the basic insights of New Historicism, or just plain historicism, to our own moment. If deconstruction came out of the 60s, and New Criticism reflects post-World War II America, then how are our own political, economic, and material circumstances affecting (or afflicting) what we do?

    The answer we ultimately came to (the anthology went through a few different iterations), hinted at in the title, is that the theoretical atomization noted by many of the previous contributors to this discussion, the lack of any central, overarching theme, text or approach, was at least partly caused by the shifts toward a corporate academy and the subsequent denigration of the kind of work we do. Honestly, I have not seen anything that would prove this decade-old insight wrong. So, my suggestion for the book that might have the sort of influence that Holger seeks is not literary criticism at all, but a book about higher education that I may revile because it gets things fundamentally wrong, but has become enormously popular and likely will influence policy and funding: Richard Arum and Joseph Roksa, “Academically Adrift.” If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should, because I can just about guarantee you that the administrators at your institution have read it (or more likely, an abstract of it).

  6. Holger, this is an answer to a question that you didn’t ask — but, considering the atomization of literary studies, and the focus on historical particularity that you mentioned, it might be useful to ask what books we are all reading / have read, rather than the big books that have proven to be influential to our work. Those are not, of course necessarily the same thing. It can be difficult to even have a conversation with those outside of our own period/sub-sub-specialty, since it takes so much time to simply stay afloat these days, on the stream of scholarship being produced within specific fields.

    So I would nominate, at least for early modern studies, the biography. Someone mentioned that Shapiro’s two recent books aren’t the kind of big books scholars used to write — but I bet that we’ve all read them, and they’re the books that my colleagues in other fields have read and will readily ask me about. The one book that got repeatedly mentioned in the annual holiday issue of the TLS was Ian Donaldson’s new bio of Jonson (and how many of us will have that in our carry-on bags this week for MLA, or later this semester to some other conference?)

    These may not be considered conventionally “influential,” and indeed, may simply be a form of acceptably work-related entertainment — but I often find them to have some impact on my work; but then again, I work on conceptions of authorship. Or we might say, with less optimism, that the plethora of biographies does not simply show that they are widely marketable, but show that we are clinging to whatever measure of canonical authority our field has left. But that’s not the way I’d like to start the new year.

  7. Nicholas Morris says:

    This is a particularly great post for this moment in my education and I have been thinking about it, and about why, almost to distraction since reading it. During the third year of the PhD, as I wade through reading lists and prepare for comp exams, this has been an implicit (but interestingly almost never acknowledged) question for my supervisors and me. What is indispensable/influential, no matter what period or field? With three lists covering different periods – Book History methodology (no period, though heavily early modern), 19C, and Modernist/1900-1950 – I have found myself concerned and amused about what crosses fields and periods.

    Couple of observations and nominations right off the bat. Surprised no one has mentioned Friedrich Kittler, or does he mostly influence the 19C and 20C? Also Roger Chartier’s work seems widely influential over the last twenty years or so, but that might be a bit histoire du livre specific? Nominations: Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics (2002), D.C. Greetham’s Theories of the Text (1999), Mark Rose’s Authors and Owners (1993), and Heather Jackson’s Marginalia (2001) (or for that matter, Bill Sherman’s Used Books (2007)).

    While I would certainly agree with the previous commenter that Bill Brown’s A Sense of Things (2003) probably does not go that far beyond Latour and his mediators (or Appadurai and his), it does seem widely influential to 19C and 20C studies in the last eight years. It perhaps is not so persuasive to early modernists and others who had collections and studies like Renaissance Culture and the Everyday , Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture , Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory , Writing Matter , and so on, to rely upon.

    It is also interesting hear people talk about the appearance of a work of criticism or theory already tending towards historiography, just 5–10 years after the fact. For example, I remember upon entering American academia in 2009, hearing tales from Assistant Professors about when they were in grad school and Hardt & Negri’s Empire (2000) hit the shelves and the classrooms. But I don’t know that it has been as widely influential in the field as people once thought it might be.

    There is also the line to be drawn – as many here have done – between volumes and critics that influence the field from the outside, as it were, and those who do so from the inside. For example, Gerard Genette’s Paratexts (1997; Seuils 1987), seems widely influential in Anglo-American literary studies during the late 90s and 00s, in periods as diverse as medieval, early modern, Victorian, and Modernist (and I’m sure others that I have not been as privy to). One could say the same about Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production (1993), although it was a collection of pieces first published in French – and often translated into English – between 1968 and 1987.

    I agree with previous commenters about Guillory’s Cultural Capital ; however, I would also agree with your response, Holger: not so much widely influential other than the notion of “cultural capital”, as “being a book everyone seemed to feel obliged to at least fake-read”.

    As a gesture of who matters, let me offer two names that ghosted my list discussions in all three cases: Mary Poovey and Lorraine Daston. While I would be hard pressed to decide which works exactly, their cumulative work of the last two decades seem influential in the field. To conclude, one book apposite to my methodology across periods and one that despite no direct work in the methodology was de rigeur. For the former, Adrian Johns’s The Nature of the Book (1998), which no matter what period (I’m a Modernist) and no matter whether you agree or disagree, if you are interested in vaguely book historical issues, it probably should be reckoned with. For the latter, even more so than Orientalism , Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), which despite the fact that it basically works in the same time period as Raymond Williams (1780–1950), I have seen time and again worked back to earlier periods the same way (but for vastly different reasons) as Peter Lake and Steven Pincus have used Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.

    Sorry for rambling on so long, but great discussion!

  8. Lawrence Switzky says:

    Would you accept a list of nominations? Even if we just take the last 15 years, howsabout Lakoff and Johnson, _Metaphors We Live By_ (cognitive theory and the arts), Joseph Roach, _Cities of the Dead_ (performance studies and literature), N. Catherine Hayles, _How We Became Posthuman_ (cybernetics, information theory and literature), Jerome McGann, _Radiant Textuality_ (digital humanities), Bolter and Grusin, _Remediation_ (media theory, modernism, artistic novelty), Alex Woloch, _The One Vs. The Many_ (character criticism)? And are Frederic Jameson, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, et al., entirely dead letters? And how about Habermas — literary scholars now seem to realize he wrote beyond his Habilitationsschrift — or Ranciere, or Badiou, in addition to Agamben? (I shudder to mention Zizek, though he does turn up.) If “mattering” means being cited and discussed beyond one’s sub-sub-sub(x50)-field, I’d say that all of these folks matter since I regularly see them discussed by people who are really, really not in my field.

    One trend I rather like is the short book. I know that there are mercenary motives behind many short books by big(gish) names, but you can read them in a day and there are often passages that are designed to be harvested. It’s as though the methods chapter from some encyclopedic monograph has torn itself free, sprouted tiny limbs, and assumed its own uncanny life. That’s what Moretti’s _Graphs, Maps, Trees_ is to me — a prospectus for further work rather than a bookshelf-trembler.

    I’m undecided about Bill Brown and the “Thing Theory” school (I’m not sure if it goes all that far beyond Latour and his mediators, and its proponents choose unusually corny titles for their papers, like “How to Do Words with Things”). I will bet that Jeffrey Green’s _The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship_ becomes influential in literary studies, since it includes reading as an effective form of political participation in plebiscitary democracy.

    By the way, to throw the early modernists a bone, I did hear Margreta de Grazia’s _’Hamlet’ without Hamlet_ cited in a Romantic Poetry talk.

    Do “Good and Faithful Servant” kinds of books count as books that matter? Like Vendler’s _Poems, Poets, Poetry_ or Attridge’s _Poetic Rhythm_ or MG’s _Shakespeare After All_, or James Wood’s _How Fiction Works_? Lots of people seem to have read them even if they’re not poetry or Renaissance drama scholars and they may be as far as many students or non-specialist readers get into the question of how to read and why.

    Happy New Year!

    • Holger Syme says:

      Happy New Year to you too, Larry! I’m really happy that some people outside early modern studies are starting to comment, but now I feel like the Renaissance might just be a particularly well-fortified island. Roach’s is just about the only book in your list that I’ve both read and used (and seen cited by others, though I’m not sure how often I’ve encountered it outside of work that deals with performance of one kind or another).

      As for the list of theorists/philosophers — sure, but that’s to some extent a separate issue. I’d expect those to be cited fairly widely, precisely because they don’t belong to any of our many villages (well, Bhabha, Butler, and Jameson all do in some ways, but they’ve all been appropriated widely enough — at least the work they did in the 80s [Jameson] and 90s [the other two]). But here’s the thing. Sure, I’ve seen the latest batch of French (and the handful of Italian) thinkers cited, and some critics obviously find their work useful to think with. However, it seems to me (and I may be way off on this) that the relationship between the philosophers and the critics there is much more akin to the way people have been using, say, Wittgenstein, than the way Derrida, or Foucault, or Lacan (or Freud, or Marx, etc.) became part of the literary critical canon. The reception of the latter provided new vocabularies, new methodologies, new fields even, and not only for critics deeply interested in philosophy or theory — do you have the same hope (or fear) for the more recent candidates?

      I wouldn’t count books like Shakespeare After All, much as I like it for what it is. They’re intelligent books designed to be read by lots of people, but I’m not sure they’re likely to influence other scholars or critics a whole lot (and they’re also, at least in MG’s case, pretty significantly out of step with the current mainstream of the field — so if other critics were influenced by her book, I don’t think that could count as a good example of intellectual cross-fertilization…).

  9. Jeff Severs says:

    It’s surprising to me that after this many responses no one’s really mentioned this (though the anecdote about _Death of a Discipline_ — by Spivak and about a new comparative lit, googlebooks tells me — hints at it): state-of-the-profession books and studies of the neoliberal university, the horrible job market, or the-university/English/humanities-in-crisis as the new thing uniting us all as critics of literature. A few that come to my mind, both read and unread by me, are Readings’s _The University in Ruins_, Menand’s _The Marketplace of Ideas_… and on the associated question of the canon’s durability, is Guillory’s _Cultural Capital_ new enough, Holger, to fit the rules you laid down? So, in sum, meta-studies of what we do and just how much longer we might get to do it in the current form. I also wonder if “forwarded articles from the _Chronicle of Higher Ed_ and such” isn’t the category making up a lot of the common currency that your question implies is on the wane — those are the things I find myself talking the most about when, say, out for drinks with people from other fields. Maybe it’s just that I’m sharing job placement duties here this year. Or is this all a way of skirting your question? P.S. Said’s _Orientalism_ is a good candidate for your original post. Just saying. P.P.S. Happy new year.

    • Holger Syme says:

      As for the PS, absolutely. (And for the PPS, happy new year to you too!) It is kind of staggering just how many books like that came out in or about 1980.

      I really don’t want to agree that all we have in common now are shared worries, or shared attackers, though I see your point. Guillory just about makes the cut, and it certainly was one of the books everyone talked about when we were starting grad school. But beyond being admired, and talked about, and perhaps giving the phrase “cultural capital” a lot of the same, how much did it really change the way we do things? (That may be too lofty a standard. It certainly fits the criterion of being a book everyone seemed to feel obliged to at least fake-read.)

      • Andras Kisery says:

        The point about books published cca. 1980 might be crucial here. At the risk of sounding both purple and trivial: it’s not that there was a miraculous moment then and we are now in a less productive decade, but that the mode of production characterizing the dominant (or perhaps emergent – i.e., what would, in retrospect, seem dominant) segment of literary studies in America was fundamentally different then. It is not just that there are no such defining, game-changing books being written now, but that the tacit assumptions governing the best work that is being written are not conducive to that kind of heroic writing any more.

        In 1980s, it seemed (it seems to have seemed) to a lot of people that by studying literary texts, one could make fundamental discoveries about society, culture, whatever: that the literary text provided privileged access to historical, political etc. problems; that the study of poetry might reveal more about the emergence of modernity or about the politics of gender in the western world than the study of other types of documents. Crudely: that literature was indeed more philosophical than history, and that literary studies could therefore aspire to the status of the master discipline of the humanities. (This is the promise of the talk about a “poetics of culture,” for example.) We no longer think so, and even if we do, we don’t know how to act on that belief. But without that somewhat titanic belief (or ambition) being shared by a significant (defining, dominant, whetever) segment of the profession, it is hard to produce the kind of heroic work that we seek to identify here.

        Roach seems to have that quality. Moretti is interesting: his bold formalism makes no trans-disciplinary promises, but at least it envisions literary studies as a field with its own logic, its own procedures. Without such a vision of the rules of the game, it would be hard to even attempt to change them.

        And re: Guillory: his is more of a meta-book than those big 1980s examples (same goes for Bill Readings) — a different register somehow.

        Off now — happy new year!

  10. Germaine Warkentin says:

    Interesting to see Moretti’s book mentioned several times. I was asked to review it for The Library because it seemed so weird and I was known to have a high tolerance for wierdness. Pace Kathy, I thought it was more important for the questions it raised than for its approach. Though “Trees” didn’t seem to be at the time, it is clearly a “keeper.” I’m currently interested in how critics “become history” — McKenzie? surely not yet? — as I’m just finishing a long note on how Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism was reviewed during his “great decade”, 1957-66 (answer: very confusedly). My own reading is almost entirely on cognition these days. Stanislaus Dehaene’s “Reading in the Brain” (2009) is going to be influential, though probably for the wrong reasons, because it is so strictly bound to an alphabetic definition of literacy. Also, does it have to be the big BOOK of the past quarter-century? How about a big ARTICLE? Kathy’s response seems to me the best view of the issues, at the moment.

  11. Anupam Basu says:

    This might be a result of my blinkered view from within my sub-sub-field, but I feel the socio-historical turn in much of early modern studies draws on a distinct strain of historiography exemplified by Keith Wrightson, Paul Griffiths etc. But more than one outstanding book that is widely known, this is an entire school of historiography that has steadily, if often indirectly, influenced early modern literary studies over the last two decades.

    In terms of the next big thing in theory, I’d bet on Meillasoux’s After Finitude and Brassier’s Nihil Unbound.

  12. Chris Brooke says:

    isn’t the NYRB at least a little like the LRB?

    No. Or, at most, only a very little.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Hah! Fair enough — can’t say when I last looked at the NYRB, so this was a shot in the gloom.

      • Germaine Warkentin says:

        The verdict in our family — two heavy-reading North American professors — is for the TLS and the NYRB; I know a lot of people who are becoming very bored with the LRB, and every year I reconsider my subscription. And then give in yet once more. Sigh.

        • Chris Brooke says:

          I find the reviews in the TLS to be too short to be genuinely useful and/or interesting. That’s not true of the NYRB, but I find it to be too pompous for real reading pleasure (though I do enjoy reading Gary Wills), and over time I’ve come to dislike the formulaic rhetorical style with which people parade their disagreements in the correspondence columns. So I prefer with the LRB (which I generally like very much indeed).

          But partly I think there are disciplinary concerns in play: the LRB is good on politics (my subject), whereas the Classicists I know prefer the TLS, which covers a lot more relevant (for them) titles.

  13. James J Marino says:

    I’m going to quibble with your premise, Holger. I think the books you list, while great and clearly influential, seem more singularly influential in retrospect. Those books did not emerge alone but represent parts of larger movements, and have since come to be remembered as the classic exemplars of those movements.

    Gilbert and Gubar did not invent feminist lit-crit single, er, double-handedly. They wrote an excellent book which did, superbly, something that many other critics were trying to do at the same time, and now we remember that book as the representative classic of that wider effort, the way many people think of one late-Elizabethan dramatist as “Elizabethan drama.” And while Greenblatt contributed a lot to the New Historicism, he did not contribute the whole of it. Renaissance Self-Fashioning has simply become the book that symbolizes that critical movement, both on its formidable intellectual merits and on the merits of its bravura prose.

    I would submit that the Representative Major Book of, for example, the “New Boredom” will likely be identified only in retrospect. And I think that your worry is related academics’ occasional questions about what the next Big Theoretical Movement will be. I don’t think you can predict that. I think that a bunch of smart people driven by their own interests start working on mutually-illuminating projects and then, sometime rather later than it started, people notice a movement underway.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I don’t disagree with much of that, Jim. You’re certainly right about feminism (obviously), and largely about New Historicism — though Greenblatt probably played a more central role in that movement. I think it’s fair to say (isn’t it?) that Berkeley was the point of origin of New Historicism, and that without Representations and that UC Press series (which was edited by Greenblatt), the entire thing wouldn’t have taken off the same way. That said, I suspect that NH is by now the emptiest and least meaningful of all labels, and has been for well over a decade. So to the extent that the thing that many people still call New Historicism is really just a form of cultural history, it owes very little to either Greenblatt or the Berkeley crowd.

      You’re completely right about the connection between my question and the next BTM question — except for one thing. I’m not really too worried about what the NEXT big thing is. I do wonder what the LAST big thing was. From my own early modernist perspective, I might say “history of the book” or some other form of historicism, but I don’t know if that’s true for, say, Victorianists or American Modernists. In the same vein, I can name a whole lot of wonderful, brilliant books that have been written in our sub-field over the past 20 years. I can even make a list of books that have been influential, though I’m less sure about their importance for early modern studies as whole. But I have almost no sense of what the equivalent titles in other sub-fields or periods have been, and shockingly little sense of what’s been influential across those fields and periods. And I really don’t think that would have been the case 20 years ago. (But perhaps I’m romanticizing the past…)

  14. Flavia says:

    I think Curtis may be right that this is partly about American academic and intellectual culture; certainly, the U.S. has no publication comparable to the LRB, which presumes a wide-ish, general-ish readership for academic titles.

    But I also wonder whether it has to do with the structure of academia in this country: one book for tenure, two books for full (or, in some places, two books for tenure). It seems to me that this encourages more specialization, rewarding scholars who think in smaller, more focused, and more easily-categorized ways. Although one doesn’t expect anyone’s first book to be a game-changer, habits developed writing that first book might well make many people less likely to think big, or across disciplines, even in their later careers when they presumably have more freedom to do so.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Interesting. Re. US vs UK, isn’t the NYRB at least a little like the LRB? And much as I like the latter, they review a woefully small number of academic books from our field — history, philosophy, political science, sure, but lit crit? The TLS, on the other hand, really has no equivalent elsewhere I think.

      Re. tenure-requirements, I’m not sure that’s new. I mean, all of the people who wrote those “game changers” in the 80s had written smaller, less influential first books (usually barely revised dissertations) — and I suspect this was the case in the previous generation as well. In the UK, on the other hand, the changes in publication patterns enforced by the ever more out-of-control research assessment exercises go some way towards explaining the absence of big, ambitious books: if you need to churn out a new volume every four or five years, you can’t be big and ambitious.

      That said, I’m not even convinced that we don’t have big, exciting books anymore. I think we do. It’s just that they’re big and exciting in fairly focused ways, and that they’re largely read by people already sharing that focus rather than by a wide audience interested in adopting the author’s tools and perspectives for their own work. So my question isn’t really so much a question about what’s being produced, but what’s being read, and how.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Did Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom ruin “big” books for everyone else?

  16. Carolyn Sale says:

    Thanks, Holger, for hosting this discussion.

    I know what would excite me — work that (re)casts the literary in relation to the political in all of its contemporary excitements, even where the literature under discussion is historical. And I cast about too, thinking, surely such work is being done, surely I am missing something . . . . And no doubt I am missing something. We are all impossibly busy, and I look forward to hearing what work others suggest are must-reads.

    As it is, the stimulating work comes, for me, from the “outside,” most recently in the work of Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude (2004) and Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (2008). It’s not coming from the “inside,” and we seem to be experiencing a certain “death,” because we have given way to an etiolated materialism that betrays materialism. I shiver at the notion that there will be a “neo-empiricism” by way of response.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I think the busy-ness is actually part of the answer — too much being published, too much to keep up with in our own fields, not enough time to go poaching in unfamiliar territory.

      The one thing I’d resist is the fear of death. I actually like a lot of the work our field is producing these days, and I think we’re having lots of important, exciting, and pretty vibrant debates. My question wasn’t motivated by despair in that sense. But I find it troublesome that what we as literary scholars/critics produce, while often excellent, is relevant (or at least visible) only to people already deeply invested in the specific subject of our work — and I want to understand why that is. I’m not persuaded that it’s because there’s something inherently wrong with the kind of work we do. The hackneyed argument that what we write is jargon-riddled and innately uninteresting and inaccessible strikes me as even less convincing now than it was 15 years ago. And yet it’s my experience that as colleagues, we rarely read, and are even more rarely influenced by work done by friends and neighbours in our own departments. I don’t know if that’s particularly true of early modernists, though I doubt it. And I’m certain it wasn’t the case in previous generations. (Just looking at the list of titles published in the UC Press “New Historicism” series illustrates that!)

      Edit: Let me qualify what I just wrote, if only to avoid sounding too solipsistic. I love hearing about my non-early-modern colleagues’ work. I’ve even read some of it. I like going to faculty lectures and job talks and all that. But I’m not sure I’d say I’ve been significantly influenced in my own work by theirs. And I’m quite sure that beyond the collegial level, I know far too little of — and therefore have not been appreciably influenced by — the work done by people focused on other periods, nations, and to some extent even genres.

  17. Kathy Acheson says:

    Three thoughts:

    1. One of the most important developments in literary studies in the last decade has been the digitization of large resource sets which has enabled the kind of quantitative analysis that Moretti advocates. We haven’t yet theorized that change, but I think we all feel it in our work. We can also see its influence in the ways in which granting councils and universities get behind large, data-based (usually digital) projects, which I believe serve to neutralize us as intellectuals and encourage our hamster-like fitness for the exercise wheel of life. Not that they aren’t valuable; they are. But they are a different kind of work than we did in the heady days of high theory.

    2. Literary theory and critical methodology are “lagging indicators” and it will be interesting to see how current events, particularly those that can be considered paradigm shifters (twitter-led revolutions, the Occupy movement, Euro-crisis, the failure of power to deal with environmental and economic crises) will affect how we view our practice and what we do in it.

    3. No one has mentioned cognitive theory and other science-based models of apprehension and production, which I believe are influential even to those of us who don’t employ them or passively work to refute them.

  18. Jim Knapp says:

    Thanks for posting this Holger. This is an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about this too, especially as I watch graduate students try to situate themselves in a field that is less well charted than it was when we were in their shoes. I agree with most of what has been said (though I am not convinced that Moretti’s book is in the same category as Renaissance Self Fashioning and Madwoman in the Attic). My sense is that there are now movements and surges of interest more than iconic works. The various “turns”–to ethics, to affect, to religion–that have taken place in early modern studies seem to be relevant in other period work as well. And of course there are new kinds of critical work that have become something like critical schools: ecocriticism,historical phenomenology, thing theory, etc. It is interesting that these are not generally associated with a single work, though as others have pointed out, they are sometimes associated with a particular figure (Bill Brown for thing theory, Bruce Smith for historical phenomenology, etc.). It is an interesting shift that I see as a good thing. Rather than wait for the next “game changing” book, it seems that folks are attending to the literature and culture in its particularity drawing on all of the critical tools available. Of course the publishing industry tends to favor work that can move across the entire discipline, work that can create movements, and I am sure that we will continue to see announcements that the next big thing has arrived. And maybe it will.

  19. Todd Butler says:

    I headed here with some trepidation, wondering whether the comments section would be like a cocktail party I had been inadvertently invited to. I couldn’t think of anything in particular, and I wondered if the posts would be a succession of “yes, of course! that one, and then this one!”

    Like Peter I can of course think of names for my field, and like Curtis I thought of Agamben (though more in the “should know the name” sort of category). I wonder if part of the issue is that some of the transformative work is going on in fields that don’t lend themselves to monographs–for example, not the history of the book but the future of the book and digital technologies.

    So I asked a friend who works in digital studies/culture and she was somewhat stumped as well. She did offer up one name–N. Katherine Hayles (known apparently as much for the things she says at conference keynotes etc., which actually sort of fits the bill), and her book
    Writing Machines

    I haven’t read it, but with two kids at home four and under, I’m probably not the best standard for that sort of thing…

  20. Holger Syme says:

    I think Moretti’s a pretty good suggestion, and I should have thought of him myself — he’s certainly the (for me) out-of-period critic whom I’ve found most immediately challenging and useful in recent years.

    Your point’s well taken, Andras. I’m not sure it’s entirely symptomatic of where we are right now, though. I think it makes sense to identify philosophical thinkers who have been, or might have been expected to be, influential in changing English — given how much the field depended on the reception of French and German philosophy from the 1960s on, it’s understandable that “we” would continue to look to “out-of-field” voices for inspiration. And to be fair, the literary critics I cited all drew, in one way or another, on precisely such sources of inspiration, so the distinction is a little hazy. However, and this is key, the critical practice those critics shaped out of the application (or modification) of their sources’ ways of thinking became in a sense more influential than the sources themselves. Without Foucault no New Historicism, sure — but once people were doing vaguely New Historicist work, were they really still working within a Foucauldian paradigm?

  21. Andras Kisery says:

    That this question is being asked more and more often is already an answer of sorts — and it is great that you now asked it here.

    That many of the answers tend to name books influencing the field from the outside, as it were, is quite striking. Your post cites Fish, Sedgwick, Gilbert and Gubar, Greenblatt, McKenzie — whereas the answers so far are not only Moretti and Attridge, but also, and perhaps more symptomatically, Agamben, Latour, Gladwell, Taylor…

    Moretti has been mentioned, so let me bring up D.A. Miller’s Jane Austen as a book I thought was going to become that thing but then did not, which obviously has to do with genre, scope, sweep.

    And an anecdote. When asked why the lit. crit section of the academic bookstore I frequented had been so visibly shrinking lately, the manager shrugged and then mentioned that the bestselling title from that section that semester was called “Death of a discipline.”

  22. Peter C. Herman says:

    I have to agree with Curtis. I don’t think there’s been a book, or a movement, that has swept the field since the New Historicism. There have been, to be sure, any number of really fine individual studies that I think should be required reading (e.g., Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles; Leah Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance; Joseph Wittreich, Why Milton Matters), but these are obviously particular to my own interests. I also think it’s important that some of the most signifiant names in the field have ceased writing what might be called “deep” scholarship, meaning, immersion in primary sources, highly detailed analyses, etc., and instead aim at a broader audience than just early modern critics. I have in mind here James Shapiro (Contested Will and A Year in the LIfe of William Shakespeare) as well as Stephen Greenblatt, in particular, The Swerve.

    But is there a book that changes how we look at things the way, say, Cleanth Brooks, or Michel Foucault, or Gilbert and Gubar did? I don’t think so. Or at least, not yet. I really look forward to other responses.

  23. Curtis Perry says:

    I don’t think there is such a book, really. There have been moments where a certain theoretical writer (say, an Agamben or a Latour) seems to have reached critical mass with those around me, but these are not new books per se.

    I wonder if scholars in England would be better able to answer this than those in the US (or Canada?)–I’ve had the impression that our academic marketplace encourages niche branding more than the English marketplace (which includes some curatorial attitude), but that’s very impressionistic of course.

    I have noted that colleagues and grad students in more than one field have been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I’ve read it too, but I certainly have not had the sense that it was something we’d all be talking about.

  24. Matt Kelly says:

    An excellent question. I was discussing this with a colleague with respect to historical studies and what to do about our MA historiography course, which I convene. My concern was that the core texts the course had been built around were ones I was force-fed as an undergraduate in the 1990s. We were able to come up with examples of really good historical writing that were novel in their subject matter but we could not name a single book published in this century that was a conceptual or methodological landmark – the kind of book that all historians should grapple with. Symptomatic of this is a generalised weariness with the long afterlife of the ‘cultural turn’. A neo-empiricism might be on the way…

  25. Douglas Bruster says:

    Good question, Holger! A half dozen reasons for the fragmentation of literary study come to mind, but fewer titles.

    Perhaps within the field, Moretti’s “Graphs, Maps, Trees” (2007). Outside literary studies, books like those of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, which address what could loosely be called “thinking and its social contexts,” have been influential. There’s been so much published on brain science that no one thing seems to have captured wide attention (it’s also hard to know what to do with the science).

    Needless to say, I’ll be interested in the responses here. Thanks for asking.

  26. Wendy Byrnes says:

    I would give Derek Attridge’s _The Singularity of Literature_ (published 2004) my vote. As an Undergrad I’m still floating about between periods, nations, genres, and forms, but Attridge’s idea about literature as an act/event and his application of ethical philosophy to the reader-text relationship seem to cross all these borders. Also, Attridge appears to consciously avoid references-within-references to past continental philosophers; since I often stumble blindly through these in the work of other writers who attempt to fuse philosophy and literary studies, I appreciated his direct and explanatory style.

    Great question! I’m excited to see what others say.

    • Rosa says:

      I had high expectations of The Singularity of Literature which, sadly, were disappointed. An impression only re-inforced by Attridge’s lecture at last year’s Anglistentag. If all that current theory (or should it be Theory?) can come up with, is a re-introduction of authorial intention under a new name (i.e. “responsible reading”), then I prefer the at least more playful ‘high theory’ of Barthes

  27. I love this question. It reminds me of my cherished dream to found an Eris Memorial Distinguished Chair of Humanistic Studies. The field of the appointment would be left open — the only requirement being that it go to the *most* distinguished senior professor at the university, or failing that, “to the fairest.”

    But since fools rush in … I’ll nominate Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005). Not everyone agrees with it, but it seems to me that it’s defining a lot of debates right now.

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