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  • Hip Librarians, Dweeb Chic: Romances of the Archive
  • Amy J. Elias
Suzanne Keen. Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001.

“Understanding, which separates men from brutes,” writes Suzanne Keen of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, “amounts to an enumeration of debts” (69). This statement asserts that in Spenser’s narrative world, comprehension of a state of social reality is possible through something called “understanding”; that such understanding results from uniquely human processes of ratiocination; and that this understanding can be produced only through a comprehensive training of the intellect that includes the study of history, defined as knowledge of the wisdom and ethical questing of previous human generations who have shaped the present. Examining the importance of historical knowledge to Spenser’s work is hardly shocking in the context of Early Modern studies, but encountering a critic who takes Spenser’s position as a starting point for a study of the post-imperial moment in British fiction gives one whiplash. Keen’s Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction does just this: it asserts that Spenser’s romance begins a tradition that, despite postmodernist countercurrents, remains vigorous and has even gained cultural force in the novels of the last few decades.

This is a (sub)genre study: the genre is the novel, the subgenre is detective fiction (with traces of the historical novel), and the sub-subgenre is the “romance of the archive.” Keen defines seven characteristics of the romance of the archive: it contains character-researchers, endowed with the corporeality and round psychology of the realistic novel; romance adventure stories, in which research features as a kernel plot action, resulting in strong closure, with climactic discoveries and rewards; discomforts and inconveniences suffered in the service of knowledge; sex and physical pleasure gained as a result of questing; settings and locations containing collections of papers; material traces of the past revealing the truth; and evocation of history, looking back from a post-imperial context (63).

The book’s thesis is that there has been a resurgence of interest in sleuthing in contemporary British fiction, but that this sleuthing has taken a special form: academic and non-professional researchers (“questers”) are main characters of novels, and the goal of these characters is to investigate the past through archival research. Their objective is to arrive at some truth about the past, and more often than not, after doing investigative research in libraries or private collections, they do indeed find this previously hidden truth. These “romances of the archive” thus are a traditionalist narrative rejoinder to the proliferation of mid- and late twentieth-century postmodernist experimental fiction. Keen complicates this thesis by arguing that these books form a conservative sub-genre that reflects the need to assert British heritage in the face of England’s traumatic loss of imperial and colonialist status in the late twentieth century. The romance of these novels—their construction of the researcher as “questor” and their frequent assertion through plot construction that it is possible to “seek and find solid facts, incontrovertible evidence, and well-preserved memories of times past”—is what links them to the Spenserian tradition of romance, as well as to detective fiction, gothic fiction, and conspiracy thrillers (à la John Le Carré).

Keen approves of these novels; it is clear throughout the study that she is not sympathetic with postmodernism’s insistent interrogation of cultural metanarratives. She is also distrustful of much recent “theory”: this is not a book participating in the (increasingly self-referential) theoretical conversation about postcolonialism and globalization. In this book, Keen does not feel compelled to make sweeping claims about British culture or global capitalism. She focuses her analysis on specific novels, and while working out the whys and wherefores of this fiction, she keeps theoretical musings to a minimum. The book is tightly focused on literature itself, making claims about literary history and using historical context to reveal rationales for literary construction.

However, Keen avoids being hermetically sealed within a formalist method, for she historicizes this British fiction in the context of post-Suez and post-Falklands political anxiety, debates about the teaching of history in British schools, and the real...

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