- Literature Now: Key Terms and Methods for Literary History ed. by Sascha Bru, Ben de Bruyn, and Michel Delville
The editors of Literature Now have published an impressive collection of essays that casts a wide look at a myriad of current debates and approaches to literary studies. The collection features essays by distinct contributors focusing on each of nineteen key terms. The editors have chosen key terms that "are particularly relevant for contemporary literary studies and that reveal most clearly how literary history now functions in analogous ways to theory" (3). The essays discuss the terms' origins, the history of their usage, and the ways in which they inform contemporary historical thinking within literary studies. Though trending at only ten pages each, the essays pack in impressive amount of depth on the debates around these terms and the literary fields they traverse. The terms are organized into four sections: "Part I—Channels" includes essays on the terms archive, book, medium, and translation; "Part II—Subjects/Objects" addresses the terms subjects, senses, animals, objects, and politics; "Part III—Temporalities" presents essays on time, invention, event, generation, and period; and "Part IV—Aesthetics" includes pieces on the key terms beauty, mimesis, style, popular, and genre. Along with extensive overviews of each term within the essays themselves, each author provides a "further reading" section of titles for more in-depth explorations of the debates on these topics. [End Page 239]
Taken as a whole, the collection presents quite the landscape impression of the field of literary studies. But the designation of that field as "literary history" by the editors leaves the reader with some confusion as to what the history part of the field precisely entails, and is a bit misleading. The editors assert that the book marks a "seemingly ubiquitous turn to history in literary studies" (1). Certainly the nature of that historical work is suggested by the diverse contributions to the collections, yet the editors never make clear their vision for how that historical work should be distinguished. They identify literary history as "the site of theoretical reflection in an age that is supposed to have left theory behind" (1), though none of the essays in this book could ever leave that impression. Such rationales for the impetus behind the collection ring as straw-man assertions about the field rather than an assessment of contemporary practices. The questions that arise around periodization across many of the essays suggest a working definition of "literary history" that fuses it with literary criticism. Indeed, at the end of their introduction the editors imply that this is their goal: "Literary history is not just about biographies, chronicles or editions, it is also an every-changing laboratory—for literature and for its students" (19). This fusion may be an implicit response to what David Ayers points out in his essay, "Politics," which explores the ways in which Politics and the theory of (literary) history are "closely intertwined" (128). He asserts that criticism and the act of "historicizing" or doing literary history were merged together in the American Marxist era of literary scholarship (121). The volume's introduction begins with the notion that "the study of literature has always been haunted by methodological questions" (1), but it seems that the book itself is a haunted response to Jameson's famous assertion to "always historicize."
It is worth noting that though the collection aims to speak to the field of literary studies as a whole, it almost entirely addresses a Western-based canon and is predominantly Eurocentric in its material. The network of historians from which the authors draw their historical anchors remain singularly anchored in the West; Kant, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze appear often as theoretical-historical anchors across the nineteen essays. Chinua Achebe is the only non-U.S. and non-European author referenced at some length, found in Scott McCracken's chapter, "Event." Though Julian Hannah's essay, "Generation," discusses the Spanish Generations of '98 and '27 and the American...