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  • The Global Novel:Comparative Perspectives Introduction
  • Debjani Ganguly (bio)

The novel looms large on the horizon of global literary studies. It not only travels well, but is also widely perceived as future-oriented and open-ended, ready to absorb within its polymorphous ambit the indeterminacy of the present. In April 2019, New Literary History hosted a symposium on "The Global Novel: Comparative Perspectives," with eight scholars who have expertise in various literary regions—East Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America, South Africa, and South Asia. This special issue has emerged out of the symposium. The contributors parse theories of the novel as a global form, and compare their relative provenance across diverse literary traditions. The collocation of terms "global," "novel," and "comparative" is a proverbial red-flag in a field beset with anxiety about untranslatability, incommensurability, and the contingent particularity of literary-linguistic worlds. The global is often perceived as a moniker of bad universalism; comparatism as the grammar of transnational biopower and a throwback to nineteenth-century evolutionary logics; and the novel as a malevolent form in an already fragile ecosystem of genres. Perceived as a form unbound by intricate aesthetic conventions, voraciously appropriative, and overwhelmingly marketable, the novel, in the words of Marthe Robert, "can do what it wants with literature; it can exploit to its own ends description, narrative, drama, the essay, commentary, monologue, and conversation; it can be, either in turn or at once, fable, history, parable, romance, chronicle, story and epic."1 The conjunction of global with the novel generates considerable heartburn in some quarters about the form's complicity with the forces of globalization, its rampant marketability, its abdication of its social role, and the banal professionalization through creative writing programs of a form that was once symptomatic of high aesthetic pursuit.2

Even as one registers this disquiet, literary scholars can scarcely miss the explosion of comparative scholarship on the global novel, a sure sign that this form is wide open for critical and historical evaluation. Recent scholarly work has embraced theories of comparative morphology [End Page v] (Franco Moretti); the mutual shaping of the novel and human rights discourse (Joseph Slaughter); cosmopolitical negotiation of social difference and otherness (David Palumbo-Liu); born-translated works that have an aspiration for cross-lingual circulation enfolded in their crafting (Rebecca Walkowitz); formal adaptation to modes of apperception characterizing our new media age and the temporal structure of the contemporary marked by global wars and cultures of humanitarian witnessing (Debjani Ganguly); anglophone territorialization and deterritorialization (Baidik Bhattacharya); strategic occidentalism and the neoliberal book market (Ignacio Sánchez Prado); the normative worlding of postcolonial and global south novels (Pheng Cheah); the novel's oceanic and terraqueous world-making (Margaret Cohen); and the novel's planetary scale in works of speculative fiction on climate change and species extinction (Ursula Heise), to name only a few.3 This astonishing conceptual range of the global, which factors in the philosophical weight of terms such as the world and the planetary, reveals that "the global is not a stable content or ideology or an institutional perspective continuous with empire and consonant with neoliberal globalization."4 Nor is the global merely the programmed temporality of capitalist globalization. It can be conceived rather as a belated marker of sedimented histories, their accrual and remediation embedded in the language of the contemporary. One can say that the novel or long fictional prose, seen in this light, has been a global form these past two centuries—or four, or eight, depending on one's scholarly orientation in nineteenth-century, early modern, or medieval studies.5 The semantic range of protonovelistic forms goes back even further to encompass midrash in Hebrew, fabula in Latin, monogatari in Japanese, qissa in Arabic, kadambari in Sanskrit, xiaoshuo in Chinese, povest' in Russian, nutanamana in Tamil, Romauns in Middle English, and Romanz in Old French. The global in such a reading signals the linguistic and cultural diversity of this fictional form across time and space, a mode of comparatism that this special issue enlists in the face of attempts to see the global novel as a standardized "bourgeois sociolect," and against a frequent disinclination to historicize...


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