Literary texts have long been understood as generative of other texts and of artistic responses that stretch across time and culture. Adaptation studies seeks to explore the cultural contexts for these afterlives and the contributions they make to the literary canon. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were being adapted almost as soon as their work emerged on stage or in print and there can be no doubt that this accretive aspect to their writing ensures their literary survival. Adaptation is, then, both a response to, a reinforcer of, and a potential shaper of canon and has had particular impact as a process through the multimedia and global affordances of the 20th century onwards, from novels to theatre, from poetry to music, and from film to digital content. The aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an “original” referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts. Appropriation as a concept though moves far beyond intertextuality and introduces ideas of active critical commentary, of creative re-interpretation and of “writing back” to the original. Often defined in terms of a hostile takeover or possession, both the theory and practice of appropriation have been informed by the activist scholarship of postcolonialism, poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. Artistic responses can be understood as products of specific cultural politics and moments and as informed responses to perceived injustices and asymmetries of power. The empowering aspects of re-visionary writing, that has seen, for example, fairytales reclaimed for female protagonists, or voices returned to silenced or marginalized individuals and communities, through reconceived plots and the provision of alternative points of view, provide a predominantly positive history. There are, however, aspects of borrowing and appropriation that are more problematic, raising ethical questions about who has the right to speak for or on behalf of others or indeed to access, and potentially rewrite, cultural heritage. There has been debate in the arena of intercultural performance about the “right” of Western theatre directors to embed aspects of Asian culture into their work and in a number of highly controversial examples, the “right” of White artists to access the cultural references of First Nation or Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been contested, leading in extreme cases to the agreed destruction of artworks. The concept of “cultural appropriation” poses important questions about the availability of artforms across cultural boundaries and about issues of access and inclusion but in turn demands approaches that perform cultural sensitivity and respect the question of provenance as well as intergenerational and cross-cultural justice.
The future of literary studies will be shaped by new and emerging trends in scholarly, critical, and theoretical work, by changes in the material conditions that enable that work, and, perhaps most importantly, by how the institutions within which it functions respond to recent changes in higher education that increasingly threaten the viability of almost all humanities disciplines. The material conditions that shape work in literary studies have changed dramatically in recent decades. The impact of digital technology has been nothing short of transformative, and the changes it has introduced are bound to continue to reshape the field. At the same time, the expansion of the canon, the transnationalizing of literary studies, the revitalization of narratological, formalist, and aesthetic criticism, the emergence of new interdisciplinary fields including the study of sexuality and gender, ecocriticism, affect theory, and disability studies, promise to continue to exert influence in the coming decades. The future from these perspectives looks promising. At the same time, however, the institutional sustainability of literary studies has come under threat as the liberal arts model of higher education has increasingly given way to a stress in higher education on vocational training in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, which has worked to undercut the value and the attraction of literary studies. How the field responds to these changes in the coming decade will be crucial to determining its future viability.