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.
Futures for Literary Studies
Nationalism and Globalization in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction
Since the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the nation-state has risen to be the dominant form of political organization in the world through its embodiment of the principle of nationalism—that nations should be sovereign unto themselves. The post-1945 era, however, has seen an intensification in the processes of globalization, characterized by the rise of international telecommunications networks; the increasing and accelerated movement of finance capital, labor, and cultural commodities; and the consolidation of supranational and transnational organizations that operate beyond national borders. Although it is commonplace to see the era of globalization inaugurating the decline, if not altogether the obsolescence, of the nation-state, it is more accurate and useful to analyze the particular ways in which globalization has transformed the nature and functions of the nation-state, especially its cultural identities, its existence as a unified economic unit, and the scope of its political sovereignty. Indeed, reading different developments in the cultural, economic, and political realms suggests that the impact of globalization on the nation-state is uneven and partial, rather than teleological in its advancement. Contemporary anglophone fiction has turned to addressing the complex entanglements between the nation and globalization in multiple and heterogeneous ways. Some fiction melancholically looks back to the political legacies of Third World nationalisms that promised universal emancipation to their citizens, only to chart their subsequent disappointments as the ruling elite of postcolonial nation-states continued to perpetuate legacies of imperialism. Other novels celebrate the syncretic and diasporic transnational identities—and the hybridization of national identities—that emerge through sustained contact with other cultural milieus via the processes of globalization. Still others depict the depredations that economic globalization visits on developed and developing nations alike, albeit in different ways and in different degrees. And many contemporary novels engage with the continuing political sovereignty of the nation-state in the face of human rights violations and planetary catastrophes, reflecting on the role of literature in circumventing the authority of the state and bringing distant suffering to a global audience.
Orientalism in the Victorian Era
Orientalism in the Victorian era has origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The Arabian Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh; and third, the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Victorian Orientalism was all pervasive: it is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but is also to be found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Anthony Froude, and Mary Kingsley shows a wide variety of types of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children’s literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London or in the Orient itself becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.
The Early Black Atlantic Conversion Narrative
Prior to the last decade of the 20th century, literary critics generally, like Thomas Jefferson before them, dismissed the role religion played in the writings by and about the first generation of English-speaking authors of African descent. Christ’s injunction to his followers to bear witness to their faith, however, gave that first generation the sanction, means, motive, and opportunity to speak truth to power during the 18th-century period of the transatlantic Protestant Great Awakening and Evangelical Revival. The early Black evangelical authors, such as Phillis Wheatley in poetry and Olaudah Equiano in prose, used narratives of their religious conversions as both testaments to their own faith as well as models of spiritual belief and secular behavior for their primarily white readers to follow. The writings of Wheatley and Equiano also exemplify how early Black authors who adopted Christianity could appropriate its tenets to challenge the institution of slavery.