Jules de Balincourt, Big Globe

What is World Literature? Culture, Canon, and Criticism

Instructor: Danielle Drori
This is an online course (Greenwich Mean Time)

Is literature a transhistorical and transnational art? Is translation a blessing or a curse? Judging by the existence of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the world’s best writers produce works that are not only translatable, but also marked by a universal quality. Grounded though they may be in specific linguistic and historical contexts, they still appeal to millions and purportedly contribute to the general advancement of literature as such. Some literary critics have even conjectured that the more grounded in its initial context a literary work is, the better it manifests the ideal balance between “particularity” and “universality.” But could literary universality itself be a humanistic category, begging to be located in the historical, political and philosophical contexts in which it emerged? Is there such a thing as “world literature”—and, if so, what is it? Is literary “universality,” untainted by world politics, possible? Is it even worthwhile?

This course will trace the use of the notion “world literature” in literary criticism in Europe and North America from the 19th century to the present. It will focus on questions of canonization, translation, and circulation in an attempt to account for the influence of world politics, imperialism and marketization on the ways in which poetic works are written and consumed. We will read critical works on concepts like translatability, distant reading, the global novel, and national literature, to explore the power structures enabling poetic works to be circulated and canonized. We will ponder what is lost or gained in the transition from one cultural context to another and ask why “peripheral” cultures translate more than “central” ones. Finally, we will examine the ties between world literature and Orientalism, discussing works by Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Emily Apter. This is a course for lovers of translated fiction and those who wonder whether it’s worth reading at all.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm GMT
February 23 — March 16, 2021
4 weeks


Registration Open