World Authorship: Charting the Human Face of Literature

Interim report on an idea

By Tobias Boes and Rebecca Braun



Window-shopping in Boston brings up some niche offerings

World literature, as both a marketing phenomenon and an area of academic study, is booming. But amidst all the talk of books that ‘circulate’ and literature as a kind of ‘universal property’ that can function as a ‘window on the world’, how do we account for the individual people who live in real places, and write, translate, market and read the texts that travel on these global journeys? Put simply: where are the people in world literature?


In academic circles, the work of sociologists such as Bruno Latour has given new currency to the term ‘agency’ as a way of theorizing how people’s actions condition extensive social phenomena. In the ‘Authors & the World’ research hub, we first explored how to bring human agency into the current influential models of world literature at a preliminary event in Lancaster, UK, in July 2015. An early publication by hub members Rebecca Braun and Andrew Piper had piloted the notion of ‘world authorship’ as an integral, under-theorized aspect of world literature, and delegates at that event interrogated the potential the term may have for linking overarching theories of global literary relations back to the local realities of lived experience.


Arthur Fiedler, Conductor of the Boston Pops for 50 years

Arthur Fiedler, Conductor of the Boston Pops for 50 years

Eight months later, now at Harvard University as part of the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, we presented the idea of ‘world authorship’ as the key element in an emergent programme for ‘charting the human face of literature’. This programme is grounded in literary studies, but in a way that demands constant interaction with real literary livelihoods, accessed through ongoing input from the creative sector. So, what does ‘world authorship’ mean to us now? Just as ‘literature’ is often used expansively to indicate an entire ecosystem of creativity, we invoke the notion of literary authorship expansively, to underscore just how many people are involved in literature and to begin to find a way of accounting for their different performances of agency as they transpose literary texts from one context to another.


‘Authorship’ refers to the writers, of course, who first set pen to paper and may subsequently find an image of themselves and their work circulating through multiple regional and national contexts as a text gains an ever-wider readership. But it also includes the actions of the many other individuals who play a part in such circulation. Translators, publishers, reviewers, lawyers, benefactors, prize juries, and so on, all play important roles, not just in a functional sense, as anonymous ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘enablers’ within an intangible world system, but also as historically rooted individuals who actively co-create the image of authorship that is bound to a literary text at any one time and in any one place. Only by understanding these relationships can we begin to formulate why literature matters and why questions of literary value have more than aesthetic significance.


Over the three days of our Harvard meeting, our programme hinged on three key questions that allowed us to ‘think world literature differently’:


  1. What if, instead of focusing on world literature as a history of ideas and genres, we focused on it as a history of literary practice?
  2. What if we introduce the position and location of the reader to the concept of cosmopolitanism?
  3. What if we follow those authors who view the canon of ‘great literature’ as a flexible resource that can be used to promote mentorship and adaptation?


The first question emerged from Katarzyna Bartoszynska’s reading of Nicholas Page’s History of the Novel, combined with her frustration at the tendency of scholars to follow rather circular arguments when it comes to staking out objects of literary study: the value of a local variant of a dominant model (a nineteenth-century Polish realist novel, for example) is precisely its local variance (the degree of ‘Polishness’ that inflects the text’s manifestation of realism, measured against the norm of French or British models). Jeanne-Marie Jackson too wished for a return to ‘literary quality’ as the benchmark for determining which contemporary texts are worthy of academic study and commercial support. She made a plea for world literature to move away from its concern with ‘representative’ writers and focus instead on writers who self-consciously represent their world in their texts, with literary quality rather than political inclusivity being the key selection criterion.


Poe raven

Poe and his raven still stride through Boston’s streets

Such an appreciation of the craft of writing places the author as a human agent at the heart of our literary judgements. However, this need not be part of an essentializing move back to biographical positivism and the lone Romantic genius. Rebecca Braun brought to the discussion recent work in Celebrity Studies that has set about conceptualising the contemporary public intellectual not as one intellectually fetishized individual – a model believed to be largely extinct in the Western world –, but as a networker who builds an audience for a particular subject area and provides a framework for collective practices of knowledge accumulation. The ‘network intellectual’ explored by Fred Turner and Christine Larson could also be seen in the networks of affinity consciously cultivated by nationally significant literary authors such as Daniel Kehlmann, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Thomas Mann, André Brink, to name but some of the writers who featured in our discussions of well-known individuals who might covet such a role for themselves and/or have it foist upon them by other actors in the network.


Unpicking the literary networks headed up by individual writers thus becomes one of the key activities that the study of world authorship might entail, and thereby offers us one way of charting the history of literary practice. Whether it was Rebecca Braun exploring the unequal and exclusionary power dynamics in the Franzen / Kehlmann collaboration, Marla Zubel critiquing the four different appropriations of authorship that underpinned Philip Roth’s ‘Other Voices’ series of translated texts from Eastern Europe, or Leon de Kock explaining how André Brink drew on an intricate network of underground dissidents in his attempts to reach a world readership from within the censorial publishing climate of apartheid South Africa, the sheer scope of material for study was, at one level, overwhelming. For, focusing on the human agents of literature by no means sidelines the literary text. On the contrary, in seeing how the text moves – often literally – through multiple networks, each of which ‘authors’ the text in its own way, we found ourselves repeatedly returning to close readings of both the literary writing itself and the book as a material object. The result was that we observed how locally specific variants of world authorship and world literature are constantly created and negotiated as part of larger ongoing processes of writing and reading.


Goethe is found offering some laid-back service at Frankfurt airport

Goethe is found offering some laid-back service at Frankfurt airport

Attempting to keep sight of all the individuals under the umbrella of world authorship raises two further questions: one about the related notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’, and one about the reader. We have rolled them together in the second question outlined above. During the course of our discussions, we found ourselves moving from ‘cosmopolitanism’ as a habitus that certain authors have through dint of lived experience, to cosmopolitanism as a rhetoric of interaction that readers and authors alike can employ, regardless of their own biographical locations. In the former category, we have the well-travelled modernist writers such as Thomas Mann, as well as the long-standing Jewish diasporic tradition, that, as Claire Baldwin reminded us, had already been laid out by Gottfried Ephraim Lessing in the eighteenth century. The latter category – of cosmopolitanism as an interactive strategy between reader and writer – brings new authors into the frame, but it also does something quite different with the old ones.


On this last point, Anna Muenchrath presented Thomas Mann to the group in the form of American Armed Service translations of a selection of his short stories, and asked what it meant for an English-language Thomas Mann to be carried in the trouser pockets of American soldiers as they fought on German soil. Not only had the author become a ‘forced cosmopolitan’ who travelled through a series of relocations even as his text remained firmly rooted in Germany, but, as Tobias Boes went on to show, a public was deliberately cultivated for Mann in the United States that cast him as a representative writer who spoke to American ideals, whether Mann liked it or not.


But opening up cosmopolitanism to the idea of reader-led interaction and perception also goes hand in hand with the idea of opening up the canon more broadly. Over the course of the three days, delegates repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction at the almost exclusive focus of debates in world literature on the novel. Theatre, poetry and graphic arts all make immediately apparent some of the issues around collective authorship and the physical authorial embodiment of literature that the tradition of the novel tends to obfuscate. So when Leah Misemer spoke about French and American feminist comics begun in the 1970s, she introduced different traditions of authorship to the debate. Now the value of collaborating across different genres and national contexts was that it might allow access to individual recognition for those who have been routinely denied it. For although the comics offered a shared sense of community around feminist issues, they operated schemes of mentorship that ultimately facilitated individual acts of expression. The process of writing and having one’s ideas resonate within an international community that recognised them as valuable, discrete contributions, was one of the main points of this particular literary practice.


Did they know we were coming? Public art at South Station speaks to our topic.

Did they know we were coming? Public art at South Station speaks to our topic.

The value of process, audience interaction, and empowering new publics also structured Emily Spiers’s contribution on contemporary spoken word poetry. Spiers touched off Anki Mukerji’s recent work on the literary canon to explore the idea that the canon might not be just an archive, but also a transmission. Thanks to its performative nature, the kind of spoken word poetry that moulds old traditions to new purposes, as pursued by Patience Agbabi and Kate Tempest, is particularly suited to making evident the extent to which a ‘layering of subjectivities’ underpins widespread engagement with world-famous literary texts.


The ‘easy-going’ engagement with the canon that Spiers discerned in contemporary poets and their diverse publics, the self-serving appropriations of national literary traditions that Bartoszynka, Braun, Zurbel, Muenchrath and Boes unearthed, and the personal affinities driving relations in the creative sector that Jackson, Misemer and de Kock explored all highlighted the idea of a very human network of affinities, relations and interests underpinning world authorship in different ways. Cutting across all papers was the notion of human interconnectedness, but it perhaps became most apparent in Baldwin’s discussion of the contemporary German-language writer and scholar, Navid Kermani.


Like the majority of writers, Kermani does not make his money from literary fiction alone. With a background in Religious Studies and a biographical context that gives him a credible stake in both German and Islamic philosophies, he has been able to fashion his authorial persona in multiple related areas, from giving politically-informed speeches in religious and civic centres, to representing a new form of deliberately non-hybrid literary writing that can be marketed as both German and cosmopolitan. The multiple publics Kermani can address reflect the multiple contexts in which literary authorship unfolds, as authorial livelihoods are rarely staked solely on being a literary author.


Coming into view is the issue of the ‘cross-over career’, whether this takes the form of the author-scholar, the author-publicist, the author-lawyer, the author-insurance salesman – or any other combination that cares to present itself – and how this career provides access to multiple different publics. Facing in multiple directions naturally affects what and how authors write. But of course authors aren’t the only people acting on multiple stages to earn a living: so too do many translators, reviewers, publishers and academics.


As a closing hypothesis, then, we suggest that both studying (as academics) and consciously creating (in the creative sector) world authorship necessarily entails connecting multiple ‘cross-over careers’. To recognize this means to think through the full complexity of how authorial livelihoods, in the most expansive sense, are intertwined with literary texts. Our question then becomes: Where is the literature in people’s multiple and interconnected worlds? How do literary texts function as a form of connective tissue across multifaceted biographies? How are people finding new ways to make literature matter to other people’s lives, seen now in a global sense? We’ll be mulling over these new points for some time to come – please do get in touch if you would like to join us!


A series of frameworks? Harvard Campus, March 2016

A series of frameworks? Harvard Campus, March 2016

‘World Authorship: Charting the Human Face of Literature’, was run as a three-day seminar stream at the American Comparative Literature Association, Harvard, 17-20 March 2016. It was organised by Tobias Boes (Notre Dame University, US) and Rebecca Braun (Lancaster University, UK).



The programme of speakers and papers was:


Rebecca Braun (Lancaster, UK): What is a World Author? Conceptualising Agency in the Global Literary Market

Jeanne-Marie Jackson (Johns Hopkins): Some of my Best Friends are Writers…

Katarzyna Bartoszynska (Monmouth): Between Text and Context: The Author in World Literature

Claire Baldwin (Colgate): Navid Kermani as World Author

Anna Muenchrath (Wisconsin-Madison): Circulating Thomas Mann: Figuring World Reader / Authorship in the U.S. Armed Service Editions

Marla Zubel: Philip Roth’s ‘Other Europe’: The Author as Ambassador in the Cold War Republic of Letters

Emily Spiers (St Andrews, UK): The Classics for All: Performative Rewritings of the Canon

Leah Misemer (Wisconsin-Madison): Authorship as Feminist Activism: The Wimmen’s Comix Community

Leon de Kock (Johannesburg / Johns Hopkins / Stellenbosch): Political Dissidence and Novelistic Form: Towards a Biographical Review of André Brink’s Authorship

Tobias Boes (Notre Dame): Representative Authorship



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