The two previous ACLA reports on the state of the discipline both felt confident enough to sum up the age in one word in their titles. “Multiculturalism” in the 1995 Bernheimer report and “Globalization” in the 2006 Saussy report. Both volumes dealt with the changing status and configurations of nation states, but it is striking that the dominant accompanying term in Saussy’s report, “world literature,” was nowhere to be found just a decade earlier. The shift towards world literature was and is meaningful, emphasizing the cosmopolitan desire to read across languages and calling for new ways of thinking of the comparative discipline in a way that is less dependent of national frameworks. As if to strengthen this point, the past decade has been marked by the success of migrant and two-cultured writers. This complicates the idea of comparison of literatures, as Rebecca Walkowitz among others has shown, but it also emphasizes the complexity of contemporary identity formation (Walkowitz, 527ff).

The relative success of world literature in terms of setting an agenda has been a welcome critique or supplement to the practices of comparative literature, which in many ways lacked the essential curiosity for all kinds of literature and excused itself for not living up to the global aspirations of the discipline with references to linguistic barriers and institutional divisions. At the same time, it is a good thing that the discourse of world literature has not become too dominant or generally agreed upon. The local and the national are as important as they were in the times of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Brandes, and Erich Auerbach, to mention three proponents of world literature, who at the same time did not promote what Kwame Anthony Appiah has called “ruthless cosmopolitanism” (Appiah, 220f). World literature is always seen from somewhere, and even if there is a unified system of literature, as Franco Moretti has pointed out (Moretti 2000, 55f), there is not one agreed upon world literature. Yet, there are many ways to put the differences into work. Beyond the entangled definitions of the object of comparative literature, there is also a divide between qualitative and quantitative approaches, which will become more important to address in the future.

A starting point for exploring such divisions between the qualitative and the quantitative could be the significant, but understudied, difference between national canons and the international influences of works. “Canonization” is in this respect not the use of power to determine curricula, or an idiosyncratic scholar’s projection of his or her own preferences onto a general idea of what literary history should be. Canonization should instead be seen as the complex social mechanism where numerous agents – readers, critics, teachers, publishers, etc. – take part in a continuing conversation about what has value as literature. Some agents are more powerful than others, but one can look at literature as a vast system of communication about what interests people, and how we respond to texts by strangers and integrate new perspectives on the world. Canons are not static, but they do offer ample resistance to idiosyncratic statements such as “Forget Shakespeare, focus on Jonson,” or “No one should bother to read Gilgamesh.” As such, canonization can be an important starting point for exploring the structures of literary cultures and the cross-cultural influences, and, as I shall argue at the end of this article, digitalization and access to data has opened up new ways to study this.

Divisive structures

A number of benefits come from putting the difference between local or national and international canonization to a more serious use. The growing interest in world literature was accompanied by a more nuanced perspective on translations and their vital role in enabling a cosmopolitan literary community beyond that of experts, whose expertise in any case would be too limited to even talk of “the world.” But even if it is recognized that translations from one literature is also a particular footprint of an interest – a window of insight with a distinctive shape – which may be a distortion of the original literature, much more work could be done on exploring that difference.

Not least the long-term influences often tell a story of strange attractors – or winners that take all the attention in the long run – thereby making the presence of literatures much narrower in the international circuits compared to the complexity of the local traditions and historical memory. The idealism of world literature in terms of presenting the best works and those that enlighten most about other cultures (which is not always the same) is often countered by the harsh realism of the works that actually get translated, republished, anthologized, and taught. Still, I believe that it is the comparative scholars’ task to work on the difference between the cultural transfer that actually takes places, and the specialists’ knowledge of the deeper layers of a literary culture, in order to uncover the structural difference of the kinds of reception and circulation works have. The difference between the potential for an influence and the actual adoption of other literatures’ works into a literary culture becomes even more interesting when seen in a comparison with a number of literatures that share the same ability to produce what I have termed “lonely canonicals” (Thomsen, 44ff).

Translations remain the most reliable source of describing the international influence of literature (e.g. Moretti 1998, Sapiro 2008). Even if people around the world read more and more in English, vernaculars still define local markets, and the constellations in world literature are very much drawn by the patterns of translation. But rather than stopping by acknowledging the sociological facts of cultural exchange, the discipline should use the streams of translations to reflect upon the different value systems and preferences for genres, styles, themes, etc., that give shape to the world’s literary communities. A more reflected approach to the difference between local and international canonization would also help the cooperation between specialists and generalists which is widely acknowledged as a precondition for working with world literature (Damrosch, 287f).

There is also an important, not always fortunate or flattering, side to the discrepancy between local and international canonization, namely the way it risks misrepresenting literary cultures and cultures at large: No, Denmark is not exactly like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, or the world of Søren Kierkegaard, and more importantly, these authors are not quite representative of Danish literature of their time. Few would think that the magical realism which works so effectively not only in the Latin American fiction of El Boom, but in different configurations also in authors like, say, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie, are either the best representation of the culture of origin or of its literary culture. The partial misrepresentations of cultures through their international canonization is a fact that one has to deal with in terms of describing better, following for example Pascale Casanova, the international republic of letters and its seemingly autonomous existence beyond national preferences. On the other hand, one should also be skeptical of the misrepresentations and ask if enchantment, authenticity, and magic cast large shadows over the international representations of a literature.

A last observation on the difference between internal and external canonization is, following the previous argument, that the critic, teacher or scholar will have to balance the roles of being a disinterested analyst of how things are and have been canonized, and an activist who points out how there may be overlooked treasures that deserve as much a chance in world literature as those works that have established themselves. As such the critic becomes an envoi by way of analyzing the mysterious moves of international circulation with the hope to pull a work out of its local world fame.

An age of what?

Is there a proper tag or label for the present age of literary scholarship? The process of globalization has by no means come to an end, and the continued influence of migrant writers is hard to overlook as it is evident in numerous studies, recently and very impressively summed up in Sigrid Löffler’s introduction Die neue Weltliteratur und ihre grossen Erzähler. In many ways the lack of a next big thing may not be the worst that could happen even if it would make for less definite titles of reports on the discipline. Pluralism and respect for the complexity of literature are welcome sentiments that go against the lure of narrow theories, whether they promise to alter our relations to texts or to society at large.

However, there are waves flooding all disciplines in the humanities at present, which could make it the age of digitalization and big data. Even though much of what is happening in terms of scanning, stylometrics, visualization, etc., is not completely new, the availability of tools and the sheer mass of accessible works and material make a difference. It probably leaves most comparatists a bit weary and nervous of loosing the close relation with the text. Comparative literature is more than any other a discipline where texts are not just sources or means to explain something else, but the thing itself laden with aesthetic value. As seductive as a Google Ngram can be, it can never replace the words themselves.

That does not mean that comparative literature should refrain from taking on the challenges of large data, in particular when it comes to the study of cultural influences. There are a number of sources that are available today in a completely different form than just a decade ago: publication records, world library holdings, coverage of literature in news media, and sales figures (if not exact, at least approximate.) In addition, there are online communities where readers’ comments attain a mass that has moved beyond critical in order to take them serious as a tool, and the methods for analyzing large bodies of texts are being developed rapidly, even though much still presents itself as lab work. The crucial task is to make the best use of the new data and tools, and not let the technology determine the questions we want to ask, but ask even more boldly how and why a work of literature matters in culture. Rather than jumping ship from the values of comparative literature, they should be reasserted when faced with new approaches to studying texts.

Seen in the perspective I have presented here, the influence of digital humanities is certainly opening new doors for the study of both canonization and the big sea of books that may not be read by anyone today, but which is part of the history of literature. This endeavor goes beyond establishing a more nuanced perspective on canonization, but can help to dig deeper into the preferences of academics, critics and lay readers alike all the way down to the devices, styles and themes of texts, and help to see new patterns in literary history. It will also help to make some claims that used to be only halfway respectable – such as “Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson did not get real attention until the 1920s “– a much more solid foundation (fig. 1.) And it will help to ask new questions about the relations between literature and culture at large, when unpredicted objects of attention demand explanation. There are balances to observe, in particular between qualitative and quantitative approaches, so that the aesthetics of a text will not be drowned by the lure of numbers, but there are also respectable pathways to address questions that have been asked before, but answered less solidly than one could have hoped for. In the continuing process of globalization, providing better and more knowledge of intercultural influences appears as a both interesting and worthwhile challenge for the discipline.


Works cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Ethics of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Auerbach, Erich. “The Philology of World Literature.” World Literature: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2012.

Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Les Règles des l’art. Paris: Seuil, 1992.

Brandes, Georg. “World Literature.” World Literature: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2012.

Casanova, Pascale. La République Mondiale des Lettres. Paris: Seuil, 1999.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Löffler, Sigrid. Die neue Weltliteratur und ihre grossen Erzähler. Munich: Beck, 2013.

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. London: Verso, 1998.

Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000).

Sapiro, Gisèle, ed. Translatio: le marché de la traduction en France à l'heure de la mondialisation. Paris: CNRS, 2008.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Thomsen, Mads Rosendahl. Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures. London: Continuum, 2008.

Walkowitz, Rebecca L.: “The Location of Literature: The Transnational Book and the migrant Writer.” Contemporary Literature 47:4 (2006).


Fig. 1

A Google Books Ngram Viewer search. Y-axis shows frequency of the search term among the bi- and tri-grams of each year from 1850-2000.

Google ngram viewer search