'What is a Classic?' Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: English Faculty


My monograph, _'What is a Classic?' Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon_, examines singular contestations of literary value in twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and Anglophone literature (and literary criticism). The work combines different academic foci - postcolonial, literary historical, and pedagogical - and draws on the literary and critical works of Eliot, Conrad, Naipaul, Said, and Coetzee, among others, to examine ideas of canonicity, literary tradition, 'anxiety of influence,' the global and the vernacular, and translation. It starts with the postcolonial implications of T. S. Eliot's lecture, 'What is a Classic?' and moves on to literary case studies where the question of the classic is staged and the precise claims and dimensions of a classic debated. The different chapters examine the role of criticism in questioning and sustaining the classic; the historical context of (selected) classics of English literature and how this is reconfigured in postcolonial retellings; Naipaul's and Said's rewriting of Conrad's narrative theory; the transformation of English literature to 'literatures in English'; translations of Shakespeare in Indian cinema and on the Indian stage. The Western canon, I argue, affords the postcolonial writer a site of emergence and an impersonality on which their own critical distance from cultural locatedness may be modelled.

The proposed work is ambitious and diverse in scope, and offers multi-faceted critical analysis of the modern novel and essay, narrative theory, autobiographical fiction, poetry, and postcolonial theatre and cinema. The second chapter, provides a valuable overview of canonical extrapolations in literature from South Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Caribbean, which the other chapters provide in-depth analysis of particular literary events. The book both proposes and practices literary criticism in an international framework, which is not simply a corollary to globalisation, but works against its homogenising impulse to emphasise local detail, indigent particulars, and new criteria of selection and election for new archives.

The proposed work revises outdated disciplinary debates on canonicity in the context of the emergent field of world literature and international literary criticism. If follows the lead of Brennan, Huggan, and Newman in locating the postcolonial canon and its relationship to globalised frameworks, but revises the centre-periphery model of the earlier works to reimagine the formative role of the canon in English studies, and the relevance it has in historicist practice and cultural interrogation. A central concern of the project is the role of literary criticism in our times in articulating methods of aesthetic reception for the literature of a deterritorialised world (or a world that is organised along lines of communication and exchange that challenge national and regional limits). The idea of canons and classics is particularly relevant in the context of world literature, a heterogeneous body of literature that is produced, circulated, and consumed beyond the cultural contexts of individual nation states. World literature, which includes colonial/postcolonial writing alongside translations across millennia, signals the rise of English as a global language. I argue that even this mode of circulation, which includes classics, as well as texts excluded by the Eurocentric canon, has a residual interest in the idea of perennial literary value, though the fact that world literature is a floating population of unrelated texts makes it possible to imagine that the canon of world literature is not merely a rarified set of values (and texts) but an indispensable mode of cultural contact and transmission.

The research will be conducted in libraries, and, in one instance through interviews and interaction with the Shakespeare Societyof India. The key outcome of research is a monograph published by Princeton University Press.

Planned Impact

The proposed monograph effectively relates the broader concerns of English Literature as a discipline to the interdisciplinary field of Postcolonial Studies. The novelists, poets, essayists and critics foregrounded (T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, Edward Said, to name a few) are key figures in the field of Modern literature, and the work proposes a significant theoretical contribution to the knowledge of postcolonial literature, as well as its intersections with the Western canon. The key focus of the project - the question of the classic and contestations of literary value in a postcolonial and global world - radically reworks the reactive ('Empire Writes Back') model of postcolonial reception to suggest ways in which the canon allows postcolonial writers a universalised impersonality through which their own cultural locatedness can be escaped from, historicised, and narrated. The work has a broad disciplinary and international appeal, and a wide literary-historical range (including canon staples such as Shakespeare, Eliot, and Conrad as well as latecomers like Naipaul and Coetzee) in its critical thinking on the afterlives of canonical English literature.

The book is very timely in an academic moment haunted by global recession and costcutting, for it takes a metacritical stance on the historical and cultural work of literary criticism. The research questions resonate with key issues and debates in contemporary literary criticism with relation to emergent literatures: how are classics created and transmitted? how do they survive? what is the relationship between critical contestations of literary value and the booming prize culture that dominates metropolitan circuits of validation for postcolonial writing? what is the relationship between globalization and the collective human future that world literature seems to appeal to?

Two of the chapters have a much broader application than the rest of the book. The second chapter, on case studies of literary influence and reception, encompasses issues of canonicity and postcolonial reaction in Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, and will be a valuable historical and theoretical introduction or reference text for new and advanced scholars of postcolonial literature. The final chapter, on the myriad translations of Shakespeare in India, will put both Shakespeare scholars and postcolonial scholars in conversation with cultural practitioners who have attempted alien elaborations of a canonical text. This section will draw on my association with the Shakespeare Society of India, introducing readers to the history of Shakespeare in India as well as providing overview and analysis of contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare (on stage and in cinema).

The proposed monograph is an appropriate output for the dissemination of a research project such as this. With a major international press such as Princeton University Press, it would ensure that dissemination is visible and effective. Princeton University Press has already published several high-quality volumes in the field.
Description I have effectively created a corpus of literary criticism around postcolonial classics in English, both texts that are widely circulated already and those that remain untranslated and restricted to local, national audiences. I have created a methodology by which canonicity can be understood in relation to literary modernity, and in the context of postcolonial and global writing in English.
Exploitation Route As reviews of the book indicate, my work has been pathbreaking for scholars of postcolonial and world literatures, in that it enables them to understand both revisionism and innovation in Anglophone postcolonial literature and theory in the context of the wider literary tradition of English and European literatures. The wide range of my literary examples - drawn from the subcontinent, Britain, USA, Australia, Africa, and the Caribbean - painstakingly and meaningfully expands the remit of what can be studied as "postcolonial."
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The outcome of this research is a book, which has been widely used in scholarship and teaching. In an unprecedented move for my publisher, Stanford University Press, announced the paperback publication of this book less than a year after it was released in hardcover.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural