Conference Paper: Text as It Happens: Literary Geography

27 10 2009

Sheila Hones
(University of Tokyo)

To read this article and its associated commentaries for free just click on the PDF links below.

Hones PDF

Commentary 1 PDF - Michael Crang (University of Durham)

Commentary 2 PDF - James Kneale (University College London)

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This article reviews the current situation in geographical work with fiction in the context of an explicitly spatial view of the writing–reading nexus as a contextualized and always emerging geographical event. It argues that this way of conceptualizing the text events of both narrative fiction and academic knowledge production provides a way of understanding and dealing with incompatible literary interpretations and also with irreconcilable approaches to literary geography. This openness to multiplicity develops from the point that text events are not only relational by nature and generated within social contexts in the initial encounter of author, text, and reader, but also only become publicly accessible when subsequently articulated within the mediating context of a particular social situation. The article proposes that literary geography as a collective endeavor can be developed and consolidated through an appreciation of the varying contexts within which geographically oriented work with fiction is performed and articulated.

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13 responses

28 10 2009
Julia Leyda

My thanks to Sheila Hones for an exhaustively researched and clearly articulated assessment of the “field” of literary geography, such as it is, and to the two comments from James Kneale and Michael Crang. I agree with them both that her piece is long overdue and will become an instant classic.

I have a few sort of piecemeal remarks for James Kneale, with whom I largely agree. And while I very much concur with Sheila Hones’s arguments and analysis, I am speaking here on my own, not trying to anticipate her responses to Kneale.

On the question of what we do when we find out where we disagree–I think we write a paper about it, as usual, hopefully to be followed up by sharing a drink together in real time or in some virtual sense (although this Second Life thingy seems too time-consuming for me to figure out at the moment). Particularly at the intersection of disciplines so different, it seems to me the cultivation of a field called literary geography will have to exist on fairly contested ground much of the time. Moretti is a great example–literature people love him, yet many geographers clearly object to him on fundamental conceptual issues.

I think Thacker’s method as described above works for me best because, simplistically perhaps, many of my efforts are not terribly ambitious: usually my argument is something along the lines of “literature scholars could find this geographical concept useful for these reasons–here is a case study to show you what I mean.” It may or may not become a widely adopted method, but for the practical purpose of introducing geographical concepts to literature scholars, it’s relevant. True, not every reader will agree with my articulation of a particular geographical concept, but when is that ever the case in any field? Just a rhetorical question and my two cents are now in.


28 10 2009
James Kneale

Thanks Julia – I agree that this is a more uneven network of connections than most other inter- or transdisciplinary fields, and that this will persist for some time. This in itself isn’t such a bad thing, but I think both Mike Crang and I feel that the flows are so uneven – as Mike’s diagram suggests – that this unevenness makes getting together to disagree difficult. How often do people from these disciplines cross paths at conferences, or review work by scholars in a different field?

And I realise that my worries over Moretti’s sense of what space is might seem rather churlish, given the variety of interpretations that might emerge from a text-event, but geographers have engaged in many hard-fought struggles over theories of space and I for one don’t think it would be very useful to ignore all of that. So I suppose I’m saying that here some interpretations are better than others, if you want to think about space.

I wondered whether Sheila wanted to respond on this point about Moretti – I realise that her paper concentrates on geographers writing about literature and literary theory, but given his importance, and influence over some geographers, does he deserve a mention? And what would it say?

28 10 2009

Let me start with thanks: to the Compass team for making this event and this particular discussion possible, to Mike Crang and James Kneale for their very generous and constructive commentaries, and to Julia Leyda for getting the discussion going. As James notes in his commentary, “fields of study are produced, held together, and transformed by constant work” – and for literary geography to emerge (or sustain itself) as a recognizable interdisciplinary scholarly endeavour, this kind of collaborative investment of energy is absolutely critical.

Next comes an apology: like Julia, I’m physically located in a time zone nine hours adrift from GMT, so my conference engagement has been a bit syncopated – which is to say, I would like to take a bit more time (more awake-and-thinking time) before I start trying to respond to the many excellent points raised by the three commentators so far. . . Sorry for being slow!

28 10 2009
James Kneale

Actually I should add that this conference is one of the places where people from different disciplines can get together relatively easily… Thanks Compass!

28 10 2009

Both Mike and James point rather gloomily to some of the disconnections, disappointments and difficulties that seem inevitable in interdisciplinary practice; I have to agree with them that my argument does come across as rather too cheerful, too optimistic, too “anything goes.” My only defense is that I believe cheerfulness can be strategically useful: maybe interdisciplinary collaboration can be talked up, talked into happening.

An article that I’ve found extremely helpful in thinking (and being cheerful) about interdisciplinarity deals with communication/collaboration problems within what’s commonly thought of as a single discipline, between human and physical geographers: “’What do you mean?’ The importance of language in developing interdisciplinary research,” L.J. Bracken and E.A. Oughton, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 31 371-382. The authors focus their discussion on three aspects of the use of language in interdisciplinary discussion: dialects, metaphors, and articulation. They note, for example, how a single word (their example is “dynamic”) can have different meanings within different disciplines and a different meaning again in everyday exchange. And this makes sense to me in relation to literary geography, because within this loose leaky ‘field’ it seems to me that it’s usually the seemingly basic, self-evident key words (space, place, geography, distance, scale, literary, critical, etc) that cause the most confusion and miscommunication. It’s not the complexities of spatial or literary theory that cause the breakdowns, but the use of apparently, but not actually, shared concepts. As Nigel Thrift notes (writing on a different topic altogether) we need a style of work that “does not assume a common background when this is precisely what’s at stake.”

So while I understand and sympathize with James’s unwillingness to abandon his “sense of what space is,” at the same time I do not think that everybody working in literary geography needs to agree on a single definition of space (or place, or whatever). And I don’t think this is the same as saying “anything goes” – because what definitely doesn’t go, for me, is writing about space (geography, distance, spatiality, etc.) as if everybody already knows what these terms mean and naturally uses them in the same way to mean the same thing.

I think Bracken and Oughton’s point about non-travelling metaphors (their example is “mapping”) is also very useful, and I am particularly struck by their discussion of “articulation,” a term they borrow from the work of T. Ramadier. They talk about the obligation to deconstruct “one’s own disciplinary knowledge in conjunction with those of other disciplines in order to understand the building blocks and thereby reconstruct a common understanding” (pp 377-8). (I’m not sure about the “re” in “reconstruct” in the case of literary geography, though . . . was there ever “a common understanding”?) Again quoting Ramadier, they are careful to point out that what they are looking for is coherence, not unity.

So when I referred so optimistically to the possibility of “a unified and comprehensive field of literary geography” (I was mildly shocked to read that quotation in James’s commentary . . . did I really say that? I did.) I did not mean “unified and comprehensive” in the sense that all literary geographers, from all disciplines, would be using a set of shared and pinned-down terms and concepts in the same way. What I meant, what I wanted to suggest, was that literary geography would benefit from much more explicit and self-conscious discussion of ‘what we talk about when we talk about geography.’ Or ‘space,’ or ‘place,’ or ‘scale’ — or ‘literary’ or ‘critical.’ . . .

29 10 2009

Still on interdisciplinarity for the time being: I think Julia made a good point in her comment the other day about the importance of striving to be practically useful when crossing disciplinary borders – “usually my argument is something along the lines of ‘literature scholars could find this geographical concept useful for these reasons–here is a case study to show you what I mean.’” It seems to me that the offering of enabling theory as something practically useful – something, for example, which productively destabilizes entrenched disciplinary practices and assumptions — is a good way to make mutually beneficial interdisciplinary connections.

And that leads me back to Mike’s frustration with “the marginal status of literary geography” and his sense of an imbalance in the production of knowledge within literary geography. The idea that literary geography is “marginal” seems to me to suggest that something else (perhaps almost anything else?) is more “central” in both primary contributing disciplines. But perhaps interdisciplinary work always feels marginal, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing (unless we are talking about the need to survive in the face of the disciplining structures of job-hunting and promotion, for example, or research assessment exercises). But I wonder if we could change the metaphor and envision literary geography not as something “on the edge” but as something more “everyhere,” more “mixed in,” slightly below the surface but ubiquitously present nonetheless?

Again, I was struck by Mike’s phrasing when he wrote in his first paragraph of “the geographical contribution to studying literature.” If that is the primary usefulness of literary geography – if the work of the geography side of literary geography is to contribute to literary studies – then I can see why geographers would find the project unbalanced and their own expertise marginalized. And this could be not only because literary studies doesn’t seem to recognize the work of literary geographers, but also because geography in general doesn’t seem to value literary geography highly. It’s always tricky to write of what “we” need to do in the face of this problem, so before I go on let me define a hypothetical “we” for this comment, in this way: “those of us committed to investing energy in literary geography as an interdisciplinary project,” or even “those of whose work is intended to contribute to and be useful within literary geography first and literary studies and/or geography second.” And if there is a “we,” with some kind of collective will, then it needs (we need) a way to write and publish for itself/ourselves that is self-generating and self-referential and that takes its/our project as central.

29 10 2009
Mike Crang

I have taken a moment or two to reflect on the balance of the commentaries and the paper. May be I have been somewhat too curmudgeonly, too pessimistic. I certainly feel that I have not engaged profoundly enough with Sheila’s challenge as to what is literary praxis and what is geographical praxis – too easily accepting the separation of ‘literary studies’ and ‘geography’ and it is only the kindness of Sheila to not point out how I risk replicating the ‘geography as real world’ trope that spares my blushes.

The focus of her argument on not sharing metaphors within geography both pleased me personally (one of the authors she refers to is in the office at the end of my building) but also reminded me that I think much of the literary spatial turn has relied on perhaps agreeing not to argue over the slippage around terms.

Another reading of her excellent paper in the light of James’s comments suggests to me her pushing of the fractured and fused state of practice around literary geography is a much healthier view of affairs. Alas my trite diagram once it sprang into my head acquired a power of its own (as they are wont to do). A power that overdivides and entrenches disciplinary and textual/genre coherences to an embarrassing level.

Revisiting my commentary, though and noting how elegantly James points to the limited conceptual deployment of space in Moretti, I am struck still by a lack of a sense of works travelling in the world. The fused status of world and text is perhaps too often evident in overwordy worlds. The performative encounter Sheila maps is a good step in thinking of travelling through the world, but I suppose with one foot (or at least a toe) in work that looks at tourism I think we might go farther on places being fictionalised, words being worlded and so forth.

30 10 2009

A quick response to Mike’s point that “we might go farther on places being fictionalised, words being worlded.” Yes; I agree. And it seems to me that the kind of work Mike does with the intersection of reading and tourism — juxtaposing and finding the connections between the imagined geographies produced by readers of texts and the present geographies of tourists — is a highly productive form of literary geography that is useful within a wide range of disciplinary contexts.

It’s an indication of the difficulties involved in generating scholarly networks around literary geography that two of Mike’s stimulating papers on this reading/tourism connection are published in such disparate (and non-geographical) contexts. “Placing Jane Austen, displacing England: touring between book, history and nation,” (2003) is a chapter in Pucci and Thompson’s edited collection Jane Austen & Co. The Google books page for this collection classifies it as literary criticism but then adds ” We haven’t found any reviews in the usual places,” which of course raises the text-geography question of what “the usual places” for reviews of book like this would be. To find the more recent “Placing stories, performing places: spatiality in Joyce and Austen, “(2008) you have to go to Anglia – Zeitschrift für englische Philologie.

So despite being terrifically useful, these articles take some finding: once we (“we”) know they exist, we can get hold of them, but how do we know they are in print in the first place? (Persistent googling of “Mike Crang space literature”, in my case). One thing I like about both these papers is that they allow for a word-world connection that is not author/biography or setting-based. The literary-geographical connection here is not about the actual where of the author or the fictionalized/fictional where of the action but about the totally mixed-in literary geography of mutually coproductive reading and tourism practices. . . .

30 10 2009

Greetings from The Management. We’re thrilled that you’ve found such fruitful grounds for discussion and exchange. You’re welcome to continue here after today.

30 10 2009
Mike Crang

Sheila points to the inaccessibility (physical thankfully rather than conceptually)of a couple of things I wrote. Of course I feel guilty here (and slightly worried in the days of audited performance where citations etc matter). But in the spirit of interdisciplinary encounters I might make two comments:
1) Accessible to whom? These were partly my attempts to speak to people outside of geography – but is the effect of not choosing say ‘cultural geographies’ as a journal is that they become invisible within geography. Anglia is some 100 years old, ISI listed, eminently respectable – but yes almost entirely unread in geography
2) And this inflected my commentary, on both occasions I was invited and asked as it were to ‘be a geographer’ speaking to literary studies. The Anglia paper is part of a theme issues (which also features Dave Matless) addressing space in literature.
Put these two together and you can sense some of the background issues I was working through (and thus venting at poor Sheila’s paper)

30 10 2009
Sheila Hones

Please, Mike, vent away. I think it’s productive. As for “inaccessibility,” I do get it — most of my own papers are scattered about in unconnected journals/collections. These various contexts of publication are respectable enough (I think) in their own contexts, but because the individual papers are so flung about they don’t constitute a visible, linked body of work and tend not to be used by literary geographers or show up in citations. So what I meant, really, was that the two papers I referred to in my comment above did not present themselves to me, didn’t “pop up” and find me, as visible/accessible within the context of literary geography — not in the context of literary geography within geography, or literary geography within literary studies, but in the context of literary geography as an interdisciplinary field in itself, with its own interdisciplinary audience(s). And that’s not your fault, at all.

To take another example, just from among work produced by those us participating in this exchange so far, Julia Leyda’s “Space, class, city: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha,” which explores “the representations of class and space as co-constructions” in that novella, was published in The Japanese Journal of American Studies. This paper is easily accessible through the open-access online set of PDF files for the journal, at (sorry, I don’t know how to embed URLs in comments) but how many literary scholars or geographers (outside Japan, anyway) know about it?

I suppose I wish we (I mean, “we”) had some kind of open-access clearing house or running bibliography to help us keep up, something that could be our own “usual place” (see comment above), where work we found relevant to the interdisciplinary project of literary geography could be reviewed or even just listed. . . .

2 11 2009

Sorry I dropped out for a while there. The possibly ONLY real drawback to a virtual conference is that I don’t get to leave town and concentrate only on the conference–I still have to go to work! Those pesky students, etc.

I’m really pleased to read the way this discussion has developed, even before I saw Sheila’s plug for my JJAS paper (!). As somebody mainly identifying as a lit and American studies person with interests in geography, I have to admit that when I want to read geographers on literature, I first look in geo journals, not in lit ones! But with Google and Google scholar those distinctions are not as limiting anymore, I agree. It would be great if there were more easily accessible lit-geog clearinghouses or even just a blog or such thing. Maybe it’s reaching the point where that sort of thing will be possible or practical. It would have been amazing, for instance, if not legally impossible, for Sheila’s essay to have a hyperlinked bibliography so we could click to some of the pieces she so relentlessly tracked down. Maybe one day.

I wish this discussion weren’t over–thanks all three of you for your work in this conference and after!

2 11 2009

The Management Here, again. We just wanted to let you know that the version of Sheila’s paper published in Geography Compass does have a hyperlinked bibliography. If you take part in our post-conference survey, you’ll get free access to the journal. :-) And although the article can only be published in a single Compass journal, if you search for it in Literature Compass as well it will come up in the other Compass results on the right side of the page. Just trying to do our bit for interdisciplinarity, in the face of publishing conventions! And the conversation doesn’t have to end now, we’ll be here behind the scenes if you want to keep talking. Vanessa

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