Jeanne-Marie Jackson is assistant professor of world Anglophone literature at Johns Hopkins. Her first book is South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation (Bloomsbury, 2015), and she is now at work on a project called The African Novel of Ideas: Intellection in the Age of Global Writing for Princeton University Press.
Those of us who work in traditions considered “global” within US and, to varying degrees, European academies are often pulled in two professional directions. On the one hand, many of us feel rightly accountable to a kind of work most welcome in area studies: granular, situated, concerned with historical depth over what can feel like untenable generalization. On the other, we feel the sting of exclusion from the field’s “big” conversations, and seek broad conceptual discussion of “the literary,” as such. Both impulses—as an Africanist, I think here of toggling between the African Studies Association and the MLA—have value. In the effort to entrench a globally conscientious modernism, though, I find their differences hard to split. Terms like “global modernity” often feel removed from the lives and locales that anchor aesthetic practices beyond a few transnational publishing houses. Neither an historically intertwined (whether network-based or world-systematic) nor a discrete, comparative approach to global modernist method feels quite right, and yet the challenge to find something that does (to modernists, at least) is perennially cast as urgent. Job and book titles aside, I have grown to see Global Northern takes on the “global” even within the “global Anglophone” field as an over-beat drum, stemming as they often do from a form of what Modernism/modernity readers might recognize as “weak theory.” As David Ayers has written in his reponse to the Modernism/modernity special issue on weak theory, there is only so much one can do to inclusivize an exclusive position, which, like a maximally expansive modernism, “simultaneously claims and renounces its universality.
For this two-part installment of Process, I asked eight scholars who had just finished a book—their first or their fourth—to write informally about their experience. Conferences often feature roundtables about writing and publishing, but I thought it might be a good addition to have some personal anecdotes, stories less attached to the mechanics of the industry and more to the quiddities of the book-writing process. A book might arrive as an artifact, but it begins as a dream or a compulsion or a hunch. No review or reading, however generous, does justice to the messiness of the life that seals itself into the final object of the book, as though in anticipation of the spell that may someday release it. The intent here is not so much to demystify as to re-enchant.