World Literature and the World of Literature

What is world literature? Do certain writers set out to write world literature while others are content to write national literature? Many writers today are more widely read and critically appreciated outside of their own national communities than within them; and often more read in translation than in their 'own' language.

The list of Nobel Prize winners in recent years has included many figures of uncertain national definition, and World Literature and the World of Literature 2 others whose reputation in translation far exceeds that of their 'home' or national readership. Yet literary studies still tend to regard national literatures as normative; we have few terms for the kinds of literature that are exemplified by such figures as Gao Xingjian (Nobel Prize, 2000), V.S. Naipaul (2001), Imre Kertész (2002), J.M. Coetzee (2003), Orhan Pamuk (2006) and Herta Müller (2009).

Following the controversial award of the Nobel Prize in 2012 to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan, it is the purpose of this colloquium to ask what has happened to the links between literature and nation and national societies. How does literature acquire significance outside the circumstances of its making, and why do certain writers achieve renown in various geo-political constellations quite different from their own?

From Nabokov to Ha Jin, we can see writers contributing (sometimes against their express will) to a national literature even when they do not use the national language. These are features of the literary world today, apparent to general readers as to the Nobel Prize committee, yet -- such is the conceptual force of the nation in literary studies -- the theoretical accounting of 'world literature' or 'global literature' in the academy has hardly begun.