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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism


The World Republic of Letters

Pascale Casanova

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To purchase The World Republic of Letters

Title: The World Republic of Letters
Author: Pascale Casanova
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 358 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The World Republic of Letters - US
The World Republic of Letters - UK
The World Republic of Letters - Canada
La république mondiale des lettres - Canada
The World Republic of Letters - India
La république mondiale des lettres - France
  • French title: La république mondiale des lettres
  • Translated by M.B.Debevoise

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting ideas, well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2005 Emilie Bickerton
The Independent A- 11/3/2005 Boyd Tonkin
London Rev. of Books . 23/9/2004 Perry Anderson
The Nation A 3/1/2005 William Deresiewicz
New Statesman . 11/4/2005 Terry Eagleton
The New Yorker . 2/1/2006 Louis Menand
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Winter/2005 Thomas Hove

  Review Consensus:

  Impressive, and important

  From the Reviews:
  • "Casanova's analysis relies heavily on Bourdieu's model of the literary field organized along market lines, though she alters his nationally based concept of symbolic and literary capital to render it international in scope." - Emilie Bickerton, Bookforum

  • "But its core concerns the idea of literature, and the metropolitan institutions that define it, as a system of power: of gate-keeping, border controls, admissions and refusals. (...) Casanova's book is a demanding, rewarding read, but no more opaque than the work of Edward Said -- which it often recalls. The breadth of this canvas means that, for Anglophones, much of the appeal lies in her mind-stretching ability to match familiar anecdotes of revolt or migration with linked histories from elsewhere." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Nothing like this has been attempted before. (...) It might be called a literary Porto Alegre. That implies a beginning, with much fierce argument and discussion to come. But whatever the outcome of ensuing criticisms or objections, The World Republic of Letters -- empire more than republic, as Casanova shows -- is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact at large as Said's Orientalism, with which it stands comparison." - Perry Anderson, London Review of Books

  • "(B)rilliant, groundbreaking (.....) Casanova's work amounts to a radical remapping of global literary space -- which means, first of all, the recognition that there is a global literary space." - William Deresiewicz, The Nation

  • "Whereas Marxist critics relate literature to politics and economics, Casanova sees the realm of letters as a political and economic terrain. (...) There is a great deal more to this path-breaking study, not least a superb sketch of Franz Kafka (.....) Casanova's range of literary allusions, from Berlin to Havana, Norway to Somalia, is astonishing" - Terry Eagleton, New Statesman

  • "(R)ather brilliant" - Louis Menand, The New Yorker

  • "Casanova tends to treat literary intentions and judgments as strategies in a competitive struggle. Consequently, she sometimes portrays literature as just another social game in which the only things that matter are seizing and maintaining dominance. But to stress her framework’s positive contributions, it provides several useful theoretical tools for identifying uniquely literary forms of power." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The World Republic of Letters considers literary reputation and success on a global scale, looking at what accounts for some writers finding acceptance internationally, while others don't (or remain only regionally successful), as well as the influence these writers have. Casanova describes an "international literary space", formed in the 16th century, with literature travelling across borders -- and competing for success. The resulting world republic of letters isn't one where every book of any origin has an equal chance: dominant languages and cultures strive to maintain their position, while authors from smaller languages and less established literary traditions compete for attention (often infiltrating the dominant tradition in order to piggy-back onto success that way). Influential arbiters of quality emerge -- not merely individuals or specific publications, but geographic centres (Paris, in particular, Casanova argues): if you can make it there (i.e. find success and approval), you've made it everywhere.
       Casanova's focus is on what can be called 'serious' literature, i.e. she doesn't treat the case of the airport bestseller (of which Dan Brown's international hit, The Da Vinci Code is the current prime example). In part this is because her interest is in demonstrating the effect of critical-intellectual approval: the embrace of an author, style, school, or type by an intellectual establishment (generally: that in Paris) as seal of approval leading to global success (and imitation). This (slight) limitation to the book is understandable -- Dan Brown and writers of his ilk look to have little lasting effect on literature, and their books little staying power (over the long term) -- but it's a shame that these sorts of titles aren't addressed, as this interesting phenomenon on the periphery of the world republic of letters also has an (arguably growing) effect on it.
       Casanova shows the historic development of literature across borders, making a good case for Paris establishing itself quickly -- and lastingly ("at least until the 1960s", she suggests) -- as the focal point: the place where literatures converge, where success is ordained. She notes the importance of history: a national past and (literary) tradition are prerequisites for literary acceptance. The past provides a necessary frame of reference for literary works, whether they build on it or challenge it. Casanova insists that the world of letters relies on these foundations, a main reason why 'outside' literature has it so hard breaking in. France was particularly well-positioned with regards to history, having a long, impressive tradition, but one that was also both sufficiently open to the new and marked by upheaval (unlike, for example, sclerotic Spain).
       Paris is her centre: writers from the provinces gravitate to cities, writers from small cultures gravitate to larger ones -- and Paris was, especially for much of the 20th century, the ultimate destination: As she notes, many authors actually moved to Paris (from Strindberg, Stein, and Joyce to Kundera and Handke), though equally significant is the role of Paris (and the French publishers and literary establishment) in 'crowning' writers: from Borges to Danilo Kiš it was acceptance in Paris that led to the international breakthrough -- an impressive (and continuing) "power of consecration":

The belief in the power of the capital of the arts is so strong that not only do artists throughout the world unreservedly accept the preeminence of Paris; owing to the extraordinary concentration of intellectual talent there that follows from this belief, Paris has come the place where books -- submitted to critical judgment and transmuted -- can be denationalized and their authors made universal.
       Historic examples support her position; of particular interest are those regarding language, the writers who turned to French, from Strindberg's attempts to conquer Paris by writing in French, to Beckett's bi-lingual work to Cioran (and now Kundera) turning entirely to writing French. (While there are also examples of authors who turned to writing in English -- Conrad and Nabokov are both mentioned -- this is one of the areas that deserves more discussion, as English has certainly become a contender for the language to dominate world literature.)
       Looking at everything from the role of translation (literature must be accessible to conquer; the text available only in a language that few can read is terribly handicapped) to attempts at rebellion and assimilation, Casanova's book is an impressive examination of the global literary landscape. She believes her analysis can also "give the principles of a new method for interpreting literary texts", which certainly is of some interest. The more obvious point of interest, however, is the fascinating picture on offer of what drives literary production (and consumption) and what shapes them: the literary world as a sort of market.
       The World Republic of Letters deserves much closer scrutiny and discussion, defying quick review-summary. Fairly straightforward and accessible, it makes for a surprisingly good read for a work of literary theory, and offers a great deal of food for thought. Highly recommended to anyone interested in publishing or reading.

       Note: Disappointingly for a book about literature, published by a leading university press, the HUP edition of The World Republic of Letters makes the basic (and popular) mistake of consistently misspelling Edgar Allan Poe's middle name (as "Allen"). Inexcusable.

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The World Republic of Letters: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pascale Casanova is a noted French literary critic.

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© 2005-2011 the complete review

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