On Literary Worlds

By Eric Hayot

Reviewed by Nick Admussen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2014)

Book cover for On Literary Worlds

Eric Hayot.
On Literary Worlds. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2012. 224 pp.
ISBN: 9780199926695. Also available as an e-book.

On Literary Worlds is a bold, imaginative, and generous piece of literary theory, one whose goal is no less than a conceptual and institutional transformation of the undertaking of literary criticism. Open-ended by design, the book is meant as a starting point, to be transformed and transcribed into practice by other scholars: it is “the source code for an analysis and a task that it cannot complete” (13), a role that trades away the book’s authority in favor of the sense that it is written for, rather than at its readers. At the heart of the book is an attempt to supplant the heavily periodized and nationalized structures through which most academics teach and read literature. These structures—and this includes the undertaking of “World Literature”—are revealed as broadly Eurocentric, dependent on questionable narratives of progress, and unable to react flexibly to the diversity of literary work. In their place, On Literary Worlds suggests a novel theory of “worldedness.” Diegetic literature (i.e., literature that tells stories) creates worlds inside texts; we also experience our own lives inside some idea of some world. Literary worlds react to and are drawn from the worlds of experience, and in the same way our varying understandings of the worlds of experience are created and transformed by the reading of literary worlds. The underlying plurality and relativity of this undertaking has substantial promise for scholars of non-Western literature. We all struggle with the adaptation of Western theoretical terms that purport to describe the whole world at once: the medieval, the modern, the postmodern, etc. On Literary Worlds allows us to recognize those world-ideas as partial and contingent, and it directs scholars of comparative literature to look past the content of worlds in order to study their structure. Because of the importance of this undertaking, and the substantial contribution of the book, this review is long. First, it summarizes and interprets the contents of the book, then outlines its flaws as seen from the perspective of Chinese studies, and finally attempt to participate in expanding the book’s project.

Hayot’s introduction attempts to prepare readers for the scope and nature of the book by explaining and rationalizing its limits. It describes a short work whose materials are basically drawn from the history of diegesis in modern (broadly defined) Europe, a book whose methods might later be meaningfully extended to other art forms, other regions, and other times. The introduction features a question-and-answer segment whose style is a good representation of the book’s hospitality: although it remains rigorous throughout, and never shies away from the use of theoretical terminology, the drive to foster a participatory debate strongly influences the book’s stylistic choices, from the Q&A to the light tone to the relative digestibility of short chapters.

The center of the book is Part One, which lays out a theory of literary worldedness that begins with theories of world as seen in Heidegger and Jean-Luc Nancy. Hayot argues that Heidegger’s assumptions—that the work of art is a little totality set up in the greater totality in which we live—overlook the way in which our experience of the greater totality, the world, is also a product of human work and the result of human thinking. This is underlined by historical transformations like modernization and globalization, moments that changed our understanding of the shape and nature of our world. Hayot goes on to say that the concept of “world literature” as inaugurated by David Damrosch and pursued by many other scholars participates in this kind of remaking of the concept of the world, but the world they produce is not contiguous with every part of the globe—it is a partial selection of global activity heavily dependent on Eurocentric and metropolitan cultural preferences. All worlds are partial and contingent, but “world literature” attempts to overcome partiality, a task that ends not in unity but in simulated totality. In its place Hayot theorizes the shifting relationship between our concepts of the worlds in which we live, and the worlds we produce in fiction. We speak colloquially, he points out, about “Balzac’s world,” but when we do, sometimes we are talking about nineteenth-century Paris, and sometimes we are speaking of the Paris in Balzac’s fiction (42-43). Hayot is interested in the existing and potential relationships between the two: “Aesthetic worldedness is the form of the relation a work establishes between the world inside and the world outside the work” (45). All diegetic literature—literature in which a story is explicitly or implicitly told—can be discussed in terms of the forms and structures with which it interacts with the bigger stories around it.

In Part One, chapter 5, Hayot introduces six potential “variables or mechanisms” through which literary worlds structure their interaction with the worlds around them. First is amplitude, defined via Auerbach as the way in which attention is spread across a narration. Amplitude can be low, in which case each event or object in a literary world will have precisely equal weight, or it can be high, in which case some events or objects will step into the foreground while others become muted or indistinct. Next is completeness, the manner and intensity with which a fictional world indicates the presence of elements that do not appear in the text. Some texts refer outside themselves constantly, highlighting their partial nature or artificiality; others create the illusion that the text exceeds its own boundaries, appearing as a window onto a complete fictive world; still others seek to be as whole and self-sufficient as possible. Metadiegetic structure describes the way in which a diegetic work calls for its own interpretation, usually by referring to preexisting figural, narrative, or logical structures. Connectedness is a term for the way that characters or elements in a literary work relate across divisions that are internal to the work’s own world; it gives rise to a short discussion of the networkedness of systems and characters, a term taken from theoretical work by Manuel Castells and Thomas LeClair. The character system of a story is Hayot’s term for the ways in which characters are given different treatment by a text: some central characters, for example, speak directly to the reader, have their interiority described, and take up large amounts of the text. Others never appear, or appear only by reference. And finally dynamism is a novel’s “inclusion of the various modalities and types of time, and its distribution of those forms of time” (81). Hayot’s six variables are important because they are the tools the book contains that can most directly be used to read and interpret literature. Each one of them marks, in its way, a form of potential difference between the world inside the story and the world outside it. Novels have readers who attend to one thing at a time, but the world is persistent whether watched or not; novels have finite length, but the world’s duration is immeasurable; the novel insists upon its own interpretation, and the world does not.

Part Two translates European literary and cultural history into the terms of Part One. It starts with the advent of the sense of a unified and empirical world as provoked by astronomy and geography, focusing on cultural transformations that took place around the time of Copernicus and Magellan. As Western intellectual history moves towards the modern, its concept of the world becomes increasingly unitary. Hayot reads Descartes’ statement that “there cannot be a plurality of worlds” to interpret the fundamental undertaking of the “modern project”: that all knowledge must be subsumed beneath a single, even as yet undiscovered, world-view (106). To Hayot, the moment of the creation and circulation of this unified world-view is uniquely European, and uniquely historical: “you do not encounter the planet this way twice” (117). Literary and cultural history in Europe reacts to this transformation in three ways, using what Hayot calls modes. One is Realism, in which the world of experience is affirmed, and the socially shared concept of the world is also affirmed; a second is Romanticism, in which the world of experience is denied, and a dominant world-concept is affirmed; the third is Modernism, in which both the world of experience and the truth of a consensus world-concept are denied.[ 1 ] These modes are designed to serve in the role of, but not be identical to, the traditional categories of European literary criticism, which are indicated in the book with lower-case letters. The modes of On Literary Worlds claim to replace the historically generated, traditional, Eurocentric categories with more mobile and extensible abstractions: one can, Hayot argues, have a Romantic moment in any time period or cultural context, and that represents an improvement over the time- and culture-bound concept of romanticism in the contemporary academy.

Part Three asks concretely how that contemporary academy can be changed. Where a scholar ten years ago might have been comfortable theorizing in the abstract, Hayot sees present institutional practice as an obstacle to ideas of literary worldedness, and gives a series of methods and rationales for change. He advocates for the abandonment or partial abandonment of periodization as a structuring metaphor at the undergraduate, graduate and faculty employment levels. He argues that literary periods are poorly theorized, often bound up with assumptions about nation and region, and that they transform our experience of the present in an ungainly way. The profusion of literary periods both privileges and distances the present time in comparison to the past: it makes the present into a special arbiter of the past, but also a nonparticipant in its ideologies and structures. In their place, the book advises the use of varied transnational, transperiodic, structuralist and longue durée organizational principles in an attempt to provoke or even just allow scholars to produce new types of thinking about literary texts.

My problem with On Literary Worlds will perhaps already have occurred to other scholars of Chinese literature: although this book is theoretically without geographic center, practically it reproduces and reifies a Eurocentrism deeply related to that it purports to supplant. Non-western literature makes up a tiny minority of the literary work under discussion; the literary theory that the discussion takes as provocation is universally sourced from contemporary and premodern European and American thinkers; even the modes of analysis of Part Two have their starting point and ending point in European and American practice. This is not an accident of the structure of the book: as the final appendix reads, “The danger is that this reification implies that the fundamental modes of world-relation appear only for the first time in modern Europe. Nothing could be further from the theoretical truth. Only theoretical, because I am not equipped to do the work that would prove it” (189). The concepts advanced by the book itself preclude readers from taking this statement at face value. We know from chapter one that “there is no world-form without world content” (25), that all ideas of world are necessarily historicized concepts with at least some root in their material context. This must hold for theories about the production of worldedness as much as it does for the experiences of individual worlds. Otherwise, we would be on the same treadmill as proponents of world literature, in which scholars in preferred regions gain dominance by establishing and occupying a meta-level—such that theories coming from Boston or Oxford are not American or European, but suddenly “world,” and the literatures of other regions serve as proofs. Were this book able to exist on a purely theoretical level, there would be no need for its reconsideration of European cultural history. Hayot shows cognizance of this problem in the introduction, but his admission that “I felt like I had to make the argument work first in relationship to the established classics of the modern European canon” (9, my emphasis) is doubly unsatisfying, both because it reproduces Europe’s “firstness” and because the book never does broach the “second” application of the argument to non-European work.

There is something contradictory, as well, in Hayot’s assertion that “I am not equipped to do the work to prove” that this book’s theory of literary worldedness can and should circulate outside of a European and American context, and is not limited by design to those regions. Hayot does have the capability to read meaningfully into Chinese literature, as evinced by his prior research, but the problem is deeper: in Part Three, he points out quite rightly that the transformations of academic institutions that he advocates “would require letting go of our current sense that in-depth knowledge can come only through the mastery of a restricted, period-oriented canon of works” (166). This letting go should rightly have started in this book. The price of the manuscript’s Eurocentrism, moreover, is as Hayot sets out in the introduction: it affects the robustness and usability of the theory. Western literary criticism shows a marked preference for questions of ontology over questions of ethics, and that preference is reflected by this discussion, where we have variables and modes that describe what and how literary worlds contain, but none that discuss the whyof them. Similarly, the book gives language to discuss a literary work’s call to interpretation (the “metadiegetic structure”), but no language to discuss the level and nature of a literary work’s explicit attempt to transform the world, its call to arms. These missing variables are not simply additional list items that would assuage the self-love of non-European literary scholars. They each call into question, in their own way, the book’s central assumption, that of the nature of the separateness of literary worlds from lived worlds. Without discussing the way in which the telling of a story can be an act as concrete and lived as the loading of a rifle, the whole edifice sways. Is literature reducible to a certain class of action in the same unitary world of modernism that Hayot is trying to destabilize? Are politically motivated writers producing some kind of non-literary diegesis that falls outside the realm of On Literary Worlds? Even if these questions could be answered by some complex organization of the book’s existing categories of analysis, readers of Asian, African, South American, and Pacific literatures will find the book’s variables and modes insufficient to describe some of the most important issues in the stories they read.

Crucially, though, On Literary Worlds is open by design; the framing of the book explicitly puts the responsibility for the nature of its use into the hands of its readers, and although Hayot claims he is “not equipped” to extend the thinking of the book to touch on non-Western literatures, the insinuation is that there are many scholars who are—giving us all the license to see the book’s narrowness as a provocation rather than a fatal flaw. The modes of Part Two, with their tight geometry and overt relationship to European literary history, are comparatively less flexible, but the variables of Part One can be extended, challenged, and supplanted. I believe that the best potential additions to the book will come not simply from variables that are intended to describe non-Western literatures, but variables which are themselves provoked by non-Western methods of literary analysis, in exactly the way that Hayot’s variables are provoked by Erich Auerbach, Ruth Ronen, Roland Barthes, and many more Western theorists. This type of work, in which Chinese critical conversations are translated or adapted for potential use in non-Chinese contexts, is not new to Chinese studies. James J. Y. Liu’s Chinese Theories of Literature does not appear in On Literary Worlds, but arguably similar undertakings by Andrew Plaks and Haun Saussy both do:[ 2 ] this kind of work can and should provoke methods of analysis that would be both new to Europe and valuable in non-European contexts.

I suggest the addition of a seventh variable called visible sedimentation, adapted from the work of Li Zehou 李泽厚, to the six variables introduced in On Literary Worlds. Li has written extensively on the way in which the cosmic is reflected in literary works. He believes that an attention to the interplay of what Hayot might call world-content and world-form generates some of the central concerns of Chinese art: “Chinese artistic abstraction is . . . the comprehensive abstraction of the rational and emotional intercourse and interfusion between the cosmos and human life.”[ 3 ] The concept of sedimentation is crucial to Li’s understanding of the production and nature of an artwork. Life experiences enter artworks in layers, and history enters culture in the same way: like soil, they accrue and are covered, become compacted and ossified by time.[ 4 ] Sedimented experience—even basic or primitive experience that humans have shared for millennia—never becomes deterministic; it can always be uprooted and replaced, although deeper layers are harder to disturb and remake. Li argues that all literature is produced through sedimentation, but his totalizing impulse produces exactly the kind of unitary world-system that Hayot criticizes in his Part Two. Li’s universalism does not work well in cultures or contexts where the author is believed to be absent, in Joyce’s term “paring his fingernails.” We can instead see the level of sedimentation of the author’s experience into the work as something we perceive when reading a text, variable in its intensity: we know experientially that a story by contemporary blogger and author Han Han 韩寒 will be viewed in a number of quite specific ways because it is by Han Han, regardless of its content.[ 5 ] A first-time novelist who is neither a famous race car driver nor a participant in multiple literary polemics will not be seen as investing the text with meaning in the same way, or to the same extent.

Opening visible sedimentation as a variable of worldedness gives us ways to discuss a variety of literary experiences that the theories of On Literary Worlds might have difficulty interpreting. The ideological demands on official literature in the Mao period and the art-from-life works produced by the mass culture movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s all made claims about literary worlds according to the class backgrounds of their authors. Today, artists from many cultures inform the works they write with their race, gender, and sexuality: one considers the great impact on the works of Tashi Dawa when he is interpreted as a Tibetan as compared to interpretations of him as a Sinicized Tibetan, a Sino-Tibetan author, or simply Chinese.[ 6 ] His experience underlines the fact that visible sedimentation is not always under the control of the author, but is a push and pull between the interpretations of an audience (the “visible” part of the category) and the experiences and creations of the author (the “sedimentation” part). At the time of composition of his early verse, it seems likely that Gu Cheng 顾城 (to take an example from poetry) did not know that elements in his work would later be interpreted diegetically as a precursor to his murder-suicide, but contemporary criticism as well as contemporary popular interpretations of his work rarely omit mention of the events of his later life.

Considering the visible sedimentation of a literary work also instructs attention to the paratext of stories, the way that literary worlds are transformed by author biographies, interviews, extratextual authorial commentary, and other ways in which ideas and events from the world of experience can intervene in and transform literary worlds—all without changing the composition of their texts. We may here think of the way in which contemporary artists participate in and are subjected to branding, such that the “world of Jin Yong” 金庸 includes much more than the individual worlds that make up his stories, or even the qualities shared by all the worlds he made. Jin Yong’s world is also a publishing, cultural commentary, and commercial enterprise that has a physical range, a balance sheet, and its own field of criticism.[ 7 ] This world is centered on Jin Yong the executive and Jin Yong the image at the same time as it is centered on Jin Yong the creator: in this case, in the bookstore, it is the name on the spine that readers value, and they do so because they perceive an intimate relationship between the name, a person, and a set of literary worlds. An objection can be made that this kind of variable artificially privileges the role of the author in a way that rolls back a critical consensus that stretches back past Barthes: this reasoning, though, is exactly the justification for the use of non-Western categories of analysis. The author did not die in twentieth century China, or did not die in the same way. What’s more, when we look closely, there are plenty of readers in Europe and America who continue to operate on this logic, and writers who write for them. More geographically and culturally varied terms of analysis make the whole system more robust. One demonstration is the burgeoning field of internet literature, where paratext is liberally mixed with text: since some authors are increasingly present online for direct interaction with readers, and others eschew telepresence in favor of a more distant, twentieth century kind of interaction, analysis according to a variable like authorial sedimentation could very well become more and more relevant in the future, both in China and beyond.

The previous two sections may seem like a criticism of On Literary Worlds: they are in fact a recommendation. At its heart, this is a piece of theory that attempts to do away with the structures that produce literary Eurocentrism, both in regards to theories of modernity and in regards to transnational literary study as a whole. That it does not wholly succeed in the space of two hundred pages is testimony not to a deficit in the book, but a planned quality of a project that explicitly claims to make only early steps towards addressing a conceptual and institutional problem of immense size. The promise of the book is, after all, partially contingent upon its call to collaboration and participation by scholars from many different contexts: the best recommendation that I or other readers can give is therefore a willingness to participate in the book’s undertaking, to adopt and adapt its terms. I choose to participate because the challenges that motivate On Literary Worlds lie at the heart of intercultural and transnational literary reading and criticism, problems that are core challenges for scholars of literature today. This book engages them through a carefully considered, quite radical remaking of literary typology and terminology. It contributes new ideas to the study of literature, and if scholars of Chinese and other literatures choose to engage with it and improve it, it has the potential to transform our fields in ways that reflect and allow new intensities of transcultural influence and interaction.

Nick Admussen
Cornell University


[ 1 ] Chapter 12 theorizes the missing term in this series, a rare kind of literature that denies dominant world-concepts, but accepts the reality and necessity of lived experience. He lists possible participants in this “empty quadrant” like Ashbery, Christian Bök, and Sei Shōnagon: notably missing is the Daoist tradition, which in some iterations upends world-concepts in favor of a less conceptualized form of experience.

[ 2 ] Liu, James J. Y. Chinese Theories of Literature (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975). Hayot’s discussion of Plaks appears on pages 70-72; Saussy is parenthetically noted on page 25. There are many good options for meaningful, hermeneutic-producing literary theory drawn from Chinese texts: in addition to Li Zehou as discussed below, one could also consider the way Michel Hockx interprets the quality of tong 通 or “communication” in modern poetry. See Hockx, Michel. “To Tong or Not to Tong: The Problem of Communication in Modern Chinese Poetics.”Monumentica Serica 53 (2005): 261-272.

[ 3 ] Li Zehou and Jane Cauvel. Four Essays on Aesthetics: Toward a Global View (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006), p. 163.

[ 4 ] Heavily adapted from the introduction of ibid., p. 4n4.

[ 5 ] This situation also identifies the difference between visible sedimentation and Hayot’s “completeness,” the extent to which a story refers outside itself: visible sedimentation does not have to be a quality of the text, and can be limited to the paratext.

[ 6 ] For racial and cultural identity differences in Chinese literature generally and Tashi Dawa’s career specifically, see Schiaffini-Vedani, Patricia, “Tashi Dawa: Magical Realism and Contested Identity in Modern Tibet”, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2002, p. 85-107.

[ 7 ] The field of criticism is sometimes called jinxue 金学, or “Jin Studies” — again branded with the name of the author. The association between Jin’s person and his fiction may be one of the valences of the title of an essay collection on Jin Yong: The Jin Yong Phenomenon. Huss, Ann and Liu Jianmei, Eds. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2007. Note that the title is not The Jin Yong Fiction Phenomenon, or The World of Jin Yong.