2nd Annual Seminar: Reception Studies and the History of the Book.

See information about the seminar here.


Simone Murray (Monash University) – “Picking Your Professor: What is Literary Studies’ Public in the Digital Age?”

Literary Studies is experiencing a moment of profound change.  The study of literature seems both everywhere and nowhere---imperilled by political attacks, defunding and casualisation within the university yet simultaneously thriving beyond it in an online world of amateur reviewing, reading communities and author-reader interaction.  One response is to interpret these phenomena as threats to our professionalism, therefore we should double-down on our scholarly training and exclude those who haven’t paid their intellectual dues through graduate education, publication in professional journals and securing book contracts with ‘quality’ publishers.

But an alternative response is possible.  What if Literary Studies looked resolutely outwards and embraced those extra-academic book-loving communities that the discipline has long ignored, disparaged or at best held itself aloof from?  What if we saw them not just as audiences for our professionally-certified insights, but as objects of our scholarly analysis, or even partners in that research?  What, in other words, if Literary Studies invited online publics in?

This keynote presentation traces the relationship between academic Literary Studies and wider book-reading communities in the past, present and future.  How was this professional/amateur disjunction a precondition for the discipline’s nineteenth-century institutionalisation and what have been its subsequent effects?  Turning to the present moment, I ask how do digital technologies allow us to bridge this divide between the academy and the broader world of book readers online?  There is presently a panoply of digital book talk, from amateur review sites, through lit blogs, to the most recent wave of social-media bookishness (#literaryTwitter, bookTube, bookstagram, bookTok).  To what extent has this broader audience prompted a shift in Literary Studies’ standard operations?

Finally, looking forward, what are the best practices and protocols for literary scholars seeking to engage with amateur online book communities?  What are the various dos and don’ts?  In moving its traditionally print-centric operations to a new medium, Literary Studies cannot simply pursue business as usual.  Instead, it is vital we consider how the affordances of digital technologies can help Literary Studies to adapt and thrive.

Simone Murray is Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Monash University, Melbourne and an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her book Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics (Pluto Press UK, 2004) was awarded the 2005 DeLong Book Prize by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing.  Her second monograph, The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation (Routledge US, 2012) has been widely reviewed in English-, French-, German- and Swedish-language publications.  A third monograph, The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era(Johns Hopkins UP, 2018), examines how the internet has transformed literary culture.  Her most recent book, Introduction to Contemporary Print Culture: Books as Media, is published by Routledge UK (2021).


Shafquat Towheed (The Open University) – “An Examination of Bookshelves in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic as a Liminal Space”

In the space of a few weeks in 2020, the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus into a global pandemic has changed the way we work, live, interact and communicate with one another. Prolonged periods of national lockdown have caused a massive shift towards homeworking, while at the same time, almost all the public spaces for cultural encounter – cinemas and concert halls, theatres, libraries, museums, galleries and bookshops – have been subject to prolonged closure or severe limitations of access. In the Age of the Pandemic, mask-wearing and handwashing have become the physical manifestations of a radical change in social practice, while QR codes and social distancing markers have become the semiotic signs of new liminal contact free zones, defined by the negative use of physical space. However, one highly unexpected result of the massive rise in homeworking has been an extraordinary exposure of domestic bookshelves, which in the famous words of Amanda Hess, have become the ‘quarantine’s hottest accessory’ (New York Times, 1 May 2020). 

Personal bookshelves had hitherto been a jealously guarded private space, a marker for personal taste and shared only with the select few invited into their owners’ households and allowed to scan and glean the titles on display. This physically delimited space has now been unleashed upon the world: where once few people could look at the books on our shelves, now theoretically, almost everyone can. Broadcast and self-published to the world via video conferencing and live streaming on both mainstream and social media platforms, the private bookshelf has been thrust into the unremitting and sometimes merciless glare of public (and self) scrutiny. Physical bookshelves broadcast on screen have become sites of self-promotion, contestation, erasure, self-censorship, moral judgement, mythmaking and trolling. Virtual bookshelf backgrounds for online meetings often demonstrate the cultural anxiety, aspiration, or association of the speakers in front of them; they may even communicate longing or nostalgia for actual physical spaces (such as libraries) that cannot currently be occupied by (human) readers. In the space of a few months, ‘bookcase credibility’ has become a manifestation of intentional (or unintentional) cultural capital; as a marker of perceived professional aptitude, and has relegated the office suit and the business card to obsolescence in one fell swoop. The pandemic bookshelf has accidently been fashioned into the most ubiquitous liminal zone anywhere: it is the ostensibly private and personal backdrop for the staging of our public, digitally mediated, professional existence.

Drawing upon theoretical perspectives from anthropology, psychology and literary theory, this talk explores the many ways in which the private-public bookshelf has become the cultural liminal space (and virtual contact zone) par excellence during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In particular, the extensive global exposure of hitherto private bookshelves have unleashed a wealth of interpretable data, at once both thick and rich, which presents a formidable challenge for researchers in book history, the history of reading, publishing studies, cultural studies, media studies, digital cultures and sociology.

Dr. Shafquat Towheed is a Senior Lecturer in English at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the Open University, UK. The main thrust of his research is in nineteenth and twentieth century British and American literature, with a particular interest in the history of the book. He is the Director of ‘The Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945’ (RED)and the Open University’s Book History Research Group. He has written, edited, and co-edited 8 books, and his articles have appeared in leading scholarly journals, such as Victorian StudiesBook HistoryPublishing History and Nineteenth-Century Contexts.


Gianina Druţă (Oslo Metropolitan University) – “When Dr. Stockmann spoke Romanian…: Petre Sturdza’s translation of An Enemy of the People (1907)

The aim of this paper is to provide a comparative analysis of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People with Petre Sturdza’s translation of the same play published in 1907. The concept of “domestication” established by Lawrence Venuti serves as a theoretical starting point in identifying the strategies of the Romanian actor when translating and then staging the play. The analysis focuses on the use of language and changes such as cuts, additions, or replacements in the Romanian translation in comparison with the original Norwegian text. The findings help us explain the positive reception of the play and how Sturdza shaped the text in order to meet the Romanian audience. Also, since the translation was used as the script of the performances of An Enemy of the People at the beginning of the 20th century, the changes speak about the role of the star-actor, and of comedy and realism in the Romanian theatre practice. 

Geir Uvsløkk (University of Oslo) – “Patrick Modiano in Norway, between reception and memory studies”

In 1997, the French author Patrick Modiano published Dora Bruder, a book relating the destiny of a young Jewish girl from Paris, Dora Bruder (1926-1942), who was murdered in Auschwitz. In 2003, the Norwegian non-fiction author Espen Søbye published Kathe, alltid vært i Norge, a biography of Kathe Rita Lasnik (1927-1942), a young Jewish girl from Oslo, who was also murdered in Auschwitz. In 2019, Modiano’s book was translated into Norwegian. The topic of the two books is similar, but the methodological approaches proposed by the two authors are quite different. Søbye expresses his intention to gather all the information he can possibly find about Kathe Lasnik, and presents her story only based upon this documentation. Modiano – although conducting thorough documentary research – willingly leaves parts of Dora Bruder’s life in the dark, does not present all of the documentation clearly, and intertwines her story with that of his own Jewish father. In this presentation, I will study the Norwegian reception of these two books, with a particular interest in the critics’ reflections about the authors’ methodological approaches.

Aina Nøding (National Library of Norway) – “The “Vi-queen’s” charge on Albion’s shores: Sigrid Undset on the British book market, 1920-1950”

The Norwegian Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) entered the English-speaking book market with a translation of her novel Jenny (1911), published in London in 1920. When she died, the Nobel laureate’s novels, travelogues and essays, translated into 26 languages, were hailed as world literature. Particularly her medieval novels, but also her contemporary ideological fight against Nazi-Germany and anti-Semitism had earned her global fame and labels such as “Vi-queen” and “Soldier”. However, while she amassed canonical status and a wide following in the USA, where she published in English during her emigre years in New York (1940-45), interest in the anglophile Undset’s work seemed much less fervent in the UK. Why? By tracking her publication strategies, including literary agents, publishers and translators, the impact of the Nobel prize, as well as studying the critical reception and private letters, an attempt will be made at answering that question. Furthermore, including parts of the British Empire/The Commonwealth would be very interesting, and further complicate the picture of centre/periphery in transnational canonization processes, but could be a daunting task.

Terje Stordalen (University of Oslo) – “Literary Canons for an Oral Audience?”

The worlds in which the ancient Hebrew and, later, the Greek New Testament canons emerged were predominantly oral. In the Roman Era probably less than 5 percent of the population were able to read complex books like the ones now found in Jewish and Christian bibles. How would it be possible, even desirable, to stage a collection of literature as a symbol for cultural identity and, ultimately, as a vehicle for the production of social authority? Any answer will necessarily be complex. My presentation will focus on one segment in the attempt to address this nexus. I propose the production of scriptural authority needs to be explored as a social rather than a scribal phenomenon. It is the result of complex interaction in what I have elsewhere called canonical ecologies. In the case of the early Hebrew canons, it appears that authority was produced through symbiotic interactions between written (elite) and oral (popular) canonical ecologies. To the scribal community texts had semantic value, but for the oral audience text artefacts were invested with the sense ascribed to them as social memory and through ritual handling of the text artefacts.

Janicke S. Kaasa (Oslo Metropolitan University) – “Sigrid Undset’s Return to the Future in a Book Historical Perspective”

During her exile in the US, Sigrid Undset wrote several works aimed at English-speaking readers, one of them being the polemical travelogue Return to the Future, translated from the Norwegian by Henriette C.K. Naeseth, and published by Alfred A. Knopf in New York in 1942. The same year, it appeared in Portuguese (Pan-Americana, Rio de Janeiro). In 1943, it appeared in Swedish (P.A. Norstedt & söner, Stockholm), in German (Europaverlag, Zürich) and, illegally, in Danish (Studenternes Efterretningstjeneste). In 1944, it appeared in French (Jean Marguerat, Lausanne) and in Icelandic (Vikings utgáfan, Reykjavik).

The travelogue was originally planned to be released in Norway in 1945, but did not appear until 1949, published by Aschehoug and entitled Tilbake til fremtiden. The travelogue was held back due to Undset’s critical descriptions of the Soviet Union, and the threat from the Soviet Embassy to boycott Norwegian publishers if it was published. In this project, still very much in process, my ambition is simply to study in depth the (inter)national publishing history of Undset’s travelogue that I have sketched out here. 

Ellen Krefting (University of Oslo) – “Book History and the Ocean”

In my presentation, I will explore various ways history of the book perspectives can inform a history of oceanic knowledge of the past 400 years. What role did paperwork play in the collection, organization and transportation of knowledge, from the expansion of human activities at sea in the seventeenth century and beyond? What kind of printed material has been used to retrieve, arrange and transmit knowledges of the ocean? I am particularly interested in how history of print and history of information can help us understand the significant “formats” of oceanic knowledge, such as records, maps and models, and their persistent importance today, although they are no longer relying on the medium of paper.


Álvaro Llosa Sanz (University of Oslo) – “Tina Escaja’s reading machines: objects as books, readers as users”

Books as material objects have been used over time to fulfill functions which have nothing to do with reading –as supportfor a piece of furniture, or as domestic projectiles, for example. This has also worked for long time in the opposite direction: some objects have been used as “books", that is, as reading interfaces. Walls, trees, stones, and human skin are some of the most traditional alternative surfaces to contain text. But, how does reading work when a narrative is inscribed using a coat, a vitral, or a barcode?

In this presentation I would like to introduce some objects that activist and poet Tina Escaja (1965-) has transformed into highly effective reading machines or techno-texts where materiality, the chosen interface and the act of reading are strongly intertwined in order to produce (a poetic) meaning. Furthermore, her work shows that any possible act of reading and reception, reached through these reading machines, is necessarily linked to the construction of an active reader who needs to displace the material rules of reading a book and use instead the ones attached to the regular manipulation of the object in order to activate and obtain a successful reading. Thus, the analysis of the textual materiality and its particular use of several interfaces in Escaja’s work helps to discuss some historical challenges of the (poetic) text when it becomes independent from the printed book and its reader. And it also highlights how this displacement plays a central key to understand the nature of some non-bookish multimodal narratives and how they work as complex spaces of reading performance to contemporary readers.

Iris Muñiz (University of Oslo) – “Searching for the authentic Ibsen in German-Spanish translation: Jose Ramón Pérez Bances’ Dramas de Ibsen (1914-1926) and the BITRES project"

Ibsen’s translation history into Spanish is long and convoluted, although or likely because he was translated indirectly until quite recently. After the first translations by José de Caso y Blanco (through French) were published in the literary magazine La España Moderna (1892-1894), several editing houses sought to publish their own Ibsen, taking advantage of a certain copyright vacuum, and different editions proliferated in a short year span. Amongst them, the complete dramas edition project by Biblioteca Clásica-Editorial Hernando stands out in being the first Ibsen translated through German, which according to Spanish Silver Age translation ideals, promised a closer step to the mirage phenomenon of translation faithfulness. The young promising translator, José Ramón Pérez Bances, who indeed became in the next decades one of the most prolific German translators and a respected intellectual, took over a decade to fulfill the commission. His version has however been overshadowed by other translations and then forgotten, like the translator himself, as the whims of the literary market moved elsewhere.

This paper, the first study of this edition and translator, attempts to highlight their merits within the Spanish Ibsen book history. This (currently working) paper will be published as a preface to the online edition of Pérez-Bances’ translation at BITRES. This book history in-translation project (http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/biblioteca_traducciones_espanolas/) seeks to publish online the most relevant amongst the earliest translations into Spanish of renowned world authors, prefaced with scientific studies penned by specialists. It also aims to publish biobibliographies of the main translators in early Spanish translation history. BITRES is edited by Luis Pegenaute and Francisco Lafarga, and funded by the Patronato Fundación Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, which hosts the biggest online library and literary research repository in the Spanish-speaking world. 

Giuliano D’Amico (University of Oslo) – “Hermetic semiosis revisited: The Fantasy of Peer Gynt

During last year’s seminar I used Umberto Eco’s concept of “hermetic semiosis” in order to study two contemporary “conspiratorial readings” of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and debunk the interpretive mechanisms that lay behind them. This year I will return to Eco’s concept and discuss if and how hermetic semiosis can back up esoteric readings of Peer Gyntthat although being “wrong”, i.e., based on the assumption of an esoteric undertone that is absent in Ibsen’s play, actually open up interesting, interpretive keys to the play. I will do so by focusing on The Fantasy of Peer Gynt, an adaptation of Ibsen’s play that was staged by the Orpheus Lodge of the Theosophical Society in Edinburgh in 1908 and published as book in 1909. In this adaptation, the Scottish theosophists interpreted Peer Gynt as a play about spiritual development and reincarnation. Is this just a bizarre interpretation that must be discarded, or does it tell anything valuable about a metaphysical aspect of the play? I will try to discuss such issues during my presentation.

Published Oct. 8, 2021 8:42 PM - Last modified Oct. 21, 2021 3:32 PM