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Terms and Conditions: Cross-Cultural Reading and the Production of Literary Value

Janssen, Elizabeth C. Terms and Conditions: Cross-Cultural Reading and the Production of Literary Value. 2021. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation examines contemporary conditions of publication and reception for minoritized texts—in particular, how specific reader-markets ascribe value to race, ethnicity, and/or foreignness in literature, and how literary texts respond via scenes of reading and writing. Literary critics have long theorized the problems and politics of cross-cultural reading; however, scholars infrequently attend to the institutions that mediate race and ethnicity as terms of literary value. I argue that, increasingly, the production of literary value can only be comprehended in terms of relations among agents, including texts, readers, and authors, but also publishers, reviewers, anthologizers, and other stakeholders in the literary industry. In addition, paratexts (any text associated with a literary text’s reception) are more accessible and prolific than ever before, from book club guides to online customer reviews, authors’ social media presences, and so on. Though infrequently studied—and rarely taken as a network of value production—contending paratexts allow the contingencies of literary value, and of ethnicity itself, to be newly understood.

This project tracks an emergent literary trend toward fictionalizing markets for specific representations of ethnicity (including works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mohsin Hamid, Ruth Ozeki, and many others). These widely-read texts saturate the market with self-consciousness around cross-cultural consumption and in so doing, I argue, create new legitimating terms for “ethnic” texts. My archive comprises Anglophone texts in global circulation that use metafiction to ironize, intervene in, and/or capitalize on literary markets for ethnic difference. Each chapter examines how a body of texts anticipates its own reception(s), alongside market-produced materials targeted toward particular readerships. Chapter 1 examines university common reading programs, and how selected novels are valued for their representations of “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Chapter 2 examines recent Black American novels that set themselves in ambivalent relation to academia and canon-formation, and that re-signify the value of “representation” as associated with African American literature. Chapter 3 investigates book clubs as a gendered receptive site, alongside publisher-produced guides that often construe book clubs as sentimental readers of ethnic texts. Chapter 4 turns to the growing field of Africa-based literary production and the recent boom in African literature on international markets, in order to understand how long-entrenched value terms are evolving, through the uneven balance of multiple forces, in the present day.

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