CELJ is an international association for scholarly journal editors. Our mission is to enable conversations, collaborations, and communication around scholarly journal editing and to mentor editors and authors by creating an inclusive scholarly communications landscape.
Journal of the Month is a new feature of the CELJ website that features CELJ president Debra Rae Cohen and Vice President Eugenia Zuroski chatting with editors about their journals. You can find previous Featured Journal of the Month interviews under the "Membership" tab. All Membership content requires sign in as a CELJ Member.
New Literary History
New Literary History - Bruce Holsinger, Editor
Debra Rae Cohen: Let me start by asking you something really general: can you tell us a little bit about the history of the journal before you took it over? And then explain when you took it over how long you've been doing it?
Bruce Holsinger: NLH is now in its 53rd or 54th volume. It was started here at UVA, back in the late 60s, by Ralph Cohen, who was a great scholar of literary genre. And he ran the journal for 40 years; he was one of only three editors that the journal has ever had. Shortly after the 40th anniversary, the editorship went to Rita Felski, my colleague here in English, and then I came on just about four and a half years ago. So the first 40 years of the journal really were guided by one editor's vision. When I came on as editor, I read back through those first 40 years under Cohen's editorship and learned a lot about what the journal was trying to do, what the history of it looked like, and then the kinds of contributors that it had through Rita Felski’s years. And that helped me get my head around what the journal had represented.
DRC: One of the questions I had in mind coming to this interview today, in part because Ralph Cohen had such a definite reputation, is whether you think you see the “new “in New Literary History in a way different from previous editors. What does the “new” in New Literary History mean to you?
BH: It means almost nothing to me. I think of the journal as a place where the literary field in general asks, usually, methodologically inflected questions, whatever the current ones might be. We're reviving some old questions, too: looking back, you can see that we've previously addressed a lot of the questions that we ask in special issues—for example, there was a recent one a few years ago that I co-edited with a colleague on Romanticism, Now & Then. And the question of Romanticism is hardly new. Nor is assessing the field of Romanticism. [CELJ Note: All links in this interview lead to a paywall.]
big question for me, coming in, was thinking about theory and history in
relationship to each other. I wouldn't say that the journal had long
been skewed towards theoretical questions at the expense of historical
questions, but my interests in coming in were as much historical as
theoretical. And I was thinking about the problem of literary history as
a larger kind of shape-shifting enterprise that floats between genre,
theory, form, criticism, critique, all these sorts of buzzwords.
One of the things that really surprised me going back through were the number of different forms that contributions to NLH took. In the early years, we had these amazing pieces by John Cage, the composer John Cage, who was also a philosopher and writer (one of them, “Diary: How to Improve the World,” appeared in two installments in the early 1970s). These were memoiristic theoretical reflections on identity and politics and the meaning of art. There were also pieces that had titles like “Literary History at Indiana,” or “Literary History at Berkeley.” My old colleague, medievalist Paul Strohm, co-wrote the one out of Indiana when he was still there, years and years ago. Ralph had just asked him and a colleague for an assessment of what the history of literary study had looked like in his department and beyond; and those are fascinating little meta pieces. So I've tried to edit in that spirit, and shake up the form and style of the pieces that we have.
Could you give us some examples of the different formats that you're
experimenting with now? Or things that you have planned that haven't yet
BH: There was one issue we did recently called “In Brief.” We had nearly 30 contributions, short essays on short forms. I co-edited it with Irena Dumitrescu, who's a medievalist and a very creative public writer as well. Our idea was to exploit short form essays to explore the idiosyncrasies and quirks of various short forms of writing. So there was a piece on the aphorism, for example, by Andrew Hui, which used aphorisms to talk about the nature of the aphorism; another one by Diana Fuss on flash fiction; and my colleague Jim Seitz wrote a syllabus about “syllabus.” We used brevity as a kind of stylistic intervention, to frame the problem of short forms. So that's an example.
It's an inherently “small-c” conservative style, you know, the academic essay. At NLH
the vast majority of what we get, of course, is pretty conventional,
formally. And that's great, that's our bread and butter, but I'm always
interested in pushing those kinds of boundaries.
DRC: Have you done any work to give the journal an online or open access element? I mean, that seems like it would be particularly suited to those short forms.
BH: When I came in, I considered going all in and creating a whole new forum online, something like Critical Inquiry
has done. But I was worried that that would create a whole separate
work stream. And I didn't want to sacrifice the quality and integrity of
what we were doing to have to manage this whole other element.
But what we do do is every issue, we have a free download, and I've played around with that a lot. Sometimes I'll just choose the essay that we're going to have as a free download; often I'll do that for early career scholars, people who could benefit from that. We had a cluster a few years ago called “Medieval Fictionalities,” with two essays on the topic and several responses from people in a lot of different fields. And we put the whole thing together as one PDF and put it on the website as a free download, so people could download the whole cluster. And I've heard from colleagues that it's been taught in a number of courses as a cluster, even though it wasn't one in the journal itself, where only one of those essays appeared with responses. The other had been two issues earlier. So we just collated them and then released it as a PDF. There’s one coming out on literary cybernetics, we're going do the same thing with that. I really like that form.
I'm curious if there are any specific articles or issues in recent
years that you would use, if you were trying to encourage someone who'd
never read NLH
before to check out the journal. Is there one issue or feature or
article that would give that person an idea of what they can find in
BH: It's hard to choose, but maybe I could choose two, and suggest that they put them together. One is called “Race and Periodization,” which was brilliantly co-edited by Urvashi Chakrabarti and Ayanna Thompson. And that is a really wide-ranging special issue from medievalists and early modernists who are thinking together in powerfully critical ways about race and literary periods and historical periodization. It's just a spectacular special issue.
And then another one, I would say, is the special issue called “Writ Large.” In some ways “In Brief” was a response to that, because “Writ Large” is about long forms and big enterprises. That came out in 2017, before I was on board. There's a piece by Martin Jay in there about scale and intellectual history, and one by Aisha Ramachandran on theorizing the world. So again, another special issue where people were thinking about form and scale and genre.
DRC: The last question that we always like to ask is about your hopes for the future of the journal. What haven't you yet explored that you'd like to explore?
BH: Something I'm really interested in since I'm both a novelist and a literary scholar is the relationship between creation and critique. We have a new series that we've just started—we've only published one so far—called “Creative Writing and Critical Thought.” We’re co-sponsoring it with the Center for Fiction in New York. And the first one featured the novelist Garth Greenwell in conversation with Carolyn Dinshaw, a medievalist from my field who also was one of the founding editors of GLQ. The event showed a novelist and a critic grappling with some large questions; they spoke for over an hour and we put the transcript together, I think it's about 10,000 words. We have another one that we're editing right now between the novelist Katie Kitamura and Emily Apter, the theorist of translation. It’s on translators in theory and imagination, so that's also going to be really wonderful.
Those kinds of encounters between novelists and poets, and the critics who study the history of the novel and the history of poetry, those are really interesting to me. And I think we can learn a lot from them. The field of literary history, literary criticism, has suffered from not having the critical perspectives of creative people, people who are actually writing novels and poetry. It often seems like a kind of bizarre absence of those voices from our idiom. So that's something that I hope to foster and support in the future for NLH.