God, Fashion, Affect

What's hot and what's not (theory?) at the book exhibits of the Modern Language Association.
December 31, 2007

For the past four days, Oprah has not been the only Chicago-based powerhouse in publishing. With more than 9,000 English and foreign language professors gathered for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, publishers had a key audience of serious readers (not to mention syllabus writers) to influence.

The exhibit hall is a chance for publishers to sell books already getting buzz and to generate buzz for those works just coming out. Here's a look at what was hot this year:

God is back -- or more accurately, according to some authors of books generating discussion, God never left. At Harvard University Press, the book generating the most discussion and sales by far is A Secular Age, in which Charles Taylor, a professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University offers a believer's analysis and critique of secularization (real and imagined) in recent centuries. Harvard officials see the book as in some ways another take to other new books by major thinkers recently analyzing the place of God in society -- among them Mark C. Taylor's After God (University of Chicago Press) and Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God (Knopf).


Of course, in this era when more people quote Heidi Klum than Hans Küng, material culture remained quite visible in the exhibit hall. Rutgers University Press is especially excited about Trappings: Stories of Women, Power, and Clothing, by Tiffany Ludwig and Renee Piechocki. The book is based on the authors' interviews with more than 500 women and girls (ages 4-92), and features scores of photographs.

Several presses said that they had lists that either represented a shift away from criticism and theory, or books that represented approaches that sought to provide more than just theory. For example, Chicago publicists say that one of the books they are excited about for spring release is Children's Literature: A Reader's History From Aesop to Harry Potter, by Seth Lerer, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University. Not only is the book comprehensive in its scope and analysis, they say, but much of the analysis is from the (child) reader's perspective and from the parental perspective.

At Indiana University Press, there has been a conscious shift to publish less criticism and more primary texts of translated primary texts that may not be otherwise available, said Jane Behnken, music and humanities editor. The press has strong lists in the postcolonial social sciences and sees this as a logical expansion of those efforts, she said.

One of the new works that reflect this shift is Girls for Sale, an 1892 play by Gurajada Apparao, translated from Telugu, that may be the first drama written in an Indian language that critiques British colonialism. The translation is by Velcheru Narayana Rao, a professor of the languages and cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Another of the works is Murambi: The Book of Bones,by the Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop, and translated by Fiona McLaughlin, associate professor of African languages and linguistics at the University of Florida. Behnken said both books feature critical introductions designed for classroom use as more professors look to expand their exploration of non-Western fiction.

Katie Courtland of Duke University Press said she was seeing a lot of interest in "affect" -- issues related to feeling, emotion, sentiment -- which she viewed as reflecting a sense that theory hadn't sufficiently addressed those topics. Among the Duke titles this year reflecting this interest: The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, by Patricia Ticineto Clough, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Queens College, with Jean Halley, assistant professor of English at Wagner College and Ordinary Affects, by Kathleen Stewart, director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


A Harvard University Press book this year that also fits in the affect boom is Ugly Feelings, by Sianne Ngai, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles.

At Ohio State University, the excitement was over decades-old writing in a book literally just off the presses: Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, a facsimile and annotated version that captures a key moment in Burroughs' literary life.

Fireworks, meanwhile, can be expected this spring when Columbia University Press releases Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, by Houston A. Baker Jr., distinguished university professor at Vanderbilt University. Some of those Baker critiques are predictable targets: black intellectuals who have embraced neoconservatism or who oppose affirmative action. More surprising may be his not-always-gentle analysis of scholars who may well think of themselves as people who don't belong in this book. One chapter title: "Have Mask, Will Travel: Centrists From the Ivy League."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top