Literature in Singapore is written in the country’s four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. The various literatures flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of print culture in the British colony, but after independence in 1965, English became emphasized in both the education system and society at large as part of the new government’s attempts to modernize the country. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil were seen as mother tongue languages to provide Singaporeans with cultural ballast while English was regarded as a language for administration, business, and scientific and technological development. Correspondingly, literatures in other languages than English reached a plateau in terms of writerly output and readership during the 1970s and 1980s. However, since 1999, with the state’s implementation of the Renaissance City Plan to revitalize arts and culture in Singapore, there have been various initiatives to increase the visibility of contemporary Singaporean writing both within the country itself and on an international scale. Translation plays a key role in bridging the linguistic and literary divides wrought by the state’s mother tongue policies, with several works by Cultural Medallion winners in different languages translated into English, which remains at present the shared language in Singapore. Literary anthologies are also invaluable forms through which the concepts of a national literature and national identity are expressed and negotiated. A number of anthologies involving Singaporean authors and those from other countries also highlight the growing international presence of and interest in Singaporean literature. Several anthologies also focus on the topic of urban space, city life, and the rapid transformation of Singapore’s physical environment. Writings about gender and sexuality have also become more prominent in single-author collections or edited anthologies, with writers exploring various inventive and experimental narrative forms. A number of poets and writers are also established playwrights, and theater has historically been and continues to be an extremely vital form of creative expression and cultural production. Graphic novels, crime and noir fiction, and speculative and science fiction publications are also on the rise, with the awarding of the Singapore Literature Prize to Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye signaling that these genres merit serious literary consideration. A number of literary publications and materials related to Singaporean literature can be found on the Internet, such as the journal Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the website Singapore Poetry, and the database Poetry.sg. Various nonprofit organizations are also working toward increasing public awareness about literature through events such as Singapore Poetry Writing Month, the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the Singapore Writers Festival and National Poetry Festival, and also through projects that exhibit poetry in train stations and on public thoroughfares.
Literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be limited to works on the atomic bomb or fiction referring specifically to these locations. Rather, in the nuclear age, it must include a variety of literary works that are conscious of the destiny of the earth, given the danger of nuclear pollution, and engage with the terrible fantasy of the end of the world. As John W. Treat states in his influential critical work, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, “The concept of hibakusha now has to extend to everyone alive today in any region of the planet” (x–xi).
The range of nuclear-themed works that symbolically invoke Hiroshima or Nagasaki is enormous. Nuclear literature as a creation of survivors, or spiritual survivors, focuses on an awareness of the planetary catastrophe concerning Los Alamos, Trinity Site, the ground zeroes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other global nuclear zones. The two nuclear sites in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the United States (Los Alamos and Trinity Site) are historically connected. The authors and protagonists of nuclear literature have literal and affective transpacific and cross-cultural experiences that when considered together seek to overcome the tragic experience of the first nuclear bomb and bombing, including the Japanese acceptance of American nuclear fictions during the Cold War.
The reception of American literature in Japan was radically altered after the Second World War. Before the war, only a handful of works on American literature were published, and the status of American literature was secondary to that of British literature. Unlike in Germany, whose occupation at the end of the war was divided among the Allies, the military occupation of Japan was conducted unilaterally by the United States. Under the U.S. occupation, American literature was introduced as part of a cultural policy aimed at the reorientation and re-education of Japanese society under the umbrella concept of demilitarization and democratization of postwar Japan. Such cultural politics was the product of a 1930s U.S. State Department program carried out at first in South American countries and then through the Office of War Information in war-torn European countries.
American literature was introduced through the program of the Culture, Information and Education (CIE) section of General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ/SCAP). In accordance with the transformation of the U.S. literary canon as the cultural Cold War regime developed, the book selections of the CIE changed from reflecting the multicultural, New Deal ideal (including books under the Federal Writers Project) to incorporating the modernist canon. American books were distributed to CIE libraries established in major cities in Japan, and in 1948, the CIE launched a new program to promote translations into Japanese. Beside the official distribution, there was also a trade in American books—including Armed Services Editions, which were not meant for sale—on the Japanese used book market. What was really pivotal for instituting American literary studies and its modernist canon were the summer seminars sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and held at the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. The Rockefeller report submitted to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1951 was also instrumental in providing a blueprint for the continued cultural program after the peace treaty of 1951 and the end of military occupation the following year.
The introduction of American literature and its newly reformed canon tuned for modernism occurred within the continuum of the political, the military, and the economic. As such, the cultural program was enmeshed with refashioning Japanese subjectivity, and in this sense, American literature and American studies were part of a general cultural politics that was intertwined with the ways of government.
The Beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), William Burroughs (1914–1997), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and Gary Snyder (1930–), have been well known in Japan. Though Snyder’s differences from the other three, such as his West Coast background and a reformist and edifying stance, are obvious, here we choose not to be fussy about the application of a name, and simply follow his inclusion as in Ann Charter’s The Penguin Book of the Beats (1992). The Beat writers have been eagerly translated and read in Japan, though they are not a common focus of academic literary study. They exerted influence on writers and artists, in particular in terms of a rebellious attitude toward the conformist society and formalized artistic conventions prevailing in Japan. One conspicuous aspect of their impact is that it is part of the influx of American popular, mainly youth, culture since the 1950s, involving jazz, folk, and rock music, as well as numerous films depicting antiheroes on the road. Some Japanese poets, most notably Shiraishi Kazuko (1931–) and Yoshimasu Gōzō (1939–) were directly inspired by the Beats, and others unwittingly formed parallel developments. Assessing their specific achievements requires considering the historical context of modern Japanese poetry. The Beats, in turn, were attracted by Eastern cultures and religions, especially Buddhism; Snyder through his stay in Japan for the practice and study of Zen Buddhism had direct contact with Japanese poets, academics, and activists. Generally speaking, Japanese today, though they usually have some inkling of what Zen is, are not necessarily aware of the Buddhist heritage informing their basic worldview. Still, literary manifestations of what Alan Watts termed “Beat Zen,” in particular Kerouac’s, are not dissimilar to the religious attitude of many Japanese toward the world, which tends to seek to intuit a sense of enlightenment or salvation here and now, beyond humanly delimited distinctions and preconceptions.
The problem of capital and the question of its appropriate or desired relationship with political life and civil society shapes how readers, authors, and citizens understand and experience everyday contemporary life and its cultural products. Capital, in its post-1945 incarnation, is widely held to have been either in a state of crisis or responding to crisis (both historical and contemporaneously). Depending on the critic, these crises and their impacts are varied: the collapse of the 19th-century European balance of power, the rise of Keynesian economics, the birth of biopolitics, the Cold War and the specter of Communism, the repeating “systemic cycles of accumulation” endemic to the history of capitalism. This variant of capitalism that shapes contemporary life goes by many names, though the general consensus tends to call it “neoliberalism.” Despite its varying names, neoliberalism is generally held to be an economic doctrine that understands human freedom to be best achieved through free markets and entrepreneurial enterprise, privileging the individual above all else. Government should, therefore, be minimal; its role is to enforce the rules of the game but not to interfere in it. Neoliberalism is thus both revolutionary in its insistence on rethinking social life as solely economic life and an extension of long-standing values and arrangements of economic life that date back centuries.
Contemporary fiction takes part in debates about the hyper-individualized neoliberal subject and neoliberal values in a multitude of ways and at a variety of scales. The predominant way is in its interrogation of neoliberal identity politics—either to reinforce or critique, or something in-between, the possibilities for subject formation under neoliberalism. At another remove from the individual text has been the challenge to long-standing genre conventions, particularly in the novel. If modern novelistic genres rose alongside earlier modes of capitalist accumulation, contemporary authors are reimagining them to reflect changing rationalities. Finally, at the meta-textual level, there has been a variety of critical attention given to publishing, its infrastructures, and the role of the artist for both the appearance and success of texts. Across all these approaches—both imaginative and critical—is a commitment to an ongoing examination of the ways neoliberalism in all its varied impacts inflects “how we live now.”
Realism has a bad reputation in contemporary times. Generally thought to be an outdated mode that had its heyday in Victorian fiction, the French bourgeois novel, and pre-revolutionary Russian literature, literary histories tend to locate realism’s timely end in the ferment of interwar modernism and the rise of the avant-garde. Outside of the West, realism might be said to have met an even worse fate, as it was a mode explicitly presented to colonized societies as a vehicle of modernity, in opposition to what were deemed the poetic excesses, irrational temporalities, and/or oral-storytelling influences of indigenous literature. Yet despite this sense of realism’s outdatedness and political conservatism, the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century has witnessed, across a wide range of literature and cultural production, what might be seen as a return to realism, not simply as a resistance to today’s new culture of heterogeneity and digitization but as a new way of imagining literary and political futures in a world increasingly lacking the clear-cut lines along which politics, history, and capitalism can be imagined. The arc of 21st-century realism can be seen through contemporary debates around the term, suggesting that considering 21st-century realism not as a residual mode or grouping of texts but as a particular perspective on literary futures—as the coming together, for instance, of unresolved and newer conflicts over relations of power and the politics of knowledge—offers a different story of global form making.
Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon
“Value” is a concept structured by confusing relations between its social-ethical and its economic meanings (“I agree with your values”; “the sweater is a great value at that price”). The two meanings cannot be kept separate, but the negotiation of their relation has vexed theories of artistic and literary value since at least the rise of the discourse of aesthetics in the 18th century. Early attempts to separate aesthetic value from its economic counterpart involved analogies between what were understood to be different cognitive faculties (reason and emotion, say), and relations among competing claims to political standing (between the bourgeoisie and the sovereign, most of all). Liberal American conversations about literary and economic value after World War II worried over part-whole relations in terms of debates about the value of individual literary works in what seemed to be an ever-expanding multicultural canon. Postwar literary theories of economic and aesthetic value in a more Marxist vein turned to various narratives of the “subsumption” of social life by economic values: sometimes imagining that subsumption as a fatal error on the part of capitalism, since sociability is too unruly finally to organize according to economic principles, or as a terrible victory for a capitalism that had now transformed into something qualitatively different and more sinister, like a “bio-power.” But even these Marxist literary theories tended to ignore contemporary work in history, historical sociology, and critical theory that identified changes in the relation between what had once seemed to be at least notionally separate aesthetic and economic “spheres” not with subsumption per se, but with a crisis in capital’s ways of producing profitable surplus value, and exchangeable use values. Seen from the vantage of this scholarship, it becomes clear that not only do most discourses on the specific value of the aesthetic tend to lean too heavily on spatialized domain models of art and economics (which conceive of them as occupying, in reality or potential, different regions), but also this persistently demanded separation of art and economics rests in turn on a false distinction between politics and economics. Rethinking the specificity of art and literature without thinking of it as a separate sphere, or as necessarily resistant to capital, is a research project for the coming decades.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thomas Ærvold Bjerre
Southern Gothic is a mode or genre prevalent in literature from the early 19th century to this day. Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation. While related to both the English and American Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic is uniquely rooted in the South’s tensions and aberrations. During the 20th century, Charles Crow has noted, the South became “the principal region of American Gothic” in literature. The Southern Gothic brings to light the extent to which the idyllic vision of the pastoral, agrarian South rests on massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Southern Gothic texts also mark a Freudian return of the repressed: the region’s historical realities take concrete forms in the shape of ghosts that highlight all that has been unsaid in the official version of southern history. Because of its dark and controversial subject matter, literary scholars and critics initially sought to discredit the gothic on a national level. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) became the first Southern Gothic writer to fully explore the genre’s potential. Many of his best-known poems and short stories, while not placed in a recognizable southern setting, display all the elements that would come to characterize Southern Gothic.
While Poe is a foundational figure in Southern Gothic, William Faulkner (1897–1962) arguably looms the largest. His fictional Yoknapatawpha County was home to the bitter Civil War defeat and the following social, racial, and economic ruptures in the lives of its people. These transformations, and the resulting anxieties felt by Chickasaw Indians, poor whites and blacks, and aristocratic families alike, mark Faulkner’s work as deeply Gothic. On top of this, Faulkner’s complex, modernist, labyrinthine language creates in readers a similarly Gothic sense of uncertainty and alienation. The generation of southern writers after Faulkner continued the exploration of the clashes between Old and New South. Writers like Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), Carson McCullers (1917–1967), and Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) drew on Gothic elements. O’Connor’s work is particularly steeped in the grotesque, a subgenre of the Gothic. African American writers like Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Richard Wright have had their own unique perspective on the Southern Gothic and the repressed racial tensions at the heart of the genre. Southern Gothic also frames the bleak and jarringly violent stories by contemporary so-called Rough South writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Dorothy Allison, William Gay, and Ron Rash. A sense of evil lurks in their stories and novels, sometimes taking on the shape of ghosts or living dead, ghouls who haunt the New Casino South and serve as symbolic reminders of the many unresolved issues still burdening the South to this day.
DeNel Rehberg Sedo
The digital era offers a plethora of opportunities for readers to exchange opinions, share reading recommendations, and form ties with other readers. This communication often takes place in online environments, which presents reading researchers with new opportunities and challenges when investigating readers’ reading experiences.
What readers do with what they read is not a new topic of scholarly debate. As early as the 14th century, when scribes questioned how their readers understood their words, readers have been scrutinized. Contemporary reading investigations and theory formation began in earnest in the 1920s with I. A. Richards’s argument that the reader should be considered separate from the text. In the 1930s, Louise Rosenblatt furthered the discipline, using literature as an occasion for collective inquiry into both cultural and individual values and introducing the concerns for the phenomenological experience of reading and its intersubjectivity. While there is no universal theory of how readers read, more recent scholarly discourse illustrates a cluster of related views that see the reader and the text as complementary to one another in a variety of critical contexts.
With the advent of social media and Web 2.0, readers provide researchers with a host of opportunities to not only identify who they are, but to access in profound ways their individual and collective responses to the books they read. Reader responses on the Internet’s early email forums, or the contemporary iterations of browser-hosted groups such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, alongside book talk found on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, present data that can be analyzed through established or newly developed digital methods. Reviews and commentary on these platforms, in addition to the thousands of book blogs, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, and readers’ reviews on bookseller websites illustrate cultural, economic, and social aspects of reading in ways that previously were often elusive to reading researchers.
Contemporary reading scholars bring to the analytical mix perspectives that enrich last century’s theories of unidentified readers. The methods illustrate the fertility available to contemporary investigations of readers and their books. Considered together, they allow scholars to contemplate the complexities of reading in the past, highlight the uniqueness of reading in the present, and provide material to help project into the future.