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date: 20 February 2018

Factory Girl Literature

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Factory girl literature is a unique and essential component of the cultures of industrialization. First emerging in 19th century Euro-American industrial literature, from the early 20th century the form has been dominated by authors writing from Asia. Throughout the 20th century, the significant role that factory girl literature played as a critique of rapid industrialization was reinforced by the authority of realist literary fiction in high culture. But factory girl literature contains within itself multiple tensions, one of which is the distinction between literature authored by factory girls themselves and fiction written by “tourists” to the working class, famous examples of whom are Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. Part of the power of early “tourist” factory girl literature was its capacity to represent the mute, illiterate subject of the young working woman in ways that reinforced the authority of literature and its constituent hierarchies of education and cultural authority. By contrast, factory girl authors, such as Korea’s Shin Kyung-sook, express an ambivalent relationship to literature and detail their painful relationship to structures of education and learning, the “map of prestige” as Elene Ferrante puts it. Factory girl literature thus highlights a crucial tension within realist literary fiction as it uncovers the strains between high culture and the degraded subject.