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International Conference on Literature and Reception Studies: Approaches, Models, Practices Held


On 23 and 24 October 2021, the School of Foreign Studies of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics played host to an international conference, delivered via Zoom, on “Literature and Reception Studies: Approaches, Models, Practices.” The conference was co-hosted by the School’s Literature Team and the Centre for the Study of Text and Print Culture and chaired by Sandro Jung, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Director of the Centre for the Study of Text and Print Culture, and Head of the Literature Team. It was opened by SUFE Vice-President, Yao Lingzhen, and the opening was presided over by Zhao Ke, Associate Dean of the School of Foreign Studies.

This virtual conference was conceived as an intercultural venture that sought to bring together Chinese and Western scholars to facilitate dialogue regarding the pervasiveness of reception studies in the modern discipline of literary studies. It set out to compare and discuss in which ways practices in China and abroad can inform one another as well as benefit from cross-cultural exchange. Despite the centrality to the field of the international specialist association, the Reception Studies Society, and its peer-reviewed journal, Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History, there is still much need for considering the ever newly evolving modes of reception and mediation; at the same time, past practices of meaning-making central to reception that have not largely been integrated in literary-historical narratives of how literary and authorial reputations are constructed need to be recovered.  

An opening address on Terry Eagleton’s criticism by Yin Qiping (Hangzhou Normal University) highlighted the role of literary criticism in the history of reception. The speaker reflected on how a Chinese perspective on the subjects of “taste” and “value” can expand the ways in which Eagleton’s critical work has traditionally been contextualised. Eleven keynotes by distinguished Chinese and Western speakers addressed issues that covered the full breadth of the subject – ranging from the relationships particular works entertain with one another as one is reworked, transformed, adapted, and potentially revalued by another (Peng Qinglong, Shanghai Jiao Tong University) to how the price of books conditioned and regulated distribution among different economically defined reading groups (Annika Bautz, University of Plymouth). Keynotes addressed the materiality of texts in relation to specific consumption practices, considering visual culture as an important interpretive lens through which textual knowledge was filtered but also as only one component in epitextual media. The materiality and spatial position (in the home or in public spaces) of the medium invokes particular cultural practices that have an effect on the ways in which reader-viewers make sense of the literary medium (Abigail Williams, Oxford University / Sandro Jung, SUFE).

Systems of reception were explored at the micro-level of intertextuality and hypotextuality, but speakers also probed how different cultural agents and contexts appropriated the genres and ideas of particular authors (Hao Tianhu, Zhejiang University / Arleen Ionescu, Shanghai Jiao Tong University). Current models of the history of reading were, in the course of the conference, increasingly found to be lacking, for they fail to comprehend the complex webs of reception (Tom Mole, Durham University). Dominant models of reading and literary history were shown to relegate to the margins particular “smaller” and more heterogeneously conceived textual systems such as Caribbean literature, the study of whose reception in China has recently triggered a new scholarly engagement with addressing not only its historiography but also its significance as part of world literature (Zhou Min). The turn to marginalised literatures (such as those produced in Caribbean or Native American contexts), especially via approaches related to postcolonial and ethnopoetic frameworks (Chen Liang, Fudan University), is part of a larger revisionist project that seeks to emphasise the relationality of texts as part of a vast textual and mnemonic network of sources. And this relationality and textual rootedness in literary and metatextual traditions, contextualised by the print (and, more largely, media) economy of different periods, was also central to how Alexander Pope was shown to have reworked Homer (Henry Power, University of Exeter) and how Robert Burns has been ideologically rewritten numerous times. Gerard Carruthers (University of Glasgow) pointed out, however, that the extensive adaptation of Burns often resulted not only in re-readings of his work but frequently in misreadings as well.  

Using the Zoom platform for this conference made possible the gathering of a scholarly intercultural community of the highest intellectual calibre that would, as a result of the pandemic, not otherwise have been able to meet. The detailed keynote addresses stimulated extensive discussions, and some of the questions raised in the keynote Q&As were further developed in the parallel panel debates. The 33 papers that were delivered as part of the parallel panels demonstrated the full range of approaches to reception studies – ranging from the methods of the Constance school to the more recent uses of book and media history, as well as hitherto largely neglected print genres (such as the chapbook) or publishing-related materials (such as cover design) to understand how readers consumed a text but also in what mediated form they encountered it. The same phenomena were examined using different terminological and conceptual traditions and tools, and this led to fruitful exchanges regarding the need for further concepts to encompass the mobility of works and to construct a more nuanced map of reading, according to readers’ varying degrees of literacy. Characterised by open and constructive discussion, the proceedings of the conference were able to draw on the extensive expertise of a virtual research community that comprised both senior scholars at the peak of their careers and those at the very beginning of theirs. Sharing knowledge and feedback generously defined this scholarly gathering, and the productive exchanges between speakers and audience will have a lasting effect on the over 200 registered participants of the meeting. In terms of the role of reception studies in the wider discipline of literary studies in China, “Literature and Reception Studies: Approaches, Models, Practices” marks a milestone, since it has showcased not only the vibrancy and pluralism of the subject but also identified particular needs in terms of methodologies and approaches that will make reception studies a truly intercultural endeavour central to the way in which literature is understood.   

Written by : Sandro Jung