In this week's edition, we speak with Lucas C. Hollister, Assistant Professor of French and Italian Languages and Literatures. In his most recent book 'Beyond Return Genre and Cultural Politics in Contemporary French Fiction', he proposes new perspectives on the cultural politics of fictions. Examining adventure novels, radical noir, postmodernist mysteries, war novels, and dystopian fictions, Hollister shows how authors like Jean Echenoz, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean Rouaud, and Antoine Volodine develop radically dissimilar notions of the aesthetics of 'return', and thus redraw in different manners the boundaries of the contemporary, the French, and the literary.
What is your book about?
How popular fictional forms are politicized in France, and about how these cultural forms are used to define the “contemporary.”
Where did you get your idea(s) for this book?
While I was reading literary histories and criticism, I was struck by how many of the dominant accounts of the present or “contemporary” relied on a narrative about a “return to the story” after the decline of the postwar avant-gardes in France. As an avid reader of genre fiction (of both the low and high varieties) and of French modernist literature, I found the topic fascinating. I was also skeptical of what I saw as the anti-modernist and anti-intellectual undercurrents of this argument. I started to study this topic, in short, because I wanted to orient myself in the cultural field and I wanted to think about how literature was politicized today. Eventually, this led me to take a deeper dive into the novels of a few authors—notably Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean Echenoz, and Antoine Volodine— whom I felt represented particularly ingenious ways of working with crime fiction, mystery, war fiction, and dystopian fiction.
What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?
I read as much as I can. Working with contemporary authors and texts means that I don’t get to do a lot of the fun archival digging that scholars from earlier periods do, but I take occasional research trips to libraries and archives in France. The spaces my work cannot do without are the spaces I find to read, the space of the classroom where I work out ideas with students, and the space of French literary culture.
What do you think the library of the future will look like?
An indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical in fact to all. A spiral staircase winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully reduplicates appearances. Light is provided by certain spherical fruits that bear the name “bulbs.” There are two of these bulbs in each hexagon, set crosswise. The light they give is insufficient, and unceasing. Pessimistically, one might also imagine it as a screen whose real function is to read us.
What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?
To read and write a lot. To work hard to improve how you read and write. To seek out your blind spots and deficiencies. To cultivate a network of people who can read your work critically. To be generous with yourself, trust your own intellect and follow your interests wherever they lead you.
And finally, what do you read for fun?
I have the defect of thinking that almost everything I study and teach is fun. That said, I would love to read more Sebald, to read the pockets of Borges I haven’t yet read, and to reread Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Woolf. I have a book project right now called Bad Natures, for which I am currently reading a lot of climate fiction and eco-horror. Recently I enjoyed reading Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds.