Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2018

Comparative Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Ben Hutchinson

I can’t think of a better way to explain the complexities of the term ‘comparative literature’ than to quote the blurb for this book:

Comparative Literature is both the past and the future of literary studies. Its history is intimately linked to the political upheavals of modernity: from colonial empire-building in the nineteenth century to the postcolonial culture wars of the twenty-first century, attempts at “comparison” have defined the international agenda of literature. But what is comparative literature? Ambitious readers looking to stretch themselves are usually intrigued by the concept, but uncertain of its implications. And rightly so, in many ways: even the professionals cannot agree on a single term, calling it comparative in English, compared in French, and comparing in German. The very term itself, when approached comparatively, opens up a Pandora’s box of cultural differences.

Yet this, in a nutshell, is the whole point of comparative literature. To look at literature comparatively is to realize just how much can be learned by looking over the horizon of one’s own culture. In an age that is paradoxically defined by migration and border crossing on the one hand, and by a retreat into monolingualism and monoculturalism on the other, the cross-cultural agenda of comparative literature has become increasingly central to the future of the Humanities. We are all, in fact, comparatists, constantly making connections across languages, cultures, and genres as we read. The question is whether we realize it.

Well, you know if you read this blog regularly that I believe that I cannot make valid judgements about the quality of Australian literature unless I look over the horizon of my own culture.  That’s why I feature reviews of books from all over the world, including (thanks to the influence of Stu at Winston’s Dad) books in translation.  But until I read this VSI, just published this year in 2018, my beliefs about why this was important were only instinctive.  Now I know that there is more to it than that.

This VSI is divided into five sections:

  1. Metaphors of reading;
  2. Practices and principles;
  3. History and heroes;
  4. Disciplines and debates; and
  5. The futures of comparative literature.

(There are references and further reading too.)

I really like what Hutchinson says in his introductory chapter:

…literature exists, after all, comparatively.  From the dramas of Antiquity to the novels of Modernity, from Eastern epics to Western classics, there is not a text in history that is truly self-sufficient. To read and to write is to work within an existing framework of characters, conventions, plots, and premises; how we understand one work of literature is contingent on how we understand another work of literature.  The more we know, the more we contextualise; the more we learn, the more we compare.  Knowledge itself is comparative.  Beyond how we read, beyond how we write, comparison is hard-wired into the very ways we think. (p.2)

I used to see this emerging at its best with the Preps. I’d begin by reading them Aesop’s fables, then Australian animal fables.  We did author studies, comparing one book after another by the same author and often the same illustrator too.  Their little faces would light up with excitement as they joined the dots. But I would also see it with the Year Sixes when they compared the crappy Hollywood version of Beowulf with the Michael Morpurgo version that I read to them.  At times like that I couldn’t get over the fact that I was being paid to have these intensely satisfying experiences!

The moment the dots begin to cohere into a pattern is the moment at which literature becomes truly comparative, and it is among the most exhilarating of intellectual experiences.  To follow the evolution of the novel from Cervantes to Calvino, to study the evolution of the sonnet from Petrarch to Pushkin, is to navigate by new and larger constellations, drawn on by the delight of making cross-cultural connections.  Anyone naturally inquisitive, whether with or without foreign language skills, can share this satisfaction. Curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual ambition: these are the only prerequisites for making comparisons.  (p.3)

Chapter 2 delves into how we might compare literature:

  • motifs and myths: comparing how authors treat a similar topic; or comparing methods and perspectives such as feminism, post-colonialism, Marxism etc.;
  • periods vs. regions: comparing historically/longitudinally across time; or geographically/latitudinally across cultures;
  • close vs. distant reading: focussing on syntax, sentence structure, semantic ambiguity and imagery; or, a digital data-driven approach to literature (which sounds to me absolutely guaranteed to spoil enjoyment of an author’s work, and which the author acknowledges is problematic: a transition from one model of what reading is for, to another.)
  • canon vs. counter-canon (and we all know how politics has played into this one!)

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the canon as it is currently discussed within comparative literature, then, is its sheer inflation.  David Damrosch’s terms for what he identifies as the three forms of the canon – ‘hypercanon’ (the major authors), ‘countercanon’ (the previously marginalised, subaltern authors), and ‘shadow canon (the minor authors now pushed to the margins) – suggest the extent to which canonical theorisation has proliferated in comparative literary studies.  (p.35)

(I saw this at work on Twitter the other day when, in a misguided effort to assert the value of literature emerging from China as it opens up to the world, a silly young Chinese author dismissed Dickens as ‘sentimental, clumsy and lacks poetry’.  Wanting to be inclusive does not IMO justify ignorant remarks about great authors of the past.)

Other ways of comparing literature include

  • genres vs. styles: drama, lyric and epic as precursors to plays, poems and novels, subdividing into comedy and tragedy; or aesthetic stylistic conventions such as Romantic lyric and the realist novel, or other ways of writing like rhetoric or the use of free indirect speech;
  • writers vs. readers: as a discipline comparative literature is the preserve of critics; as a practice , it is equally the privilege of authors. 

It appears that my idiosyncratic tastes in reading resolve themselves into comparisons between motifs and myths, periods vs regions and canon vs. counter-canon!

I’ll scamper over Chapter 3 since this review is getting a bit long… suffice to say that the history of comparative literature slots into three categories:

  • how European literatures have been compared inside Europe; (and this is what this rather more academic chapter mostly concentrates on, though the Europeans were not as insular as you might expect;)
  • how European literatures have been compared outside Europe; and
  • how literatures outside Europe – Egyptian, Persian, Arabic, Chinese – have been compared among themselves.

Chapter 4: this chapter focusses on the contemporary disciplines which host comparative literature: today it lurks in neighbouring disciplines:

literary theory, cultural studies, post colonialism, world literature, translation studies, and reception studies (which is apparently where classical studies is struggling to survive.  I think I was very lucky to be able to study it at Melbourne when it was still a prestigious subject, and you had to be seriously scholarly to pass it).

What is the future of comparative literature?  Well, it looks a bit shaky in Anglophone schools and universities – but its future seems assured when I look around the blogosphere!

Author: Ben Hutchinson
Title: Comparative Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series, 2018
ISBN: 9780198807278
Review copy courtesy of OUP

Available from Fishpond:Comparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    This sounds really thoughtful and interesting!


  2. Studying English and Comp. Lit. was the best three years of my life at a time when there was a plethora of crises and difficulties. Forever grateful to all the tutors who opened the doors to other understandings and immense pleasures. This is looking like another must read. Thanks Lisa.


    • Yes, I was very lucky to have terrific lecturers and tutors in everything I did at uni…
      or maybe not… maybe most of them were/are terrific and the complaints about them being irrelevant, stuck in ivory towers etc comes from people who don’t really want to learn…
      Because I also think that my time at Melbourne University was a great time in my life:)


  3. I had to put this post away until I had time to think about it. So, ‘Ivory towers’ is the complaint of lawyer politicians against academics studying the way we think and communicate. I know who I think creates the most value. And, I’m glad criticism of the old white man’s canon has moved on from no canon to one that genuinely considers all literature.


    • Yes, I think so too. And I think 1001 Books, which was designed with ordinary readers in mind, with each ensuing edition, has come closer to an ideal of sampling the best in novels from many eras and cultures. Of course it gets criticised, not enough this, not enough that, but what it shows is that the diversity of choices is so great now, that it does take a lifetime to read 1001 books and we should all lighten up and just do the best we can to read widely.


  4. I’ve never looked up what that even meant, even though I know someone who is a professor in it, so thank you for the definition. I think I prefer the intuitive inclination, to needing to understand this too rigorously, the freedom to discover it through a natural interest.


    • Claire, that’s how I feel about literature these days too. I loved studying it in an academic way at university and I thank my professors for giving me a grounding that has stood me in good stead. But these days, I like to meander from here to there and make what sense of things I can in my own way:)


  5. […] Comparative Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Ben Hutchinson #BookReview […]


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