'Thought is the thought of thought': Literary Successors and Extras (Panel)

Global Anglophone / Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing

Zoe Perot (Tufts University)

According to T.S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” and while “bad poets deface what they take,” conversely “good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Meanwhile, James Joyce posits that “thought is the thought of thought,” suggesting that all literature is a response to previous literature, which in turn is a response to yet a different text. This is the case throughout history, as Joyce adapts Ulysses, as Fielding and Flaubert adapt Cervantes, Tournier and Coetzee adapt Defoe, Rhys adapts Brontë.

In keeping with the MLA 2024 theme of “Surplus,” this panel invites participants to consider the excesses of narrative, the retellings of certain stories, and the surpluses gained from layering and refocusing narratives. Often, such adaptations bring together the past and the present, modernizing and yet retaining themes, characters, or style. In doing so, sometimes these adaptations explore these stories from new perspectives, whether in the style of the Minor Character Elaboration Novel—a popular form instigated by Jean Rhys—or by positioning minorities at the heart of these rewrites, as Zadie Smith does in On Beauty.

Questions to consider include:

· What is gained or lost in the retelling of stories?

· What kinds of narratives lend themselves to such adaptation?

· In what ways does this “stealing” or “thought of thought” fit into a modernist understanding of literature as largely citational? What escapes such classification?

· What do these retellings offer “the canon”? How might they contribute to a simultaneous diversification and revaluation of “the canon”?

· What is the relationship between these texts and “fan fiction”?

· How might literary rewrites enable us a different understanding of literary history?

This panel interrogates the modernist tendency to borrow from other texts, to 'steal' from them, in T.S. Eliot's words: how do literary adaptations, homages, and minor character elaborations help us understand how we interact with the literary 'canon'? What does it mean to revisit older stories, to make them more inclusive, diverse, and modern?