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On Length: The Long and the Short of It

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Organizer: Lindsay Thomas

Co-Organizer: Shannon Brennan

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This seminar examines how questions of length matter to literary studies. Considerations like word count or reading time influence many practices in the circulation of texts, from publishability to marketability to teachability to one’s ability to finish the book they’ve started. The amount of time it takes to read affects how a story makes us feel. The amount of time it takes to write influences who writes poetry and who writes prose. The length of a work influences how critics evaluate it: longer works are “ambitious,” “complex,” “serious;” shorter works are “elegant,” “light,” “sophisticated.” Length seems to matter in relation to who is published, who wins what awards, who continues to be read. Length is a labor question, a social question, a genre question, a gender question, and, of course, a running phallogocentric joke. Yet length per se remains an under-explored feature of literary studies.

The papers in our seminar investigate these questions using a diverse selection of texts, from different historical periods. The materials discussed in this panel range from medieval manuscripts to large corpora of textual data; from Victorian lists of aphorisms to popular Japanese modes of seriality. This array of work is united by a shared concern with the way that literary form, as defined by the question of duration, influences method. Thus, the seminar features quantitative methods, formalist readings, and new historicist analyses, in the interest of understanding how length influences our modes of reading, preserving, and studying literature in particular times and places. The result is an exploration of what it means to place this seemingly mundane aspect of literature at the forefront of our disciplinary practices.

TLDR: How does thinking about length cause us to think about literature differently?

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