The Detective, the Artist, and the Professor: Genre and Other Critical Mysteries

deadline for submissions: 
October 19, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Mollie Copley Eisenberg / University of Southern California
contact email: 

This is a call for papers for a panel to run at NeMLA 2021, which will be conducted virtually March 11-14, 2021. Submit an abstract by October 19, 2020 [deadline extended] here:

This panel seeks to convene a conversation that theorizes the relationship between the detective novel, the art novel as it has been understood since modernism, and professional literary study—and in doing so move the critical study of detective fiction beyond the impulse to validate the genre as an object of study or redeem it from the stigma of genre.

Detective fiction arises nearly chronologically coextensively with both high modernism and with professional literary study. As Mark McGurl argues in The Novel Art, the genre served in the modernist moment as a "privileged site" for a "crisis of indistinction" generated by new reading publics, printing technologies, and literary forms. The emergent category of the art novel was also significantly shaped by a new academic-professional generation of literary critics and in dialogue with the methods and institutional incentives of the university as it took contemporary shape.

One result is that detection often plays the role of literary antithesis—a role given to it by the critics staking out a claim for literary study as a profession and as a gatekeeping institution and often perpetuated by scholarly consensus since. Despite critical and creative engagement from major modernists like Stein, Eliot, and Pound, criticism from the modernist moment to the contemporary one understand the genre as fundamentally opposed to the modernist aesthetic project: backward-looking as opposed to forward-looking, nostalgic instead of visionary, and reparative rather than deconstructive. Edmund Wilson's famous genre takedown, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" is a kind of mirror image of Axel's Castle, his elevation of the canonical modernists. Dennis Porter articulates in The Pursuit of Crime: The Art and Ideology of Detective Fiction the post-New Critical consensus, which still very much holds sway: detective fiction “functions as a literature of reassurance and conformism”; its “fundamental conservatism” is expressed in its form in addition to its ideology: it is, according to Porter and a great many critics who succeed him, both formally and ideologically “a genre committed to an act of recovery, moving forward to move back.” (It is also, Wilson adds, "sub-literary" in its style.) Yet it remains inescapably true that detection shares formal, historical, and coterie characteristics with its canonical counterpart, and equally true that detection has in many senses outlived it—and that a recent boom in detective scholarship is reorienting detection's role in the literary landscape.

What, then, can we learn from the study of detective fiction and its relationships with historical and contemporary cultural and academic-professional constructions of literary legitimacy, with the novels that anchor that category, or with the institutional and methodological specificities of professional academic literary criticism?


Papers might, for example, consider:

  • the aesthetic, epistemic, socioeconomic, and institutional legacies of modernism
  • formal and material distinctions between the art novel and entertainment fiction
  • the theoretical architecture of professional literary study and the institutional and cultural situatedness of the field
  • the current state and/or implications of the study of detective fiction for the field's methodology, institutional function, and cultural role
  • the terms of canonicity
  • the epistemics of the detective form or the role of the form in questions of literary epistemics
  • questions of readership, markets, or the history of the book and/or the university