In Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021), Sally Rooney creates a character Alice, a young professional writer who feels conflicted about her literary stardom and financial success. Through Alice, Rooney reflects on the commodification of literary labor and responds to critics who dismiss her work as romance novels in fancy dress. Literary works that are perceived as commercial or popular—literatures that lean in the marketplace—have long divided critical opinions. In Rooney’s case, mass appeal weighs heavily in her creative process and her self-positioning in the publishing world. In this regard, the marketplace deserves more critical attention to develop a layered understanding of literary production as an industry, intersected by economic concerns, material infrastructure, human labor, and consumerist culture. This conference aims to explore the largely uncharted terrain of Irish literature and the global marketplace from the eighteenth century to the present day.
Since the late eighteenth century, market forces, advancement in printing technology, literacy, and transportation have contributed to the mass production of literature and the establishment of a bankable publishing industry. Scholarship on book history and print culture has shown us the significant influence of the marketplace in transforming reading culture from an elitist indulgence to a mass delight. They point out that market-oriented publications, such as women’s magazines and paperback books, contribute to diversifying the publishing landscape. Cross-disciplinary research also reveals the hidden workers—publishers, agents, editors, and publicists—that play mediating roles in shaping written texts into consumable products. In literary studies, popular literature, particularly genre fiction, is often dismissed as commercial and ephemeral. Nonetheless, recent cultural and literary critics have challenged this bias by highlighting the literary value of genre fiction. They also remind us that literary fiction itself is a genre that is a marketable brand, often promoted as a “difficult pleasure” to middlebrow readers who aspire to elevate their cultural status.
Central to the discussion of the marketplace is finance, which brings our attention to how professional writers navigate the funding landscape. Teaching positions in creative writing courses, writing fellowships, literary awards, government and institutional grants have become hugely important for professional writers working today. These funding bodies are powerful institutes that can make or break a writer’s career, and they have great influence in shaping literary tastes. This brings us back to Rooney’s Marxist self-reflection on contemporary writer’s cultural positioning and negotiation with the marketplace in the neoliberal system.
As outlined above, some of the criticisms of market-oriented publishing practices are predicated on the supposed division between high and low cultural consumptions, while others express concern about how the prioritization of monetary values may undercut literature’s artistic, political, and social engagements. This conference invites scholars in Irish studies to explore the relationship between Irish literature and the global marketplace from the eighteenth century to the present, with the aim to forge a better understanding of the importance of the marketplace in literary production, in providing a historical view of the publishing industry, and in shaping literary taste.
Topics may include, but are not limited to:
- Irish publishing and print culture
- Irish book history and book trade
- Popular Irish literature
- Irish literature and the periodical market
- Irish genre fiction
- Working-class literature
- Commerce and literature
- Finance, economy, and literature
- Technology, infrastructure, and the literary marketplace
- Middlebrow literature and culture
- Critical reception and literary taste
- Media studies and digital humanities
- Commodity culture and literature
- Gender and the marketplace
- The relationships between writers, agents, editors, and readers
- Reader’s response and book review
- Translation and distribution of Irish-language literature
Confirmed keynote speakers
Prof Joe Cleary (Yale University)
Prof Claire Connolly (University College Cork)
Dr Christina Morin (University of Limerick)
Abstract submission deadline: 1 October 2023
Notification of results: 1 December 2023
Registration: February 2023- April 2024
Conference dates: 12-14 June 2024
Please send an abstract of 200-300 words with a short biographical note (50 words) to Yen-Chi Wu and Elke D’hoker by 1 October 2023. Papers should not exceed 20 minutes. Please submit your proposal in Word-format. The conference will be held in the Irish College Leuven, where accommodation is also available. Registration fees apply.
Irish College Leuven
The conference will take place at the Irish College in Leuven inner city (Janseniusstraat 1, 3000 Leuven). The Irish College was founded in 1607 by the Irish Franciscans under the impetus of Florence Conry as an exile institution for the training of Irish Franciscans. The Archdukes Albert and Isabella, co-rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, took a keen interest in the fortunes of the college and personally attended the ceremony to lay the foundation stone of the building in 1617. The Irish College in Leuven was one of the main centres of Irish learning and the preservation of Irish intellectual culture during penal times. The college was closed down by the French invaders in 1794. In 1925 the Irish Franciscans again acquired the site, using it for their own educational purposes until 1983. Since then major refurbishments have taken place, generously paid for by the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as by individual patrons as “a resource for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland”. Now the Irish College serves as an attractive, fully operational residential conference centre in the heart of Leuven.