In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section World Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections of Essays
  • Special Journal Issues

Literary and Critical Theory World Literature
Sowon Park, Jernej Habjan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0025


As a global academic branch of studies, world literature emerged around the turn of the millennium, though thinking about literature with reference to “world,” however defined, can be traced back to at least two hundred years earlier. The underlying factors for the emergence of world literature studies are many. The end of the Cold War and the rise of non-Western economies, the advent of a global literary marketplace, and the proliferation of digital platforms are seen as some of its preconditions. In general terms, the expansion of world literature can be seen to reflect the rapid integration of the world into a single market. As a field of inquiry, world literature continues to grow in response to the problems encountered by teachers, students, and readers in their daily contact with literature from around the world. Historically, a prevalent way of thinking about world literature in the Western literary tradition was as the selection of masterpieces from around the world. This serviceable notion was, however, shown to fall below its own theoretical requirement and to be clearly in need of revision, since the “world,” in practice, referred to the “First World,” and world literature had simply been another name for the classics from the five major European states—Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy—and from Russia and the United States. The urgent need to acknowledge and validate occluded regions of the non-Western world as unique literary and historical spaces that contribute to the whole has necessitated an altogether different framework for theorizing concepts such as language, nation, and masterpieces. In its current form, world literature studies aspires to overcome some of the problems that have arisen from the methods and procedures of traditional nation-based literary studies, as well as to address unresolved tensions within comparative literary studies, which have sometimes implicitly equated world literature with European literature. In this it overlaps with critiques of cultural imperialism and Eurocentrism raised by postcolonial studies. Where it differs markedly is in its thinking about the global system of literary production, dissemination, and evaluation beyond Europe and its former colonies, and in its focus on the methodological issues that emerge from the barely manageable inundation of literary texts now made available by digital multimedia platforms. In this effort, world literature studies is often joined by other recently established disciplines, especially globalization studies, translation studies, cosmopolitanism studies, and transnationalism studies.

General Overviews

Scholarly work on world literature often takes the form of either anthology or theoretical study. General overviews, which are limited to either cumulative sampling or theoretical reflection, are thus rare. The renewed interest in world literature around 2000, however, has resulted in monographs that can serve also or primarily as general overviews of world literature. This is the main aim of D’haen 2012, a detailed history of the terminological, conceptual, pedagogical, and geopolitical aspects of world literature; Goethe’s definitions, Pascale Casanova’s and Franco Moretti’s theories, and European and US-American academe are given special attention. Similarly, Pizer 2006 focuses on the theoretical reception and pedagogical institutionalization of Goethe’s notion of world literature. The problem of teaching world literature is also a concern of Damrosch 2009, where readers of world literature are offered ways of appreciating texts linguistically or culturally, or formally challenging them while learning to recognize their universal features. Gupta 2009 examines the roles of English studies, world literature studies, and translation policies in the collaboration between globalization scholars and literary scholars; it adds to the dialogue by focusing on the relation between globalization and literature. Globalization is also at the center of Helgesson and Thomsen 2020, a more recent introduction to world literature and globalization that examines new approaches to digital humanities and world literature, ecologies of world literature, translation, and race and political economy.

  • Damrosch, David. How to Read World Literature. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    A practical companion to Damrosch 2003 (cited under Turn of the Millennium), where world literature is defined primarily as a mode of reading across national boundaries, this book suggests ways of reading literary works whose language, cultural context, or genre seems foreign to the contemporary English-language reader.

  • D’haen, Theo. The Routledge Concise History of World Literature. London: Routledge, 2012.

    This compendious and accessible presentation of world literature traces the history of the notion, its recent theorizations, and its institutionalization in comparative literary studies, world literature courses, and translation studies. It also addresses the relationship between world literature and postcolonial and postmodern literatures.

  • Gupta, Suman. Globalization and Literature. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009.

    Gupta presents and intervenes in the recent debates in globalization studies and literary studies. Focusing on the relationship between the two disciplines, as well as between their respective objects of study, he addresses the lack of scholarly collaboration and sees in globalization both the prevalent condition for and a theme of contemporary literature.

  • Helgesson, Stefan, and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen. Literature and the World. London: Routledge, 2020.

    Helgesson and Thomsen provide a brief history of world literature studies as well as a series of case studies from around the world. They discuss world literature in relation to digital humanities, ecology, literary form, translation, and political economy. Their concluding dialogue is dedicated to the future of world literature studies.

  • Pizer, John. The Idea of World Literature: History and Pedagogical Practice. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

    Combining historical presentation with programmatic intervention, Pizer argues for and exemplifies the adoption of a Goethean dialectical approach to world literature in US academia. To this end, he offers concise accounts both of the academic reception of Goethe’s approach and of contemporary courses on world literature in English translation.

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