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The Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism: 
Middlebrow Writing 1890-1930
15-16 September 2011

Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Keynote speaker: Professor Ann Ardis, University of Delaware

The increase in modernist and avant-garde cultural manifestations in the early years of the twentieth century displaced realist and traditional literary works from, in Bourdieu's sense, "legitimate" culture. The former came to represent "highbrow", with a concomitant exclusion of all that highbrow was not. Even influential and critically acclaimed writers, such as H. G. Wells, were derided for maintaining their realist style as well as for catering to popular taste. Retrospectively, the conception of modernism has been expanded in order to be able to accommodate less obviously avant-garde works, but this expansion may not be continued indefinitely. Lines of demarcation between high, low, mass, and middle, in their varying media and forms, need to be identified to enable a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of literary and other cultural forms in this period, and the contemporary reception of the texts and ideas expressed therein.

This conference seeks to examine the emergence of modernism outside elitist, avant-garde notions, particularly focussing on middlebrow literature in its relation to these socio-cultural developments. We assume that, even though middlebrow fiction usually adheres to conspicuously affirmative structures of plot development in order to meet genre expectations and publishers' requirements, this narrative framework is often in a disintegrative state, in form and subject. Such narratives raise disturbing issues concerning the crumbling Empire, collapsing class structures and the deterioration of the Victorian family ideal. For women, in particular, the middlebrow novel provided a space for the negotiation of and experimentation with alternative social and gender roles. In this sense, middlebrow writing can be regarded as a domestication of modernist themes also prevalent at the time; allowing unsettling issues to be raised while maintaining at least a superficial impression of (narrative) stability and security. Based on the assumption that such works reached a far wider audience than those of the avant-garde, by exploring such issues of stability and disintegration this conference aims to advance research on the production, dissemination and reception of middlebrow and popular fiction between 1890-1930.

Papers are invited which address these themes, and those linked to them, with the common factors being the study of textual works produced during the period 1890-1930, in the "British" world.

The conference is organised by Professor Christoph Ehland (University of Paderborn) and Dr Kate Macdonald (University of Ghent). Please send proposals to and to, by 31 January 2011.

The School of Advanced Study is part of the central University of London. The School takes its responsibility to visitors with special needs very seriously and will endeavour to make reasonable adjustments to its facilities in order to accommodate the needs of such visitors. If you have a particular requirement, please feel free to discuss it confidentially with the organiser in advance of the event taking place.

Enquiries: Jon Millington, Events Officer, Institute of English Studies, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU; tel +44 (0) 207 664 4859; Email

Conference Location: London, United Kingdom
Conference Starts: September 15, 2011
Conference Ends: September 16, 2011

CFP Submission Deadline: January 31, 2011

For more information, contact: Jon Millington