Book Prize

MSA Book Prize (for a book published in 2015)

The Modernist Studies Association has announced its short list for the 2016 MSA Book Prize. One of these four books will be presented as the award winner in Pasadena at our 18th annual conference, November 17-20. We offer our congratulations to all of the finalists.

Weihong Bao, Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945 (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

Fiery Cinema tracks the emergence of a particular set of discourses around and practices in Chinese cinema in the period 1915-45. In this context, it argues, cinema is understood to be an affective medium, which means not only that it solicits an immediate affective response from the audience but that it also serves as a ‘mediating environment’ immersing the personal in the social. Bao recovers a rich vocabulary and set of theories from Chinese film journals in support of this thesis with scholarly commitment and intellectual daring. The book’s controlling metaphor of fire carries the reader through several phases of Chinese cinema in its social and historical locatedness – from the early martial arts films of Shanghai, via left-wing spoken film, through to the global aspirations of the Chongquing cinema industry. The developments within cinema are related in detail to emergent media, architecture, commodity culture, and the demands of propaganda. Fiery Cinema is a fascinating and altogether accessible account of an area of film which has been little discussed in the context of Modernist Studies.

William J. Maxwell, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton University Press, 2015)

F.B. Eyes is an extraordinarily rich account of FBI surveillance of African American modernists from the origins of the FBI to the 1970s. It is striking not only for its account of the reach and extent of this surveillance but also for its links to the literary critical establishment, from the well-known story of Encounter to the role played by the likes of William C. Sullivan, Robert Adger Bowen and Norman Holmes Pearson. Maxwell shows how the FBI’s study of African American writers was tightly bound to the agency’s successful evolution under Hoover, and casts the FBI as perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature, showing how the FBI helped, even, to define the twentieth-century Black Atlantic. The work’s theses on the formation of the Black Atlantic have a resonance and significance for modernist studies beyond the immediate historical context, and Maxwell makes a welcome challenge to received views of modernist cosmopolitanism and exile. While closely focussed on the history of the FBI, and taking its place within the now extensive body of work on that subject, F.B. Eyes is a dense work of scholarship which has essential implications for the understanding of Afro-modernism.

Paul Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Tense Future tackles modernism as a product of the interwar period in terms of the collective psychological effects of the imminent dread produced by total war. The study draws out this new phenomenology of anticipation as one among other of the strands of modernism which can no longer be united under some global theory of modernism or modernity. This approach yields a series of stimulating readings of those modernist classics which deal with war – Parade’s End, Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway and The Years – and makes a welcome foray outside that corpus to Cicely Hamilton’s Savage, moving on to the question of historical archiving, which opens up the topic of the encyclopedism of modernism as a response to the fragility of civilizations revealed by total war. Aiming to be polyvalent and suggestive, Saint-Amour’s text repeatedly glances forward from the interwar to the cold war, setting up models of interference which remind modernist studies not to be bound by period. Throughout, this study develops its arguments carefully through many layers, presents its case studies with clarity and control, and rewards the reader with a constant flow of insight.

Vincent Sherry, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence challenges conventional modernist literary history by tracing the multiple impacts and influences of decadent aesthetics, and cuts an original line through a broad range of the traditional materials of modernism, focusing on a decadent time sense that resonates in the 'poetic' pose from Wilde and Poe to Lawrence and Conrad. This study is an important contribution to our understanding of the continuities between fin-de-siècle, Edwardian and Modernist literature. It is impressively comprehensive in its attempt to map out and find pathways through what often seems like a disparate and confusing area of literary history with which we are still coming to terms. Sherry’s study is at once broad in scope and refined in the detail of its exegeses, and moves deftly between some of the best-known documents of modernism and rich findings from the archive. Not least, this book helps us grasp the aesthetic consequences of the implicit conflict between the progressivism of the modernist sensibility and the cult of loss and exhaustion which characterises decadence.

2016 MSA Book Prize Committee
David Ayers (chair), University of Kent
Alan Golding, University of Louisville
Suzanne Hobson, Queen Mary University of London


Each year, the Modernist Studies Association seeks nominations for its Book Prize, awarded to a book published in the previous year. A panel of judges determines the book that made the most significant contribution to modernist studies. The winner receives $1,000 plus up to $600 toward travel expenses to the MSA Conference, where the award is presented. A book first published in another year will not be eligible for the prize. This exclusion applies even if a new edition (paperback or revised, for example) was published in the award year.

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