Book Prize

MSA Prize for a First Book

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.

C. D. Blanton, Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

With great theoretical and philosophical virtuosity, C. D. Blanton recalibrates the interpretive and historical possibilities of late modernist poetics. Epic Negation convincingly reconsiders British literature in the 1930s, a period regularly understood to mark the retreat of the “Auden generation” (including Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day-Lewis, and William Empson) from the precedents and commitments of such outsized precursors as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Developing an ambitious conceptual matrix, Blanton understands their writings not as diminished echoes of a prior generation’s monumental innovations, but as tactical responses to perceptions of crisis, locally and globally. Epic Negation thereby confronts and corrects a conventional story of modernism’s decline or dissipation toward mid-century, arguing that more lyrically self-contained works both sustain and radically intensify Pound’s own “epic” injunction to make poems that “include history.” In Blanton’s account, late modernism is therefore still epic modernism, though by other means – embracing poetic practices “attenuated and dislocated, in a crucial sense disarticulated, by the very history” they must incorporate.

Hannah Freed-Thall, Spoiled Distinctions: Aesthetics and the Ordinary in French Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Elegantly conceived and beautifully written, Hannah Freed-Thall’s Spoiled Distinctions examines French modernism’s aesthetic preoccupation with the commonplace and everyday. Through its analytically astute engagements with language and form, Spoiled Distinctions argues that in and around the deceptively empty terminology of the “quelconque,” writers from Proust to Yasmina Reza describe an involving variety of artistic experience and response that emerges in the indeterminate, “whatever” styles of attention to aspects of our shared world that seem hard to specify or value. In a series of subtle, intricate, and absorbing close readings, Freed-Thall discovers a wonderfully disruptive sense of modernism as a mode that is attuned to registers of meaning that become weirdly beautiful in their stubborn embodiment of the ordinary, even as they come to suggest that our perceptual field is all but sublimely nuanced in its capacity to elude the names we use to order and contain it.

Steven S. Lee, The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015)

In The Ethnic Avant-Garde, Steven S. Lee considers a moment in the 1920s and 30s when minorities could envision themselves at the forefront of both artistic innovation and cultural revolution. Moving between the Soviet avant-garde and African Americans, Jewish Americans and Asian Americans, Lee’s rigorously historicized and argumentatively complex account of the relationship between aesthetics and politics across the World War Two divide reconstructs a story of intercultural-artistic possibility in which three conceptual categories (vanguard, avant-garde, and ethnic identity) were not incompatible and do not by necessity have to be. The book retells a story of the famously fraught relationship between the two internationals (the vanguard and the avant-garde) through their engagement with racial and colonial oppression. In so doing, Lee moves athwart the perspectives of Marxist scholarship and critical race studies alike to reveal that socialist aspiration and ethnic difference can indeed be compatible, if only when the latter attachment involves cross-ethnic identification rather than ethnic exceptionalism.

Nicole Rizzuto, Insurgent Testimonies: Witnessing Colonial Trauma in Modern and Anglophone Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015)

Insurgent Testimonies challenges the temporal and territorial boundaries of modernism in utterly compelling ways. With a methodological vocabulary that synthesizes incisive close readings of form with an account of the perception of psychic and social damage, Nicole Rizzuto traces how testimony to the traumas of British imperial violence was secreted into modernist insurgent writing. The book ranges agilely across genres, moving beyond fiction to include autobiography, critical essays, and other modes of confessional writing. Through meticulous readings of texts by Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West, H.G., V.S. Reid, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Rizzuto demonstrates the political and ethical rewards of intimate attention to style and structure. Her readings of trauma itself transform our affective and historical understanding of its anatomy and consequences; rather than privileging rupture, she shows how trauma operates in networks of memory. Moving with ease across the twentieth century to reframe modernist writing and its legacies, the book undertakes vital work that will bring postcolonial, transnational, and trauma studies into fresh and difficult dialogues with modernism.

2016 MSA First Book Prize Committee
David James (Chair), Queen Mary, University of London
Tsitsi Jaji, Duke University
Mark Goble, University of California–Berkeley


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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