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Literature’s Exception(s)

Introduction: Literature’s Exception(s)

Catherine Bernard


Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines est issu des travaux de l’atelier de la Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC) lors du congrès de la Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur de 2019. Ce congrès avait pour thème « L’exception » et il fut l’occasion d’explorer une notion rarement analysée par la critique. Que l’exception soit celle d’œuvres hors normes dans la production d’un écrivain ou qu’elle soit celle de figures excentriques de la littérature, elle impose que nous interrogions les normes qui régulent les lois littéraires et leurs exceptions, tout comme elle invite à comprendre la fascination qu’exerce l’inclassable sur les lecteurs. Réunissant des travaux portant sur la fiction contemporaine, mais aussi sur une œuvre hors normes du canon moderniste, ce numéro offre des clés d’investigation de notre relation complexe aux lois de la littérarité et à ce qui les débordent. Dans les pages de ce numéro, on trouvera aussi deux cahiers spéciaux. L’un, consacré à Virginia Woolf se fait le relai des travaux menés par la Société d’Études Woolfiennes. L’autre réunit des articles portant sur E.M. Forster et en particulier Howards End et son adaptation cinématographique par James Ivory.

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1The term ‘exception’ has never been elaborated into a concept nor has it been appropriated by criticism or theory to define modern aesthetics, as ‘subversion’, ‘revolution’, or even ‘avant-garde’ have been. And yet, it may offer a different purchase on some of the persistent traits of modernity and thus bring us to rethink the poetics of the modern, as well as literature’s and art’s relation to history, specifically in its moments of crisis.

2As the etymology of the term implies, ‘exception’ suggests that the general rule cannot apply to what is ‘excepted’. If, according to the popular phrase, ‘the exception confirms the rule’, the relation is above all one of radical difference, rather than tension, in which the person or thing ‘excepted’ is one of his/her/its kind and in fact exceeds all comparisons. Exceptions are necessarily stand-alones. They thus lay down their own rules that radically depart from the common law.

3Such radical difference is, of course, most prominent in the figure of the eccentric who invents himself/herself in radical contradistinction with the laws—even the revolutionary laws—that define the language of the common, of the tribe or even of the faction. The 20th and 21st centuries has been rich in figures, from Edith Sitwell, the author of The English Eccentrics (1933), to the artist duo Gilbert & George, who have forged dissident aesthetic idioms. The self-dramatisation of their exceptionality has turned it into a form of performative strength. Yet, in order to remain true to their own exceptionality, they have often been loath to make it into a law. The likes of Gilbert & George have always been reticent to turn their uniqueness into what Michel Foucault defines as ‘operators of discursivity’ in his essay ‘What is an author?’ (1969)? The poignancy of their exceptionality lies in the way these self-engendering gestures have not been elaborated into ‘event’, in the meaning Alain Badiou gives to the term in L’Être et l’évenement (1988), in the sense that their oddness has not necessarily heralded the new and has remained one of a kind, beyond any aesthetic kinship to come.

4The language of the exceptional is one that is difficult to define or even to understand with the tools of literary and aesthetic history. As is obvious, the definition of exceptionality remains an open and even vexed one. One may even wonder whether extrapolating the notion of exceptionality from its root noun ‘exception’ does not, from the start, imply that one is doomed to essentialize exception and thus to read invariants where there is only unrepeatable uniqueness.

5As the articles here gathered show, the range of possible angles from which to broach the issue is wide. Exception may be elaborated into an aesthetics that defines a language of its own that departs from the dominant economy of literary form. This tension is at the heart of Alice Borrego’s article: ‘Against the Norm: Exception as a Disruptive Force in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918)’, a piece that displaces the paradigm of subversion usually associated with High Modernism and avant-garde in order to reassess Rebecca West’s unclassifiable work.

6More recently, with the advent of intensely self-reflexive and playful fiction, writing has programmatically engaged with preexisting artistic laws, thus questioning the reliability of the received tension between rules and exceptions. In her article ‘Alison Case’s Nelly Dean (2016): an Exceptional Neo-Victorian novel?’, Isabelle Roblin shows that even the most self-reflexive of aesthetics—here the neo-victorian novel—, may in fact outwit its own logic, by questioning the injunction to exceptionalism. Writers may thus embrace exception as a way of probing literature’s capacity to resist categorisation. Emilie Walezak’s analysis of A.S. Byatt’s Peacock and Vine here shows that for the author of Possession, deliberately writing a stand-alone text is a way of testing literary form, the text functioning as a laboratory. And the same may also be said of Kate Atkinson’s experimentation with the detective novel, as Armelle Parey’s analysis also shows.

7Exception may also be the very topic and object of writing, in which case, it will function as a form of litmus test against which language will exercise its capacity to escape its own confines. Such aesthetic trial has been of the essence of dystopian literature. By confronting itself to ‘states of exception’, it has explored the way exception becomes the law, while fiction—in its capacity to confront the exceptional—tests its own capacity to imagine the language of resistance. But exception may also lie in the experience of extreme states, such as loss and grief. This is the topic of Héloïse Lecomte’s article ‘The Hapax of Mourning: Ali Smith’s Aesthetics of Exception in Artful (2012)’, in which she analyses Smith’s capacity to harness formal experimentation to an exploration of the radical exceptionality of mourning. Catherine Lanone also explores even more radical states of exception, in the context of the Trojan war as reimagined by Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. As Justine Gonneaud’s study of ‘Exceptionality and Commonality in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet’ also reveals, exception may thus paradoxically be of the essence of the common and many contemporary writers have aimed at undoing the binary opposition between the ordinary and the exceptional, in order to reveal the numinous at the heart of the everyday.

8In all cases, literary exception is proof to how crucial it is to recontextualize the exceptional if only to assess in what way it resists established aesthetic norms and what its reception has been across time. One way of reading literature’s exception(s) historically is also to take the context of publication into account. Fostering exception may be a publishing ploy and thus contribute to the paradoxical canonisation of the radically other or the strange. As Mark Davies shows, this has been the case with the Goldsmiths Prize which, since its creation, has favoured ‘difficult’ fiction that flaunts its exceptionality and its capacity to break with established literary norms. Once again, what seems at stake is the constructedness of the very criteria that turn the exception into the rule. As the articles here presented testify, literature’s exception(ality) undoes any attempt at stabilizing the tension between resistance and congruence. While our still prevalent indexing of the literary on its capacity to radicalize form and the reading experience still places us in the shadow of modernism, new complex forms of literary exceptionality have emerged that urge us to rethink our understanding of what makes for an exceptional reading experience, from Tom McCarthy to Jackie Kay, from Ali Smith to A.S. Byatt, from Rebecca West to Kate Atkinson or Alison Case.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction: Literature’s Exception(s) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2019, consulté le 31 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Université de Paris. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, Mark Wallinger among others) and on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Ali Smith or Hary Parker). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has published a critical edition and translation of Flush into French (Gallimard, Bibliothèque La Pléiade, 2012), and a critical edition and translation of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Essais choisis, Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is also the author of a monograph on contemporary British fiction and contemporary art: Matière à réflexion. Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques contemporains (Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2018). She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC).

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