The English Department congratulates Professor Anne-Lise François, whose Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (Stanford University Press, 2007) was recently named the winner of the 2010 René Wellek Prize. Awarded by the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) every other year, this prize recognizes an outstanding work in the field of literary and cultural theory. It is one of the country’s most prestigious honors in the discipline; previous winners have included John Guillory, Geoffrey H. Hartman, N. Katherine Hayles, Barbara A. Johnson, Rei Terada, and others.
Open Secrets identifies “an ethos of affirmative reticence and recessive action” in Mme. de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and poems by William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, and Thomas Hardy. François argues that “these works locate fulfillment not in narrative fruition, but in grace understood both as a simplicity of formal means and a freedom from work, in particular that of self-concealment and self-presentation. Declining the twin pressures of self-actualization and self-denial defining modernity’s call to make good on one’s talents, the subjects of ‘the literature of uncounted experience,’ do nothing so heroic as renounce the ambitions of self-expression; they simply set aside the fantasy of the all responsible subject. “
In its citation, the ACLA described Open Secrets as “an ambitious, beautifully written book, whose richly textured original argument offers an important provocation to the current mores of literary studies. Enlightenment reason and especially literary criticism are dedicated to the idea that everything should count, and the most diverse schools of criticism train us to let nothing escape.” Yet passed by or uncounted in these several emphases on event or plot – as well as in anti-Enlightenment revaluations of passivity as the fundamental task of the ethical subject – are moments that promise a different ethos: just “letting be,” imagined without a heavy ethical burden. Francois calls for “a mode of theory that values what is visible and appreciable over what can be quantified and disclosed.” Marc Redfield, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brown University, has called her book “one of the most important publications in its field in many years,” and other scholars have registered its implications in similar terms: as “something like a new paradigm for literary study” (Ian Balfour, Professor of English, York University); as a book that “no reader concerned about the ‘nothingness’ of literary reflection can lightly pass by” (Geoffrey Hartman, Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale).