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Alison James
Romance Languages & Literatures
The Documentary Imagination in
Twentieth-Century French Literature: Writing with Facts
Oxford University Press, 2020



The Documentary Imagination in Twentieth-Century French Literature identifies the proliferation of factual writings in French literature that proliferated in the twenty-first century. Alison James contests the widespread narrative that twentieth-century French literature abandons the realist enterprise, and argues instead that writers renegotiate the realist legacy outside, or at the margins of, the fictional space of the novel. Analyzing works by French authors, James defines a specific documentary mode of literary representation that records, assembles, and investigates material traces of reality. It is a fact, but it also becomes a figure, standing for literature's confrontation with the real. The documentary imagination involves a fantasy of direct access to a reality that speaks for itself. At the same time, it gives rise to concrete textual practices that open up new directions for literature, by interrogating the construction and interpretation of facts.

Listen to Alison James talk about “French Theory and the (New?) Idea of Form.”

“[W]hat is a document and what are the forms of non-fictional documentary literature in which it can be employed... James’s discussion of each, underpinned by extensive research, is impressive even if neither leads to a definitive answer.”
John Flower,
Journal of European Studies



Alison James is an Associate Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. She specializes in modern and contemporary French literature, with a particular interest in experimental literature, the Oulipo group, representations of everyday life, and theories of fact and fiction in literary narratives. She is the author of Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo (Northwestern University Press, 2009).

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