Thought Leaders
June 14, 2022

A life in literature: An interview with Professor Nicholas Royle

Nicholas Royle is Professor of English at the University of Sussex and founding director of the Centre for Creative and Critical Thought. Since publishing his first work of criticism – Telepathy and Literature – in 1991, his creative output has been consistently varied and rewarding, blurring any firm conception of form or genre. Royle remains most widely known, perhaps, for his Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, written with Professor Andrew Bennett. The book is a remarkably creative and ever-evolving project which appraises literature through a shifting array of lenses, prompting us to reassess what we ultimately mean by the ’literary’ as distinct from other forms of writing. Research Outreach was privileged to speak to Professor Royle about his diverse output, and about his future projects.

At the heart of Professor Royle’s work remains a deep appreciation for, and a keen sensitivity to, the uncanny nature of language. Whether he is discussing Jacques Derrida or psychoanalysis, animals or Jesus Christ, Royle’s work demonstrates a boundless sense of wonder at the very act of writing as a form of creation. More than this: his work reinvigorates that wonder in his readers. In a wide-ranging interview, we covered everything from life writing to the environment, and we learnt about his forthcoming projects, including a new work with the philosopher Timothy Morton.

Royle’s novel An English Guide to Birdwatching (2017) is a surprising, funny, moving book about birds, as well as climate emergency, financial crisis, ambition, love and murder. Sokolov Alexey/Shutterstock.com

You published a seminal introduction to literature, criticism, and theory, along with Professor Andrew Bennett, which has now been through a number of iterations. Has updating this text yielded any insights into the changing nature of literary study over the past two decades?
The sixth edition appears next year. There’ll be new chapters on ‘Loss’, ‘Human’ and ‘Migrant’, as well as a new section specifically about the concept of ‘literature’. It has been a great privilege to work on this book over such a long period with my friend and colleague Andrew Bennett. Each iteration of ‘Bennett and Royle’ (as it’s sometimes called) is a full-scale revision: we reconsider every topic, every example, every sentence. The book began (back in 1995) with just 24 chapters; it now has 41. The new edition has challenged us to take stock of what – and how much – has been happening since 2016, not only in literary studies but in the world beyond. Increasingly, it has become a guide to literary studies that also provides critical reflection on the pressing issues of our time: truth and ideology, equality and social justice, climate crisis and mass species extinction. People from all walks of life email us, expressing their gratitude that the book exists. Andrew and I are grateful as well: the book is clearly different from anything either of us could have produced alone, and feels by now as if it has a strangely independent existence. Words can and do change the world: it is what happens,
for example, when people say ‘I love you’, declare war,
or make a promise.

You recently wrote a memoir, of sorts, of your mother, (Mother: A Memoir (2020)). Did you find that the creative energy involved in ‘life writing’ differed markedly from the processes of critical research?
That’s tricky. Questions of genre and distinctions between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ are undoubtedly significant, but I don’t really think about them when I am writing. E M Forster once described novel-reading as ‘voluntary surrender to infection’. Writing is like that too. I follow the writing’s nose. One of the discombobulating things is that writing both takes and dictates time. When my mother died in 2003, I knew I had to write about her, but it was almost fifteen years before I could begin. And then when I did, I had no idea what I was doing. I was hardly conscious. It was very early in the morning. But within an hour – to my immense, heart-flooding surprise – I realised I was writing a book about my mother. My first book of critical research was called Telepathy and Literature (1991), but I’m not sure it was ‘critical’ in the way people usually understand that term. It’s critical above all, perhaps, in that it sees telepathy (a late-19th-century ‘invention’) as a crisis in subjectivity: if there is telepathy, what is an ‘I’? Where do thoughts or feelings begin (or end)? And then, how does literature offer illumination and insight in this context?

Nicholas Royle, Professor of English and founding director of the Centre for Creative and Critical Thought.

You make the interesting connection between writing about your mother and writing about Mother Nature. Could you say a little about the influence of the environment on your recent thinking?
The American poet Wallace Stevens says that poetry (the ‘purpose of the poem’) is inseparable from ‘the mother’s face’. I think about writing (critical or otherwise) as indissociable from the poetic, although I doubt anyone would call my texts poems. The poetic is about making and doing (as the ancient Greek poiesis suggests) on this planet. It’s earthbound, humble (you know this word comes from the Latin humus, ‘ground’ or ‘earth’), but purposeful. What an incredible thing it is – to have spent months inside someone else’s body and then to have been born! Mother: A Memoir is about a sense that love of one’s mother, love of being alive, love of memory and love of the world all go together. My book Veering (2011) is about the environment, about the ‘veering’ (the French verb virer) that is at the heart of the English word ‘environment’. I’ve always been concerned about the environment – about both internal and external worlds. How should we conceive the outside world, and inhabit it humbly? And how might we think or talk differently about ‘the world within’ – about consciousness, resemblance and identification, dreams, the unconscious, self-deception, internal other selves?

At the heart of Royle’s work remains a deep appreciation for the uncanny nature of language. ASTA Concept/Shutterstock.com

Non-human animals have a remarkable presence in your writing. Could you speak about some of the inherent joys and challenges of writing about animals?
The word ‘environment’ seems to be human-centred: what the environment environs is us; the external world is organised around humans. But of course, this is a delusion. One of the curious and generative things about ‘veering’ is that it is not necessarily human: all sorts of non-human animals veer. Indeed, we might say, life in general is veering. Correspondingly, there is no proper or ‘true’ language in which to represent non-human animals. How might we shift towards ways of thinking and being in the world that are less anthropocentric? It seems to me that this is a question on which poets and novelists are especially helpful and insightful. A dizzy mix of joy and challenge, An English Guide to Birdwatching (2017) took six years to write. It was published as ‘a novel’, but it’s just as much a work of life-writing, bird-writing, critical elegy, dream ornithology, and so on. The challenge but also the appeal of the book is, I hope, implicit in the title: what on earth does it mean? Or, perhaps, what in the air does it mean? The book is an exploration of language, starting with the strangeness of birds ‘watching’ us, as well as vice-versa.

You once turned to the intriguing word ‘Veering’ as a lens through which to read a range of literary texts. Is there a word or phrase you’d enjoy using now as a door to a new form of reading?
Literary texts themselves give us new idioms, new buildings (sometimes – at least on first encounter – apparently doorless!), new forms of reading. The figure of veering is fascinating first and foremost on account of how it shows up in the work of other writers – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Melville, Henry James, Proust, Lawrence, Woolf, Bowen, DeLillo, Hélène Cixous, Amitav Ghosh and others. I enjoy, on occasion, inventing new words or phrases (such as ‘cryptaesthetic resistance’, the ‘telepathology of everyday life’, ‘iteraphonia’, the ‘retrolexic’, the ‘narratoid’, the ‘nanoment’, ‘omnicisent narration’, the ‘omnipittance of thought’ and ‘ornithomorphism’); but more fundamentally I feel traversed, driven, sent veering in a lifelong fashion, by a desire to alter the way we think and feel about words, about what they might do. Words can and do change the world: it is what happens, for example, when people say ‘I love you’, declare war, make a promise, translate, have psychotherapy, tell a story differently, describe something in a new way. It’s ‘a kind of magic’, as Freud says, and that’s why, it seems to me, thinking about writing – without being religious or mystical – is never far from questions of ‘magical thinking’ (animism, telepathy, the uncanny).

With what language might we accurately and authentically write about non-human animals? korkeng/Shutterstock.com

Your reading habits are ‘promiscuous’, voracious, and varied. Are there any new writers, of either fiction or non-fiction, you are excited about?
Ah, the old idiom ‘new writers’! I find it a bit disquieting, too easily in synch with the publishing industry production line. Reading is a mysterious thing. It can be most pleasurable when not just ‘dilatory’ (to echo Roland Barthes’s phrase), but untimely, perverse, against the flow. Some ‘new writers’ are largely forgotten by the time I get to them. Others I try to read but I quickly realise it’s just not going to work. Over Christmas I read, for the first time, H G Wells’s The History of Mr Polly. It was published in 1910, but it felt uncannily ‘new’ and fresh and strange to me. I suspect that may be true of great books. I also recently reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). It might be ‘old’, but Faulkner’s work has more to tell us about Black Lives Matter or indeed abortion in the US than most contemporary debates and analyses. Still, in terms of remarkable ‘contemporary voices’ currently in my head, I would particularly mention Jemma Deer’s Radical Animism: Reading for the End of the World, Rebecca Giggs’s Fathoms: The World in the Whale and Naomi Booth’s new collection of short fiction, Animals at Night.

Words can and do change the world: it is what happens,
for example, when people say ‘I love you’, declare war,
or make a promise.

Could you tell us a little about your current research projects?
I have been working on a ‘plague diary’ with the philosopher Timothy Morton: this has been very stimulating, different from anything either of us has done before. I greatly value collaborative ventures: apart from the writing that with luck emerges from it, the process is always surprising, and one learns so much. Along with the new edition of Bennett and Royle, I have also begun work with my friend Peter Boxall on a book called The Novel, in Brief, which will focus on what we see as distinctive about the novella or short novel. I have also recently completed a book about life under lockdown called David Bowie, Enid Blyton and The Sun Machine. Interweaving autobiography and cultural history, it’s a sort of book-length love letter about the powers of music and storytelling. This summer I hope to get started on a new project – possibly a biography of the more-or-less unknown Irish–Mexican writer Sancho O’Reilly, possibly a crime mystery, or something else. I’ll just have to see what turns up.

Royle has recently completed a genre-defying work about, amongst other things, David Bowie and Enid Blyton. Iryna Horbachova/Shutterstock.com
This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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