In this interview, I talk with Dora Zhang, associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, about her book Strange Likeness: Description in the Modernist Novel, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2020. While description has been “near universally devalued” in literary thinking, and particularly in Modernism, Zhang argues that descriptive practices were in fact a crucial site of attention and experimentation for a number of early modernist writers. She focuses on the works of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Marcel Proust to investigate how modernist descriptive techniques shift from a transcription of visuals to a translation and revelation of relations—social, formal, and experiential—between disparate phenomena. These writers maintained realism’s descriptive intentions to empirically document the world but expanded these commitments in new ways to render immaterial phenomena into language. In doing so, Zhang carries us beyond the classic dichotomies between narration and description and definition and description in order to rethink description and its place in the novel and, more broadly, literature.
Britt Edelen is a Ph.D. student in English at Duke University. He focuses on modernism and the relationship(s) between language, philosophy, and literature. You can find him on Twitter or send him an email.
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