African literature, comprising both works written in Africa and writings from the diaspora, occupies an important place in the curriculum and research of numerous universities in Africa, America and Europe. Over the last thirty years real progress has been made in the knowledge of this literature, as the growing number of scholarly works on the subject and regular publications in the field testify. In this article we will comment very briefly on the current status of research on African literature, and then embark on a discussion of a number
of general issues, viewing this research as a point of departure for scrutinising the task of the academic critic and for investigating both the construction of the text corpus (as a research object) by critics, writers and society, and the premises underlying their conceptual and analytical tools. In using the term ‘African literature’ in the singular we refer to the generic conceptualisation of literature as an event, without of course denying it the pluralistic manifestations that sometimes lead critics to talk about ‘literatures’. Contemporary readings of African literature often suffer from a lack of analytical tools that can do justice to the complexities of the intertwined histories of the former colonies and Europe. Presenting a number of
examples, we will argue that African literature requires a reading that acknowledges this complexity, while also considering the importance of intertextuality, the presence of universal themes of human concern, and the autonomy of the writer. Finally, we will apply some concepts from the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in order to outline the ways in which the works of African writers can benefit the development of literary scholarship in general. Considering the percentage of university courses on the subject, the number of theses presented and of jobs advertised in the discipline, there is no doubt that there has been a positive development in this area in many countries since the 1970’s. However, despite such progress it cannot be ignored that there is still a certain degree of resistance to and reticence about teaching and critiquing African literature in some European and
American universities. Firstly, in some instances university structures continue to affirm, implicitly or explicitly, the existence of a hierarchy in
the field of literature, on the model of the centre versus the periphery. In
France, for example, there is the opposition between ‘French literature’ and ‘Francophone literature’, and in the United States between the ‘canon’ and the ‘minority’. Furthermore, works on literary theory continue to focus for the most part on authors belonging to the literature of the centre, such as Dante,
Miguel de Cervantes, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Henry James, James Joyce, etc. Yet writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant (from Martinique), and V.Y. Mudimbe have produced a theoretical corpus which must be analysed for its general literary value, and not only in relation to African texts. In this respect, it is interesting to note that while the New Criticism in France represented an important innovation in method, it was still founded exclusively on a corpus of classical texts. Critics like Roland Barthes or Gérard Genette have not written a single line on writers from the Francophone perimeter. Even Kateb Yacine’s famous novel Nedjma, published in 1956, has never captured the attention of specialists of the nouveau roman, despite its sophisticated narration.