Representing play and games in English-speaking literature

A one-day conference organized by OVALE and VALE EA4085 – Paris IV Sorbonne

June 14th, 2014 / Maison de la Recherche – Paris IV Sorbonne / 28, rue Serpente, 75006 Paris

Keynote speaker: Joyce Goggin, Universiteit Van Amsterdam

“Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it”.
(Walt Whitman, « Song of Myself »)

During a rather odd game of croquet, Lewis Caroll’s Alice is struggling to hit a live hedgehog with a hardly cooperative flamingo. It seems that the rules of that game are just as puzzling to the English girl as Lewis Carroll’s prose writing was for 19th century readers. However, nonsensical as they might be, these rules create a playful world built on organizing principles as opaque to Alice and to the reader as they are clear to the other characters. The fact that both literature and games share the same “world-creating” capacity points towards a kinship between playing and writing, as highlighted by Freud as soon as 1908: “Each child at play behaves like a creative writer in that he creates a world of his own”.

This one-day conference invites researchers to analyze the various ways play and games are represented in English-speaking literary works from the start of the 19th century to now. The analysis of explicit references to games – ranging from Nell Trent and his grandparents’ gambling misfortune in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop to Lolita’s tennis skills in Nabokov’s eponymous novel – will help study the function of play and games in fictional writing on a poetical, political and metatextual level.

We wish to question the literary stakes of play, an activity delimited by predetermined rules and in which players engage voluntarily. In what way do literary references to that activity highlight the power relations within the text? For instance, how do play and games inform characterization? For example, when the stock character of the ingenious player gains the upper hand over the ingenuous one, what are the consequences on the moral tenets of the work? To what extent may the representation of game, that suspended moment cut off from reality, inflect the work’s structure? Playing can create a pause, a brief stasis in the text, but it can also trigger off the dramatic catastrophe, in the Aristotelian sense of the term, as references to gambling often show. Hence one could explore the unpredictability of play, a potentially harmful, even lethal activity, and the representation and role of the “thrill of the game” in the economy of works of fiction.

But the thrill of the game also runs down the spine of the reader. It might be tempting indeed to draw a parallel between the characters playing and the reader apprehending the work, a parallel explored by Chad Harbach in his novel The Art of Fielding for instance. This similitude informs the reader-response theories that fundamentally posit that reading is a playful activity. Thus concrete and metaphorical references to games are strongly metatextual and the similarity has often been used by scholars—from Ricœur to Blanchot—to designate the hermeneutic activity. But does the reader always approach the text as if he were playing? Is not this hackneyed reference to the pitfalls of the hermeneutic game the very trap looming ahead of the theoretician’s path?

Topics may include but are not limited to:
– the representation of games and play and its modalities across different eras and literary genres
– the rules of the game: how play fuses constraint and freedom or enacts power and submission
– the game as non-playful activity, devoid of pleasure, violent or perverse
– play and sacredness, play and rituals
– time and temporality of the game
– the escapist temptation of the game
– illusion and truth, games and masquerades
– play and games and critical theory

Please send an abstract (in English or French – 300 words max) and short biographical note to by March 2nd 2014. Selected papers will be published in Sillages Critiques.