Anthropologists and Novelists

Richard Handler in Public Books:

Tim Watson’s Culture Writing surveys the border between anthropology and literature in the years following World War II. Watson provides illuminating readings of British social anthropology in relation to novels by Barbara Pym, and of North American cultural anthropology in relation to novels by Ursula Le Guin and Saul Bellow. There are also chapters on Édouard Glissant and Michel Leiris, working in the French tradition (in which the border between literary and ethnographic writing was configured differently than it was in the Anglo-American tradition). While anthropologists will find much of value in Watson’s individual readings, they may find his broader sketch of their disciplinary history to be seriously askew, as I shall suggest in what follows.

The main characters of Culture Writing are literary authors who had close connections to anthropology, the fictional anthropologists those authors created, and anthropologists who wrote about their work in literary genres that were not professionally conventional for them at the time. Discussing fictional anthropologists created by novelists who knew a lot about anthropology—and relating those characters and the novels in which they appear to the state of professional anthropology of the time—is a genuinely creative critical move.

More here.