The obvious humanity of books would seem to make literature and human rights natural allies. But is the connection about between literature and human rights as obvious and as benign as we assume? This lecture explores how the history of human rights owes much to the creative imagining of writers to ask what remains of this legacy today.

Right now, when ideas about human rights and the humanizing benefits of literary education are both under attack, I’ll argue it is not enough to claim that literature is the empathetic wing of the human rights movement.  Instead, the writers we need how are the historical truthtellers, the bold callers out of easy sympathy and comfortable platitudes – the creative-critical anti-colonialists, feminists, and political-moralists for whom literary sentiment was never enough to make the inequalities and injustices of the world okay.

Lyndsey Stonebridge is Interdisciplinary Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her recent books include Placeless People: Rights, Writing, and Refugees (OUP, 2018), winner of the Modernist Studies Association Best Book Prize, 2019, The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg (EUP, 2011), winner of the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize. Her other books include The Destructive Element (1998), Reading Melanie Klein (with John Phillips, 1998), The Writing of Anxiety (2007), and British Fiction after Modernism (with Marina MacKay, 2007). Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights, is out with Oxford University Press later this year. She is currently writing a book on the relevance of Hannah Arendt for our times, Thinking Like Hannah Arendt, which will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2022, and collaborating two interdisciplinary projects Refugee Hosts and Rights4Time.


This plenary is sponsored by English.

English is an internationally known journal of literary criticism, published on behalf of The English Association. Each issue contains essays on a wide range of authors and literary texts in English, aimed at readers within universities and colleges and presented in a lively and engaging style. There is a substantial review section, in which reviewers have space to situate a book within the context of recent developments in its field, and present a detailed argument. English is unusual among academic journals in publishing original poetry. This policy embodies the view that the critical and creative functions, often so widely separated in the teaching of English, can co-exist and cross-fertilise each other.