Alison James

Professor of French Literature, and the College; Department Chair
Wieboldt 224
Office Hours: By appointment (in-person and via Zoom; book at
PhD, Columbia University, 2005

I work on twentieth- and twenty-first-century French literature, with a particular focus on post-World War II experimental writing, representations of everyday life, chance and contingency in literature, and nonfiction narrative. What unites these interests is my enduring concern with literature’s varied modes of engagement with reality, and a fascination with the social and collective meanings of literary forms.

My first book, Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo (Northwestern University Press, 2009) studies one the major figures of postwar French literature. I argue that Perec uses formal and semantic constraints both as a spur to literary inspiration and as a means of exploring the tension between chance and determinism, fate and freedom, historical forces and human agency. My most recent book, The Documentary Imagination in Twentieth-Century French Literature (Oxford University Press, 2020) traces the emergence, in the wake of naturalism, of a documentary impulse that shapes literature’s relationship to visual representation, testimonial discourses, and autobiographical narrative. I show that the realist emphasis on authentic details becomes in the twentieth century a fascination with facts, which anticipates an explicit turn away from fictional invention in contemporary literature. My current research turns to the other side of the coin and to more recent literary production, exploring shifting conceptions of fiction and uses of fictionality in the last three decades.

My teaching has an important interdisciplinary component, often relating literature to the visual arts and/or cinema (“Littérature et photographie”; “Écritures du quotidien au XXe siècle”). In addition to introductory courses on modern and contemporary French prose and poetry, I have also taught undergraduate and graduate seminars on history in the novel, the literary avant-garde, realism, travel writing, and autobiography.

Books, Edited Volumes, Journal Issues

Selected Articles

  • “ ‘Ismaïl, lui aussi.’ Le romanesque du témoin dans La Disparition.” Cahiers Georges Perec, no. 13 (2019): 113–26.
  • “Re-reading Emmanuel Bove.” Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine, no. 18 (2019): 246–53.
  • “Dans la caverne de Platon ou de la fiction comme ‘réalité augmentée.’” In Régis Jauffret: éclats de la fiction, ed. Christophe Reig. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2017. 101–118.
  • “Interlingual Oulipo.” Modern Language Notes 131.4 (September 2016): 864-876.
  • “History-Forms: Jacques Jouet’s Documentary Poems.” Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: Sites 20.3 (2016): 444–452.
  • “La Force des faits dans l’écriture du présent.” In Pour un récit transnational: la fiction au défi de l’histoire immédiate, ed. Yolaine Parisot and Charline Pluvinet. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015. 311–323.
  • “Thinking the Everyday: Genre, Form, Fiction.” L’Esprit créateur 54.3 (Fall 2014): 78–91.
  • “Poem-Walking: The Survival of Paris in Jacques Roubaud’s La Forme d’une ville.”Modern Philology 111.1 (August 2013): 107–131.

Recent Courses in RLL

  • FREN 21740 Introduction à la poésie française du XXe siècle (Winter 2017)
  • FREN 22203/32203 The Literary Avant-Garde (Autumn 2017)
  • FREN 23444 Voyages littéraires, XXe-XXIe siècles (Spring 2020)
  • FREN 23711/33711 Littérature et photographie (Autumn 2016, Winter 2021)
  • FREN 23810 Memory and Identity in French Literature: Proust to the Present (Spring 2019)
  • FREN 24111/34111 L'écriture du quotidien au XXe siècle (Winter 2019)
  • FREN 24210/34210 Écrire le quotidien (XXe-XXIe siècles) (Spring 2024)
  • FREN 24888/34888 Jeux littéraires, XXe/XXIe siècles (Winter 2021)
  • FREN 25600/25600 Realism and Its Returns in 20th-Century France (Spring 2023)
  • FREN 26003 Introduction à l'autobiographie (Autumn 2020)
  • FREN 26680/36680, ENGL 26680/36680, CMLT 26680/36680 Literary Games: Oulipo and Onward (Spring 2025)
  • FREN 27777/37777 Existentialism and Its Literary Legacies (Spring 2020)
  • FREN 38510 Margins of Fiction in Contemporary France (Spring 2019)
  • RLLT 37000 Revising Prose (Autumn 2019)


Affiliated Departments and Centers: Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, France Chicago Center