Fredric Jameson and Franco Moretti top the list among living Marxist literary critics who write in English. Nearly a generation apart, but now equally senior eminences, they sustain Verso with their books, while their essays add luster to New Left Review. In recent works—Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism and Moretti’s Bourgeois—both retain the power to surprise. If famous literary scholars were rock stars, websites would herald their new titles with evocative headlines: for Moretti, “Distant Reader Closes In”; for Jameson, “Here at Last! His Book on George Eliot.” Taking the two together: “Leading Male Marxists Spar over George Eliot.”

Here’s the story behind the headlines. Jameson analyzes realism as feeding from two sources: first, narrative—no surprise there—but also “affect, or the body’s present” (27). Narrative defines a temporal structure of past-present-future, while affect provides an alternative, flatter temporality. The relation of...

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