ENGL 242 F: Reading Prose Fiction

21st Century American Fiction and the Cultural Turn

Meeting Time: 
MTWTh 11:30am - 12:20pm
CDH 101
Photo of Ben Wirth
James Benson Wirth

Syllabus Description:

ENGL 242 F: Reading Prose Fiction

21st Century Literature and the Cultural Turn

CDN 101 / M-Th 11:30-12:20


Instructor: Ben Wirth   

E-mail: jbwirth@uw.edu

Office: ART 347

Office Hours: F 12:00-2:00 PM


Course Description


In his introduction to Visual Culture, Stuart Hall, a formative scholar in the development of contemporary cultural studies, writes that:

Culture comes into play at precisely the point where biological individuals become subjects, and that what lies between the two is not some automatically constituted “natural” process of socialization but much more complex processes of formation. (312)

Hall’s conjecture here, that as we become subjects (of analysis, of understanding, of critique) we also become subject to cultural processes, helps situate us within the complex problems that many of our texts for this quarter help us to deal with. Because, as Hall guides us, the belief in a “natural” will always be clouded with various types of prejudice, it also fails to be representative of the multivalent cultural experiences of modern life (i.e. Whose culture is being represented?). This idea, and many others, will help us to frame the texts we will be reading this quarter.  


Above all, the goal of this course is to put the literature for our class into conversation with cultural, social, and political contexts, and to see how these texts are themselves a cultural product. We will be reading a variety of novels for this course, from the near magical realism of Diaz’s American diaspora to the paranoid near-future science fiction of William Gibson. This variance in material points to another goal of the course—to experience what various contemporary authors are writing about. For various reasons, the timescale of literature can be long and slow, and rarely are students given an opportunity to study contemporary work in a classroom setting. Our class is comprised entirely of novels of the 21st century, and these texts will be put into dialogue with the anxieties, fears, and tensions of the present.  


An important note: as the course title suggests, this is a course largely about reading literature. Your work for the class will primarily be independent reading at an accelerated pace. We will be reading five novels in our ten-week class plus additional critical essays, so you can expect to be reading roughly 200 pages of material a week in addition to the writing for the course. As this is a W class, in addition to our reading you will be completing 15 pages of graded writing, which will incorporate revision of this material.


Texts and Materials

  • David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life (2013), ISBN#: 978-0345802729
  • Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days (2001), ISBN#: 978-0385498203
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002), ISBN#: 978-0312427733
  • William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003), ISBN#: 978-0425198681
  • Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), ISBN#: 978-1594483295
  • Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), ISBN#: 978-0307477477
  • Course Reader, available at Ave Copy Center*
  • Microsoft Word, Canvas access, UW e-mail access




Midterm / Final Paper – 50% (25% each)

Twice during the quarter you will be crafting longer, graded essays. These essays will be a minimum of 2400 words, roughly seven and a half double-spaced pages each. The goal of these papers will be to demonstrate the ability to synthesize the various texts of our course into an argument, with literary analysis being the primary focus. You have a great deal of freedom on these assignments, but there will be some guidelines.


Closer to the due dates for these assignments, I will distribute some suggested prompts to help you get started. These are not meant to be the only options for your papers, but merely suggestions that have developed from our discussions in class. Once your papers are turned in, I will grade them and provide feedback to you. You will be required to complete a revision of your midterm paper (your revision will determine the grade on your midterm), but not the final paper.


Reading Responses – 20%

In addition to your longer papers, you will be responsible for writing reading responses throughout the quarter. The goal of this assignment is two-fold: first, of course, to establish a way to make sure you are keeping up with the readings for the class. However, many versions of assignments that attempt to achieve that are boring for you to produce and even more boring for me to read. With that in mind, I’ve attempted to make this assignment a bit more engaging. The second goal of this assignment is to allow us to begin to make connections between the material we are reading in our class and the greater world we find ourselves a part of.


Throughout the quarter, you will be responsible for crafting 6 reading responses, each being two pages in length (600 words minimum). One reading response must be on one of our secondary readings. These responses can be completed for any reading during the quarter, but must be turned in on the day the reading is due, before our class meets. So, if you want to do a reading response for our first assigned reading, the response is due before 11:30am on Monday, 9/29.


It’s easier to first start on what these responses are not meant to be. They are not meant to be plot summaries—proving that you’ve read the material is a bare minimum achievement, and these responses aspire to be something more. As well, I’ve read these books too, so it doesn’t do much for either of us to have you tell me what happens. These responses are not meant to be merely personal reflections—there are always opportunities for discussion on what you felt about the reading (it is usually how I start our discussions), but this is not the place. Again, we’re aiming higher. Lastly, I’m not really looking for literary analysis here. That might sound strange, but the kind of writing you will be doing in your responses is something different from your longer, analytical papers. There will be an opportunity to use these as practice for analysis, but it is not a requirement for you to do so, and I mostly advise against it.


What I am looking for with this assignment is for you to build connections from the material we are reading in class to material outside of our classroom. “Connections” is the key word here—connections between themes, between theories, between histories, between ideologies, and so forth. As the syllabus notes, one of the goals of our course is to develop an understanding for the necessity of literature in our lives as social actors, and this is one opportunity to do so. Here are some ideas for how to build these connections:


  • Between readings, either in our class or out—does something from the material in our class remind you of something you read in a class you are in or have taken? What about from our critical essays in our class? What connections exist across texts we have read?
  • With current events—many of our readings, in part because they are relatively new, deal with contemporary issues. Where can you see linkages between the themes of our readings and things happening in the world?
  • With public discourse—by this I primarily mean connecting the arguments of our readings to contemporary political/social debate. What kind of political statements do these books and articles make? What conversations can you put these authors in with these issues? What do they challenge?
  • With secondary readings and pop culture—an important part of understanding our secondary readings is to see them as more than just intellectual exercises, but as an analysis of culture in which their relevance only increases. How can you connect these theoretical readings to an element of popular culture?


You can choose any of these prompts for any of your reading responses—you can do the same one every time, mix and match, whatever you feel will produce your best writing. Again, the goal of these assignments is not for them to be tedious and time-consuming, but to develop a way of seeing literature and critical essays as parts of our world, teaching us how to navigate the often difficult task of being a part of it.


Participation – 30%

Participation is fundamental to this class, and there are a variety of ways in which participation manifests itself. Here are a few:

  • Participation during in-class discussions – Speaking in class is the most important way for you to participate in class. Your willingness to enhance the class discussion with thoughtful questions and comments is as important as anything else in this class—the primary determiner in your participation grade is what you bring to each class every day. Not only is it a way to demonstrate your completion of our readings, but is also an opportunity to try out ideas that can be developed into future papers.  
  • On-task communication during group work – Occasionally we will make use of smaller, independent group discussions before our whole-class discussions of material. I encourage non-linear thinking in class, but a failure to achieve assigned tasks in group discussions or a consistent lack of contribution will also be a problem for your participation grade. 
  • Coherent attendance – Just showing up for the class is the lowest possible bar for participation, and merely being a presence will not do much for your participation grade. An inability to stay coherent during class (checking your phone, daydreaming, falling asleep, etc.) will adversely impact your participation grade, as you are both inattentive and distracting.

A failure to achieve these roles asked of you in the classroom will negatively impact your overall participation grade. If you are a naturally quiet student, there are other opportunities to buffer the impact on your participation grade, but nothing can replace making your voice heard in class. It’s what I want to hear the most (rather than mine), and I will encourage all of you to use my class as a place to conquer your fears of speaking in a respectful, supportive environment—one which may be difficult to find in other classrooms and other places in your life.


Course Policies



You are expected to be an active participant in class, so come prepared to contribute to the discussion and participate in activities. When you miss a class, you miss the opportunity to be a member of the class community. If you know you are going to miss class, please let me know in advance. Also, find another student to get class notes from and propose to me how you plan to make up missed work in a timely manner.  Remember as well that it is particularly important for you to arrive on time. If you come in after class has started, even by only a few minutes, you will be considered late. Attendance problems will negatively affect your participation grade.



There will be no technology permitted for this class. The only exceptions to this rule are dedicated e-readers (Kindles, Nooks), or if there is a specific disability-related reason that requires the usage of a computer. This may seem annoying, but hear me out: this course is primarily about reading and discussing literature, something that requires reflection and focus, not distraction. As well, our class meets for only 50 minutes, 4 times a week. It seems to me not a huge ask, and perhaps even a brief respite, to disconnect yourself from technology for that time. Consider what you are paying this university to attend it, then consider if my 50-minute class would be best spent on reddit.  Additionally, silence your cell phones and do not text message in class. It is a distraction, and, no matter what you think, will always be obvious to me that you are doing it. Any abuse of this rule will negatively affect your participation grade.


Late Work

All assignments are due on the date specified before the start of class, and I will not accept papers by email. Use the Canvas assignments page to submit your assignments. Each late paper will result in a deduction of 2.5% out of the total 30% possible for your participation grade. I will also not give feedback on any assignments that are turned in late or incomplete. However, late work will still need to be completed, as all assignments must be completed in order to receive a passing grade. If you are having trouble and may be unable to turn things in on time, please contact me ASAP—before the assignment is due. Please note that work that does not fulfill page length requirements will be considered incomplete and will not receive feedback.



Plagiarism, or academic dishonesty, is presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own. In your writing for this class, you are encouraged to refer to other people's thoughts and writing--as long as you cite them. As a matter of policy, any student found to have plagiarized any piece of writing in this class will be immediately reported to the College of Arts and Sciences for review.



If you need accommodation of any sort, please let me know so that I can work with the UW Disability Services Office (DSO) to provide what you require. This syllabus is available in large print, as are other class materials. More information about accommodation may be found at http://www.washington.edu/admin/dso/.


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Additional Details:

As the title of this course implies, this is a course primarily about reading prose fiction, but there are many parts to this that will interrogate our process of reading. First, of course, we will develop our reading skills by engaging with a variety of texts, both literary and critical, throughout the quarter. We will be pushing ourselves out of traditional boundaries of fiction and expanding our critical thinking skills. As well, we will be attempting to answer why we read prose fiction, why it maintains cultural relevance, why one would study it, and what it provides to us as we make sense of our own lives. This will also engage us in the form of frequent writing assignments, as we begin to learn how to approach these texts as opportunities for cultural critique and cultural understanding, reading beyond the emotive experience of literature.

The texts for this course are contemporary and place the analysis of culture as their primary literary goal. These range from post-9/11 paranoia and our place in history in Gibson's Pattern Recognition to the difficulties of finding a place in a diasporic and fantastical world in Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In reading these texts, we will grow not only as readers and thinkers, but as empathetic citizens of a world that is always expanding in its variance and difficulty.

4. Book List –

Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days (2001), ISBN#: 978-0385498203

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002), ISBN#: 978-0312427733

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003), ISBN#: 978-0425198681

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), ISBN#: 978-1594483295

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), ISBN#: 978-0307477477

Course Reader, available at Ave Copy Center

Catalog Description: 
Critical interpretation and meaning in works of prose fiction, representing a variety of types and periods.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Other Requirements Met: 
Last updated: 
March 15, 2016 - 3:31pm