ENGL 300 A: Reading Major Texts

Meeting Time: 
TTh 12:30pm - 2:20pm
LOW 201
Jessica Burstein
Jessica Burstein

Syllabus Description:

English 300A (Reading Major Texts): Picturing Novels: Oscar Wilde and the Art of/In the Novel

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” –Oscar Wilde

What is the relationship between art and life? This book takes Oscar Wilde’s gorgeous and confusing novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/1891) and uses it as an avenue into one of the most interesting things that novels have been grappling with since modernism rolled around: What is literature supposed to look at? By focusing on novels that present artworks—specifically visual art works like painting—we will investigate both “mimesis” (the relationship between art and life) and “ekphrasis” (the verbal depiction of a visual object). We will ask questions like: Is a novel a mirror to life? (Do mirrors reverse things?) What is art supposed to look like when it’s presented in words? (What is life supposed to look like when it’s put into words?)

Texts will include The Picture of Dorian Gray, the contemporary American writer Claire Messud and her The Woman Upstairs (2013), the Scottish writer Monica Ali and her How to Be Both (2014)–which is divided into two parts, and was published in two different formats, so how you read the novel varied from book to book, and reader to reader. We may also engage the English writer Will Self’s Dorian: An Imitation, which stages Wilde’s novel at the end of the 20th century rather than the 19th, and uses visual technologies other than painting; and/or the Canadian writer Sheila Heti and her 2010 How Should a Person Be? and/or Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014). We’ll look at some short stories depicting the depiction of drawing or artmaking, like Henry James’ odd “The Real Thing” (1892), and Ben Lerner’s dizzying “The Polish Rider” (2016), which involves an Uber ride and takes its name from a Rembrandt painting. Other texts may include John Updike’s Seek My Face, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning The Goldfinch, which centers around an extraordinary painting you can see here.

In addition to English major types interested in the limits of language (and bettering theirs [bettering language, not your limits]), this class should also be of interest to students working in other fields—especially art or technology, since one of the upshots is whether words and pictures are in a combative relationship. Above all, we’ll be reading some really good art. (And looking at some important pictures every now and again.)

Assessment will be based on response papers, active and informed participation, and 2 papers.

Professor Burstein, English 300A Winter 2018 Tues/Thurs 12.30-2.20 Loew 201

Reading Major Texts: “Picturing Novels: Oscar Wilde and the Art of/in the Novel”

Office Hours Tues/Thurs 11-12 and by appt. Padelford A502                              jb2@uw.edu


Texts. You need these editions; we do close reading in class and the pagination matters.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Norton Critical Editions, 2nd edition ISBN-13: 978-0393927542

Will Self, Dorian: An Imitation. Grove Press ISBN-13: 978-0802140470

Ali Smith, How To Be Both. Anchor Books ISBN-13: 978-0307275257

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World. Simon and Schuster ISBN-13: 978-1476747231

Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs. Vintage ISBN-13: 978-0307743763


You have a packet with the required additional readings (indicated with an asterisk on schedule below) available at Rams Copy Center, 4144 University Way.


Week 1

Thurs 4 Jan: Intro


Week 2

Tues 9 Jan Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Edith Hamilton on Narcissus.* Response Paper #1 due.

Thurs 11 Jan: Wilde, con’t


Week 3

Tues 16 Jan: Wilde, con’t. Visit from Odegaard Writing Center.  

Thurs 18 Jan: Self, Dorian (2002). RP #2 due.


Week 4

Tues 23 Jan: Self, con’t; Hamilton on Galatea.*

Thurs 25 Jan: Self, con’t.


Week 5

Tues 30 Jan Hustvedt, The Blazing World (2014), pp. 1-134. The notes are part of the novel; read them. Google your heads off to keep track of the novel’s references, many of which are to artists, philosophers and writers in the world you inhabit.

Thurs 1 Feb Blazing World, pp.135-243. See page 227 for Judith Butler reference. RP #3 due.


Week 6

Tues 6 Feb The Blazing World, pp. 244 – end. (Pay special attention to pp. 250-56, “Richard Brickman, “letter to the editor of The Open I.” Read the footnotes.)

Thurs 8 Feb Lerner, “The Polish Rider” (2016). See Rembrandt’s 1650s painting The Polish Rider and other links in Canvas “Files”: https://collections.frick.org/objects/239/the-polish-rider

Paper #1 due.


Week 7

Tues 13 Feb; Ali, How to Be Both (2014), in its entirety, but start with the “George” section regardless of your edition; it follows the drawing of the CCTV camera, and begins “Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George’s mother says” (p. 163 [maybe]).

Thurs 15 Feb Ali, con’t. RP #4 due.



Week 8

Tues 20 Feb Ali, con’t; Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971)* See Files Section for article.

Thurs 22 Feb: Messud, The Woman Upstairs (2013). RP #5 due.


Week 9

Tues 27 Feb; Messud, con’t

Thurs 2 March Messud, con’t


Week 10

Tues 6 March: March: Balzac, “The Unknown Masterpiece” (1831). Reread Hamilton on Pygmalion and Galatea.* See painting by Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Et_in_Arcadia_ego

Thurs 8 March: Conclusion, Paper #2 due.


Course Requirements

  1. Read the syllabus carefully. Reread it before asking a question to do with class logistics in order to verify your question’s answer is not there. Please tell me if there is something confusing or unclear about this syllabus.


  1. You are expected to participate in class discussions. You must be present to do so, which is to say Come to class. I realize public speaking can be challenging; talk to me in office hours about this if you wish. Depending on my sense of class engagement, in-class quizzes may be given. Quizzes may not be taken belatedly without medical documentation regarding an absence. If you miss class, do not email me to explain why; contact a class member to catch up.

            Do not surf the internet, check your phone, etc. in class. I may tell you or the class that note-taking must be by hand if there is an issue with this. If you need to keep the phone on in case of emergency, let me know.

  1. Have completed reading each novel on the day we begin its discussion unless otherwise indicated on the syllabus. Time management is part of being in college/an adult; don’t wait until the night before to start a novel. Look at the book ahead of time and consider your life’s work rhythms.


  1. Response Papers. Being a good reader means being an active reader. The intellectual purpose of the response papers is twofold: to give you a start in thinking critically and in a focused manner about the material; and to give me a chance to register your impressions and adjust our discussions accordingly.


On four of the five days indicated you will turn in a single-spaced, substantive one-page / 500 words-or-so response paper (RP) formulated around a specific question or observation having to do with the text under discussion that day/week. Use standard paragraphing and single spacing throughout, i.e., Do not use the default spacing Word may supply that inserts spaces between paragraphs.

            Your response paper will receive a check minus, check, or a check plus; or a zero if it’s not on point (see below). Check minuses mean you need to try harder next time (see the comments on where to begin); checks mean you are doing fine; check pluses mean you have moved beyond fine. I tend to be parsimonious with check pluses; don’t panic if you don’t get one—a series of checks is a solid performance, and combined with good paper grades mean you’re doing quite well. At the end of the quarter, I will assess your performance on the responses papers over the arc of the course as a whole. You can skip one response paper other than RP #1 with no penalty. If you choose not to, I will drop your lowest RP “grade.”


  • You may formulate your response papers as questions, ones which you begin to consider how to answer, or explain why the question emerges as an important one. In addition to being focused the question you engage should not be answered readily by a simple yes or no. Even so, avoid questions like “What is the author's intention in using X?"; "What is the deeper meaning of Y?": they’re too big. (Too, the phrase “deeper meaning” I counsel you to avoid; we can discuss why.) You will need to focus a question or issue, and will learn how to do so in writing these response papers over the course of the class. You are relieved of the burden of answering the question definitively—but you should begin to answer the question. Think concretely, and stay focused on what the text tells you, not what your impressions are at a general, which is to say unfocused, level.
  • Do not use first person. Avoid reference to “the reader.” This will force you to focus on the text. (“I love how X happens” will become “X is an important issue because [some reason more specific than your love for it: the way it mattered to the text, the way it was reversed later, etc.].”)
  • Use quotations from the text, cited parenthetically with page number, like “this” (42), to reference or explain your question, and your answer or tentative answers to it; or to explain why the question is an important one. The point is to keep you "close" to the text; don't speculate or engage in generalizations. Occasionally, in order to open discussion, you may be asked to present (verbally) your response paper to the class.
  • Regard it as a mini-paper, but one for which you do not need a thesis.
  • Proofread. Style matters. See “Marginal Comments” below. Give your RP an interesting title, and a good epigraph from any source if one comes to you. You’ll be rolling in them after Wilde.
  • I may announce a given topic or specific directions for the next response paper. If you turn in a

response paper that does not respond to that announcement, it will count as a zero.

  • Response papers may not be turned in handwritten, late, early, or by Email.


  1. Papers. Paper #1: 4 pages, on one text; Paper #2: 7-10 pages, on 2 texts. Specifics TBA.

Format: Papers must be typed, stapled, double-spaced (response papers will be single-spaced), with numbered pages and one-inch margins. You must use a standard 12 point font, and standard paragraphing, not the default spacing Word may supply, which inserts spaces between paragraphs. You will be penalized for incorrect formatting. Make and keep an extra hard copy of each paper until the term is over.

            If papers are late, they will be graded down. If very late, they may not be accepted.

Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism includes lifting material from the web, collusion, and the use of sources without citation. If you have any questions regarding what constitutes plagiarism, consult me. All sources must be documented, and papers are to be the result of your own labor.


I am happy to meet with you during office hours to discuss ideas you have (or don't have) regarding your paper as you are writing (or not writing). I encourage you to use office hours; former students tend to say they wished they had talked to their professors more—and office hours were made for that aspect of your education.

            I do not read drafts but you can bring the paper/notes with you to help you focus your questions. Don’t worry about being on point in this sort of meeting: I recognize the value of simply being able to toss ideas around. That said, you need to come in with more than “What should I write about?” I don’t know. Spend some time thinking about what’s interesting, or annoying, about some of the texts/ ideas.

            I do not conduct office hours by email, and you must not expect to receive feedback on ideas for papers if you email me a few days before a due date. Plan ahead.

  1. Grading. Paper #1: 30%; Paper #2: 35%; Participation and Response Papers: 35%


  1. Check your UW email once a day for the duration of the term. I may communicate with you or the class that way.




Marginal Comments: The Lexicon

I put comments on papers so you can improve your writing and thinking; pay attention to them, and ask me if you have any questions. You may find in the margins some or all of the following abbreviations indicating errors and problems. Subsequent papers should not repeat these errors. Making the same mistakes repeatedly over the course of the quarter will weigh increasingly heavily against the grade.


             c.s. Comma splice: joining 2 sentences with a comma, rather than treating them grammatically by (1) employing a semicolon, (2) joining them with a conjunction, or (3) severing them with a period. This is one of the most common errors, I will grade you down for it, if you still don't know what a comma splice is you haven't read this sentence closely enough.

frag   Sentence fragment. Do not begin a sentence with “But,” “And,” or “So.” Or "Or." That last one was a fragment.

w.c.   Word choice is inappropriate. Look the word up in a dictionary.

sp   Misspelled word

syn Syntax is awkward

awk   Awkward use of language or idea

l.c.   Word should be lower-cased

cap. Word should be capitalized

punc. Punctuation error


This syllabus is subject to change. You are responsible for keeping up with any modifications to our schedule or assignments. This posted version of the syllabus does not substitute for any further modifications made in class.


 If you require accommodation owing to a disability, immediately contact the Disabilities Resources for Students Office (DRS) in Schmitz Hall 448 (206-548-8924; uwdss@u.washington.edu) or the Disabilities Services Office (DSO) at dso@u.washington.edu. It is your responsibility to notify me in writing and in advance of any accommodations to be arranged by either the DSO or DRS office and—should forms be involved—to deliver those to me in person during office hours, with time enough to allow for us to arrive at a mutual understanding of the means by which those accommodations are best met.

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Catalog Description: 
Intensive examination of one or a few major works of literature. Classroom work to develop skills of careful and critical reading. Book selection varies, but reading consists of major works by important authors and of selected supplementary materials.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 10:40pm