History of the Novel
Samuel Johnson defined the novel as “A short tale, generally of love.” The Great God Wikipedia says it’s “a relatively long work of narrative fiction, normally in prose.” What’s a scholar to think?
This course introduces the student to the novel as a historical and plastic form. It focuses on the novel as the site for the emergence of a new kind of narrative, and we will think about what narrative does to the novel. It engages the novel in terms of a transhistorical arc, and accordingly we will be reading novels from the long 18th through the 21st centuries. Accordingly we will be reading a lot, and you should have your super-ego well in hand. One leitmotif will be bildungsroman as a novel of education—first because it’s a semi-type of novel we can semi-hang onto and see what happens to it; and second because it allows us to examine various forms of institutions—the school, the Grand Tour, and myriad shapes of “experience.” Tone is more slippery, but it’s key to being a decent critic, and so will be another issue to think about. We’ll focus on —not exclusively, which is what focus allows—novels that foreground female characters, because the novel wanted to teach them something, whether they were frolicking within its pages or reading the pages.
We will engage the long 18th century; linger in the 19th century over George Eliot’s magisterial Middlemarch, and/or Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady; and since it just happens to be the most important novel ever written, but unfortunately for us monologistically Anglo heathens in French, a translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. We then/thereby saunter into modernism and the 20th century, with Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Solder, which will seem delicious for its relative brevity until you realize you’re completely annoyed. We’ll read at least one other modernist novel, possibly Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, since it’s middlebrow (a burgeoning area of criticism nowadays), the runaway bestseller of its period, vaunted by Edith Wharton as the Great American Novel, and written as (spoiler) a diary. It’s also great fun. I’m not sure what novel for the mid-20th century; it might be The Crying of Lot 49, or Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m still thinking about late 20th/ early 21st century because it keeps on happening. Ali Smith, anyone? She will probably win the Nobel Prize at some point. J. M. Coetzee (who wrote his dissertation on Ford) already did, and so we might read his Elizabeth Costello, parts of which JMC used for his own proclamations of vegetarianism. We’ll read his Nobel Prize speech too, for its own form, and future use when you write yours. We probably won’t be doing Mrs. Dalloway, but I’d like to know if you’ve already read it, so email me.
This will be a class employing close, not distant, reading. Guiding us at moments will be Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel,” and her contrast between “experimental” and “realist” routes. We’ll use Jesse Matz’s pithy little monograph on the novel; some bits of Caserio’s The Novel in England; and I’ll make you look at a monster book on the novel that I won’t name here out of diplomacy so you can see what kinds of criticism are useless. Frank Kermode and Lionel Trilling may appear in order that you can see what kinds of criticism are not useless.
The course will deploy—or rather you will-- class presentations rather than a research paper. Another learning outcome will be your doing a conference paper, so you get used to or better at what those creatures entail—synthesizing a novel for a 20-minute presentation (or a dissertation chapter) is an art of its own, as is acquainting yourself with current critical conversations on the text you’re talking about. Oh, and you’ll have to have a thesis for that conference paper, so if you didn't know what that was before this class, you will afterwards.
When I face the brute fact of a syllabus, some things might change in terms of reading lists, but this is the general theory. In any case, you’ll emerge knowing where the novel came from and what has happened along the way to what counts as now.