ENGL 242 C: Reading Prose Fiction

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

Syllabus Description:

Instructor: Jessica Burstein
Schedule: TTH  1230 - 220   
Love, Sex, and Death

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” –Joan Didion

“He lies like an eye witness.” –Russian Proverb

This course moves through 4 kinds of prose fiction: the novel, the short story, the short story collection, and a little monster called the novella. I’m particularly interested in issues of form, and the realm of gender.

            We’ll talk about 3 things. (1) Themes, and their treatment—love, sex, death, and/or identity are good ones ; (2) form--that’s a hard word: it will encompass structure, how the thing looks on the page, why a last line might matter, or why a list might be a short story; and (3) tone, which is the hardest thing to hear in literature, or any form of text, including the one on your phone. Hopefully you’ll learn the most important thing that literature has to say: what is being is tied to the way it’s being said. Always, but definitely in art. I also want to trouble any sense you have that objectivity exists aside from a contingent context, so you might want to take this class if you’re in the sciences. Or not.

            We will also look at what is not there—as in what is implied. That’s not the same as “it’s all relative, so this could be about anything since literary interpretation fetishizes ambiguity, and I think this story is sort of about my grandmother” (with all due respect to your grandmother, that’s What We Won’t Be Doing)—and try to pinpoint what makes some writers good or less good at their jobs. In so doing, you’ll become better at yours, which is reading.

            Authors likely include recent Nobel Prize Winner Alice Munro, unrecent Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway, and future Nobel Prize winner Ali Smith--as well as Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf,  Edith Wharton,  Annie Proulx, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, John Cheever, Raymond Carver—who is from this neck of the woods and changed the course of American prose--and Lorrie Moore (my nomination for the best living short story writer in America but see what you think). I also want you to read one thing in translation, so you will get the beautiful, sorrowful, and challenging Dorthe Nors.

In terms of learning outcomes, you will emerge with an improved ability to close read, which will make you able to be a better human being. You will also be pushed to read and think critically. This is hard, since it means stepping away from what you’re saying to specify the evidence and assumptions grounding your statement. (If you want to go to law school, take this class.) . You’ll have an advanced sense of historical context for fiction; and have read 3 of the best English-language novels of the 20th and 21st centuries, and highly estimable work from England, Scotland, Canada, and the United States.


Texts: You need these editions, in hard copy; we close read in class and all need to literally be on the same page. As you will learn from Ali Smith, materiality matters.

James Joyce, Dubliners Brenda Maddox, ed. ISBN-13: 978-0553213805 Bantam Press.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway,  (Mariner, HBJ. ISBN-13: 978-0156628709

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

Dorthe Nors, So Much for that Winter, trans. Misha Hoekstra (Graywolf Press) ISBN-13: 978-1555977429

Course reader: available at Rams Copy Center 4144 University Way NE



Week 1

Tuesday 7 January Introduction.

Thursday 9 January Love, Sex, and Death

Hemingway: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever,” Cheever, “The Swimmer”


            Week 2: Forms: From the Short Story to the Collection

Tuesday 14 January: Joyce, Dubliners (1914), story-by-story RP# 1 due: One Dubliners paragraph.

Thursday 16 January: Dubliners, story-by-story; Mansfield, “Psychology”


Week 3:  Form: From the Collection to Point of View

Tuesday 21 January: Dubliners in toto.

Thursday 23 January: First and Second and Third Person

Joyce, “Araby,” Moore, “How to Become a Writer” Mansfield, “Bliss,” “Miss Brill”  RP #2  


Week 4: Form and Time

Tuesday 28 January: Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Thursday 30 January: Woolf, Dalloway


Week 5: Tone

Tuesday 4 February: Woolf, Dalloway RP # 3

Thursday 6 February Love, Sex, and Death (The Implicit): 

Parker, “Here We Are,” Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants,” Munroe, “Fits”


Week 6: Love

Tuesday 11 February: Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” “Cathedral”; Joyce, “The Dead,” Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain” (1997)

Thursday 13 February: No class.


Week 7: Forms

Tuesday 18 February:  Ali Smith, How To Be Both (2014) Start with CCTV camera section.

RP#4 due

Thursday 20 February: Smith, con’t.


Week 8: Echoes

Tuesday 25 February: Smith, con’t

Thursday 27 February: Nors, So Much for That Winter (2016)


Week 9

Tuesday 3 March: Nors, con’t.

Thursday 5 March: Nors, con’t. Extra credit RP Nors due for those eligible. 


Week 10:

Tuesday 10 March, In-class exam. No exceptions.

Thursday 12 March: conclusion.

Course Requirements


  1. Complete the reading by the day we begin its discussion.


  1. On a related note, informed contribution to class discussion is part of the course grade. You must be present to achieve this. 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. N.B.: If you miss class, do not email me to explain why; contact a class member to catch up. You’re then welcome to come see me.



  1. Written Work. Style matters in this as in all things. All written work must be stapled and typed, with numbered pages and one-inch margins; employ a standard 12-point font, standard paragraphing and standard spacing--not the default spacing that Word or Pages may supply, which insert spaces between paragraphs. Ask me why. Really.


See “Marginal Comments” under “Files” in the Canvas website for this class.

The overwhelming majority of the students who actively address my comments report a marked improvement in their writing. You may find in the margins some or all of the following abbreviations indicating errors and problems. Making the same mistakes repeatedly over the course of the quarter will weigh increasingly heavily against the grade. See “The Lexicon” under “Files” in Canvas. See me in person for questions; they are welcome.

Response Papers

Being a good reader means being an active reader. The intellectual purpose of the response papers is to transform you into a more active reader: they should (a) start you thinking critically (as a critic, not simply a nay-sayer) and in a focused manner about the material; and to give me a chance to register your impressions and adjust our discussions accordingly.

            Unless otherwise stipulated, on the days indicated you will turn in a single-spaced, substantive one-page response paper formulated around a specific question or issue having to do with the text under discussion that day. Your response paper will receive either a check minus, check, or a check plus. 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. 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 and trajectory of the response papers over the arc of the course as a whole. 


  • You may formulate your response papers as a question, one 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. The second step will be to ask a question that can be readily pursued by a page of your writing. Avoid questions like “What is the author's intention in using X?"; "What is the deeper meaning of Y?": they’re too big. (Our class also has an embargo upon the phrase “deeper meaning.”) Indeed, you are relieved of the burden of answering the question definitively—but you should begin to answer the question intelligently. Think concretely, and stay focused on what the text tells you, not what your impressions are at a general level. If you take a second thing from this class, it should be understanding in your gut/brain that specificity matters. Regard it as a mini-paper, but one for which you do not need a thesis.
  • 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.].”)
  • Go in fear of the intentional fallacy. I also strongly urge you to avoid a-historical association (the color pink used to be associated with boys; and blue with girls).
  • 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 you may be asked to verbally present your response paper to the class.
  • I may announce 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, or early. If you miss the class, your response paper will not be accepted.


  1. Grading: Response papers: 40%; Exam: 40%; Informed and attentive participation: 20%


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.


This syllabus is subject to change. You are responsible for keeping up with any modifications to the schedule or assignments.


The Department of English at the University of Washington acknowledges that our university is located on the shared lands and waters of the Coast Salish peoples. We aspire to be a place where human rights are respected and where any of us can seek support. This includes people of all ethnicities, faiths, gender identities, national and indigenous origins, political views, and citizenship status; nontheists; LGBQTIA+; those with disabilities; veterans; and anyone who has been targeted, abused, or disenfranchised.

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)
Last updated: 
November 1, 2019 - 11:10pm