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Topics in Literature and Society

ENGL 293.401
M 2-5

To understand the range of writing being published in the United States today, this course will follow the judges of the National Book Critics' Circle as they choose their 1997 winners. The five NBCC awards are for fiction, poetry, general nonfiction, biography/autobiography, and criticism, and since I am one of the judges, students will have direct access to the whole selection process. Here's how this will work. By Christmas, the NBCC will develop a huge list of potential books, and late in January, they will narrow the list to five nominees in each of the five categories. The class will spend the time in January before these finalists are announced in a general discussion of postwar writing, and each class member will choose one of the categories at this time and propose a list of nominees, explaining the factors that affected the choice. Once the NBCC finalists are announced, the class will study a selection of the 25 books nominated, and students will also read all five books in the category they previously chose, as well as reviews of nominated books. I will bring board members to class and we will contact others over email, and we will speak with experts on literary prizes as well. By the final judging in late March, we should have a sense of what we think are the best books and why we think so. We can then go to New York for the panel discussions on the day of the final judging and attend the ceremony at which the winners are announced. Then, in April, students will give class seminars and write their papers. The course will give students a sense of the richness of contemporary writing and the issues that arise in making literary judgments. For example, last year the NBCC had a debate about whether biography/autobiography should be split into two categories, since there has been such a surge of first-person writing that biographies get swamped in the comparison. There is also a perennial argument about whether short stories can stand up against novels in the fiction category, and the same for essay collections versus full-length critical studies. There is great confusion, too, over what an "American" book is: one published first in the States, one by a U.S. citizen, a resident? These and more philosophical questions about aesthetic value will form the deep agenda of the course.