The British Novel Today
This class will be a rather open-ended exploration of the contemporary British novel, focusing on novels published within the last ten years or so and on the system of evaluation and promotion within which they circulate. We will read work by some novelists who are well established as major figures on the British literary scene, such as J.M Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Martin Amis. But we will also read the work of some less well-known writers, possibly including Buchi Emecheta, Lucy Ellmann, Patrick McCabe, Helen Zahavi, and Geoff Nicholson. One of our aims will be to try to understand what it is that leads one contemporary author rather than another, one contemporary novel rather than another, to be identified as "important" and "lasting." What is a "great" novel expected to do these days? What cultural work is it meant to perform? What evaluative criteria may be legitimately brought to bear on it? And how are the various competing evaluations of a book adjudicated? What institutions and individuals hold greatest power within the system of literary reward and esteem? Since we ourselves (as members of an English department at an elite university) are players in that system, our analysis will be in part a self-reflexive one; we will be inquiring into the specific roles of students, professors, and academic critics in determining the hierarchy of contemporary literary value. Students in the class will do a number of short oral reports based on library research. Written work will include write-ups of these reports, a "book review," two 5-page papers, and one 10-page paper. There will be several midterms but no final exam.