Fall Readings

One of the things I want to do with this blog is post about what I’m teaching. The plan, more generally, is to offer commentary on whatever I’m reading of interest anyway, but I intend to post more extended thoughts on those texts I’m covering in class. Which is not, I hasten to say, that I will just be posting tidied-up lecture notes—rather, I hope to inspire discussion about those texts I’m covering in the classroom.

I’m looking forward to teaching this fall, even though it will be pretty insanely busy. I have three classes: English 2213: Twentieth Century U.S. Fiction; English 2815: Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism; and a graduate seminar titled The Banality of Magic: Fantasy, Myth, and Humanism.

It probably seems premature to talk about this now, but I don’t intend to post my thoughts just when I’m covering the books in class. Rather, I’ll post as I read the texts … and at this point, the first of those posts will probably go up in a few days. I’m also not sure what I hope to accomplish by talking about this now, unless people reading this blog feel inclined to read what I’m covering and talk back to my thoughts in the comment sections. For the record: that would be awesome. As I said in my opening post, I’m all about narrative … but I’m also all about conversation. Philosophically speaking, that is what I love most about the humanities, about the arts and about literature: it’s all about taking part in a big conversation. Think of it like a MOOC—a Massive Open Online Course—except, you know, not massive. And not evil. And you won’t be graded.

I should at this point offer a caveat for my (actual) students: some of you will almost certainly find your way to this blog (hallo!) and if you do, you need to know that my posts on course material are not the equivalent of me posting lecture notes online. There will certainly be overlap. But these meditations here are not definitive, and will not cover everything covered in class.

That being said, please feel free to respond and comment. It will not count toward class participation, and you’re welcome to post anonymously if you’re shy (please refrain from character assassination and trolling). But please: join the conversation.

I won’t say anything for now about the theory and crit course—I’ll speak to it when I’ve settled on the theorists we’re covering. But here are the reading lists for the other two courses.

Twentieth-Century U.S. Fiction

The reading list is (in the order we’ll do it):

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Julia Alverez, In the Time of the Butterflies

2213 is a course I have taught every year since I started at Memorial, and one I have had an awful lot of fun with. The main problem it poses is in trying to cover a century of fiction in thirteen weeks. Which of course cannot be done: as I tell my students, survey courses like this one are like a greatest hits album. They give you a sense of the material, but a very shallow and un-nuanced one. I have figured out that six novels is about the optimum number of texts to cover in a semester—five if one or more is really chunky, seven if one or more is really short, but the average is about six.

Knowing you can’t cover all the bases, and that it’s futile to try, is liberating … but it still poses a few organizational difficulties in terms of coverage and representation. As tempting as it would be to scrunch the entire course into six post-1980 novels, that would be cheating (I save that sort of thing for my fourth-year seminars). So you want to get an even spread (more or less) across the century, and you want to aim for balance in terms of men vs. women writers, white versus writers of colour, and so on.

This year, apropos of Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation, it occurred to me that I’ve never taught The Great Gatsby—until recently I had not, in fact, even read it since high school. The thought prompted me to add other classic novels I have not read in years and years, and before long I’d settled on The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (nope, never taught The Sound and the Fury—my go-to text there is As I Lay Dying, and I once taught Light in August).


Of course, now half the course was very white, very canonical, and very dead. So to balance things, the second half of the course will be a trio of extraordinary women writers: Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez.

violent bear it away

One of the issues one deals with in teaching survey courses is coverage—six novels doesn’t really give you a lot of room for movement, and in trying for a representative selection of twentieth-century fiction, you really want to try to be actually representative of American voices. And alas, with only six novels to work with, there is absolutely no way under heaven to cover all your bases. It simply cannot be done. So you try for symbolic victories.

It’s always a balancing act, and in my opening lecture I always give a long list of the novelists we won’t be covering … in the hopes that my students understand that a thirteen-week course makes them about as much of an expert on twentieth-century American fiction as someone who likes “Hey Jude” is a Beatles expert.

The Banality of Magic: Fantasy, Myth, and Humanism

I really, really hope some people reading this saw the title of this course and had a moment of either confusion, anger, or just a general “WTF?” Hopefully, someone thought “The banality of magic? Isn’t magic by definition the opposite of banal?”

If anyone thought anything along those lines, that makes me happy. The title is of course a nod to Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil,” the main trope of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. My topic is far less significant, but the rhetorical gesture is the same. The course looks at contemporary fantasy’s tendency to articulate a markedly secular, humanist perspective—which is somewhat counter-intuitive for a genre that has traditionally been preoccupied with supernaturally-infused neo-medieval stories and settings. But when one reads Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin—or even J.K. Rowling—one finds an inversion of the relationship between the supernatural and the mortal, the magical and the mundane, than was typical in the defining texts of the genre.

I won’t belabor the course’s overarching thesis here. Suffice to say, I foresee many posts to come in which I work through these questions, given that this course is representative of my current research … there is an awful lot I have to say on the topic. So without further ado, here is the reading list, again in the order we’ll likely cover it in class:

Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Bernard Cornwell, The Winter King
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Richard K. Morgan, The Steel Remains

There’s a lot I could say about this right now, but I’ll refrain. As I said before, there will be an awful lot of posts on fantasy and how we define in it in the coming weeks.

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