The Twentieth-Century Novel

English 419 | Washington State University | Fall 2021

Catalog Description

how WSU characterizes the course

3 credits. Course Prerequisite: Junior standing. The novel in English in the literary and cultural context of the modern age. Typically offered Fall, Spring, and Summer.

Additional Description

how Dr. Edwards characterizes the course

How do novels reflect and represent their times, and what are the characteristics of the 20th century that we see represented in its novels? This course traverses the range of the 20th-century novel in English as a way to examine both the changing definition of the genre and the worlds it attempts to represent. Throughout the semester, we will examine a diverse series of shorter novels that foreground questions of modernity and postmodernity in literature and culture, with a particular focus on mimesis and its limits. As a parallel to our in-class discussions and readings, I will also ask you to complete a large final project reading one substantial novel that attempts to engage the completeness of its fictional world: is such a thing possible in the 20th century, even via the extensive use of synecdoche and metonymy? And what directions might the 21st-century novel offer?

How the Course Will Work 

what we'll be doing

Each week, we'll read some portion of a short novel along with critical concepts or essays. We'll also write short responses each week, for a total of 10, of which at least two must be critical and at least two must be creative: in other words, I'll ask you to both create and critique pieces of fiction that embody, problematize, or represent aspects of what we understand as the 20th-century novel. You will also propose and complete a semester-long written project that applies course topics and readings to a long or substantial text of your own selection, and for that project—and all work in the class—I encourage creativity and experimentation.


what we'll read 
required     final project options 

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street 

Louise Erdrich, Tracks 

Toni Morrison, Sula 

Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine 

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire 

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 

Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke Dow

Jean Toomer, Cane  


Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin 

Toni Cade Bambara, Those Bones Are Not My Child 

A. S. Byatt, Possession 

Robert Coover, A Public Burning 

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves 

Samuel Delany, Dhalgren 

Don DeLillo, Underworld 

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai 

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man 

James Joyce, Ulysses 

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook 

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance 

Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea 

Joyce Carol Oates, Bellefleur 

Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations 

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow 

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children 

Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead 

Margaret Walker, Jubilee 

Richard Wright, Native Son

Assignments & Grading

what we'll work on and what it's worth
  • Discussion forums: 30% (lowest 2 dropped) 
  • Midterm Proposal: 10% 
  • Short essays: 20% (lowest 1 dropped) 
  • Participation: 15% 
  • Final project: 25% 

Discussion forums, during the week due, will require an initial post of 300–400 words and at least 2 brief responses to other people's posts. 

Short essays should attempt to revise, synthesize, and expand upon insights from the discussion forums, and should be 600–1000 words long. 

The final project requires you to select one long novel (500–900 pages or 200,000–250,000 words) to read from the list below and use library research to discuss how it intersects with the themes of the course. Pick one that you want to read and that will be engaging or fun or interesting or amazing, because you'll be working with it through the semester.

Tentative Schedule

our week-to-week activities
  • Week 1: What was and is a novel? Leavis and Wimsatt; the idea of the bildungsroman; historical antecedents
  • Week 2: Cane; modernity and mimesis
  • Week 3: The House on Mango Street; interiority and voice; Toril Moi 
  • Week 4: The Crying of Lot 49; paranoia and simulacra; Baudrillard, Lyotard, Jameson 
  • Week 5: Sula; Alice Walker "In Search of Our Mother's Garden's," Toni Morrison from Playing in the Dark 
  • Week 6: Pale Fire part 1; genre and unreliability; Barthes and intertextuality 
  • Week 7: midterm projects 
  • Week 8: Pale Fire part 2; metafiction; Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser; interpretation and decoding 
  • Week 9: Tracks part 1; multiple histories; memory and voice  
  • Week 10: Tracks part 2; myth and narrative 
  • Week 11: Yellow Back Radio Broke Down; Bakhtin and polyvocality; Henry Louis Gates "The Signifying Monkey" 
  • Week 12: Jasmine part 1; migration narratives and the subaltern 
  • Week 13: Jasmine part 2; wrap-up; final projects workshopping 
  • Week 14: presentations 
  • Week 15: presentations 
  • Exam: final projects due