Recent Fiction

I’m really enjoying teaching English 419: The Twentieth-Century Novel as a sort of break from what feel to me like the more pedagogically and rhetorically challenging classes in digital technologies and composition and rhetoric that I usually teach. Teaching has its persuasive components, as any good teacher knows—students who are invested in the material learn better and more easily, so part of my mission is to engage students and persuade them that the material is worth investing in—and novels, for undergraduates in particular, I think offer a more direct rout into engagement through the simple pleasure of reading. And in my teaching evaluations from students, my most commented-upon characteristic for the past 20 years or so of my teaching has been my enthusiasm, and sometimes enthusiasm for the pleasures of the text (even when coupled to the difficulty of the text) can provide a more direct route into that engagement. In the courses I usually teach—rhetoric, composition, digital technologies—my enthusiasm often translates into arguments along the lines of “Look, this is important!” whereas this semester, my arguments have been more like, “Look, this is cool!” That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I guess a way of me saying, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to have said, over and over again this semester, “Look, this is cool!” as we’ve made our way through

  • Jean Toomer, Cane;
  • Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street;
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49;
  • Toni Morrison, Sula;
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire;
  • Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine;
  • Louise Erdrich, Tracks; and
  • Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (starting next week).

And of course, discussions of canonicity and its problems have come up. One argument I made in class, after talking with the class about how I’d researched a lot of other syllabi in planning this one, was that of imagining possible alternative reading lists for the syllabus. I proposed that one easily imaginable syllabus for The Twentieth-Century Novel (in English, since it is a class in the English Department, and I don’t want to poach from my colleagues who teach literatures in other languages) might look something like this:

  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
  • D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  • Jack Kerouac, On the Road
  • Don DeLillo, White Noise

In other words, I imagine a non-academic audience looking at that list and saying, “Yeah, that seems reasonably representative of some general agreement on some of the canonical novels of the 20th century.” I suspect that for many, it’s a list that would be more easily acceptable in a course on the twentieth-century novel than, say, the following list that revises my syllabus—which is a list I would be much more enthusiastic to teach, and one with which I would have a lot more fun:

  • Jean Toomer, Cane
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Richard Wright, Native Son
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved
  • Samuel Delany, Babel-17
  • Octavia Butler, Kindred
  • Charles Johnson, Middle Passage

But of course, the response from some would be, “But that’s a course in African-American literature, not a course in the twentieth-century novel,” as if the previous list were not a course in white literature. These are old and well-rehearsed concerns in academia: the critique offered is that white experience is viewed as the transcendental signified that is relevant in all interpretive situations, whereas non-white experience is viewed as somehow circumscribed and cannot refer to anything other than itself—an objection that few who make seem to recognize as easily self-deconstructing. The second, much more valid (in my perception) critique would be that my own cultural and perceptual limitations as a white person trying to teach such a course prevent me from fully understanding the lived and felt experience underpinning the above novels, and that my own teaching of such a syllabus would thereby be a culturally appropriative move characteristic of subtler and more insidious forms of racism.

I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, the history of America is the history of 400+ years of race relations, and in the history of the novel, the 20th century is (from all the various lists of “great novels”) the American Century (although in that assertion I feel uncomfortable echoes of Milan Kundera’s ugly claiming of the novel as a quintessentially European genre). And I’m happy to be wrestling with questions like these, even if they are, again, “old and well-rehearsed.”

In any case: I’d like to leave my students with an end-of-semester “gift,” since we’ve been talking about intertextuality and pleasure and difficulty and challenge, and some of the most rewarding discussion forum threads this semester have been making connections between what we’re reading and other stuff we like from outside of class. So I’m thinking that one of my roles as the instructor is to offer students ways to engage the types of readings they’ve found enjoyable or provocative beyond the end of the semester. To that end, I spent a little time this morning composing three more lists:

Ten of my favorite short stories of the 20th century (with some omissions, like Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” and Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” that I’ve already talked up a lot in class):

  • Joyce Carol Oates, “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again”
  • Harlan Ellison, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
  • Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”
  • J. G. Ballard, “The Terminal Beach”
  • John Edgar Wideman, “Damballah”
  • Raymond Carver, “The Bath” and “A Small, Good Thing” (two versions of the same breathtaking core story: if you read them both, read the devastating “The Bath” first, and then the award-winning revision “A Small, Good Thing”)
  • Lydia Davis, “A Natural Disaster”
  • Thomas Ligotti, “Teatro Grottesco”
  • William Gibson, “Dogfight”
  • George Saunders, “The Wavemaker Falters”

Ten of my favorite short stories of the 21st century:

Ten of my favorite novels of the 21st century:

  • Zadie Smith, White Teeth
  • Roberto Bolano, 2666
  • Ian McEwan, Atonement
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
  • Richard Powers, The Overstory
  • Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Roy Scranton, War Porn
  • Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Recent Fiction