Adam Haley, PhD

ENGL 436: “Contemporary” “American” “Fiction”

Every syllabus is a fiction. The syllabus as a genre implicitly says the following: over the next fifteen weeks (or six, for us), the handful of texts you read will adequately encapsulate, summarize, or represent some genre, time period, theme, or phenomenon. It says: you will come out of this course knowing what you need to know about [x], where [x] is anything from 18th century British drama or the contemporary American immigrant novel to science fiction or avant- garde poetry (or, for that matter, Newtonian mechanics or cultural anthropology). The fiction is that any syllabus could (or should!) ever be complete, that it could be sufficiently representative or exemplary of its topic, rather than being a highly subjective, particular slice of that topic. The disclaimer, then: this is an incomplete, wildly idiosyncratic syllabus.

Our nominal topic is a particularly slippery one: contemporary American fiction. Not only is there no recognized “canon” of contemporary American fiction, it’s difficult even to pin down any of the three words in that key phrase. Does what we recognize as “the contemporary” begin after World War II and Hiroshima? After the mid-’60s? After the end of the Cold War? After 9/11? Is American fiction that written in the United States? Written by authors who were born in the United States? Authors who emigrated to the United States? Is it fiction written about America or “from an American perspective” (whatever that could possibly mean)? Even “fiction” is suspect: most English courses in most English departments in this country have a mysterious allergy to film, television, and graphic novels—three mediums that, whatever their position in the academy, seem to be hugely significant bearers of the torch of “fiction” in recent decades.

We will likely spend much of the course wrestling with these questions, though almost certainly not answering them. We will cover novels, essays, graphic novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, drama, film, and television. We’ll encounter low culture and high culture, as well as fiction about low culture and fiction about high culture. We’ll see fiction about the past, fiction about the present, and fiction about the future. We’ll read things that are as close to “canonical” as it gets and things that are not and will never be recognized as canonical.

In short: we’ll get an interesting, provocative, and hopefully tasty slice of “contemporary” “American” “fiction.”

Largely because of the heterogeneity of works we will read, our primary purpose is not to develop a clear narrative that connects disparate entities into some comprehensive unity. While affinities between these works exist and while each does interact (to varying degrees) with an artistic and cultural lineage, we’ll want to consider each text on the terms in which it presents itself. What assumptions operate in its narrative? What does it expect of its readers? What are the governing axioms of this fictional world? How does it interact with the conventions of its genre, or does it resist classification entirely? What aspects of U.S. or literary culture seem relevant to the text’s content? How do the formal qualities of the text shape our experience of reading, and how do these characteristics of form contribute to (or undermine) the work’s trajectory? What is its cultural and rhetorical force? What is its philosophical use value? What does it provoke, dismantle, denaturalize, produce? What, in other words, does it do, and how does it do it?


See the full syllabus here (PDF).


Adam Haley • May 31, 2011

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