Fall 2019 English Graduate Courses

350:693 - Big Books, Small Worlds

Course No:  350:693
Index # - 19015
Distribution Requirement:  A3, A4, B
Monday - 9:50 a.m.
MU 207

Big Books, Small Worlds

Sean Silver

This course is about the rise of the novel, but it approaches this well-worn topic from a novel viewpoint. It means to treat the novel as a system, in a technical sense we will discover and develop together. The course therefore combines two goals. The first is to offer a brief, punctuated history of the rise of the novel, told through roughly four canonical books. Our journey will stretch from Richardson’s Clarissa to Eliot’s Middlemarch, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. The second is to read widely in network- and systems theory, developing and applying related sets of insights which are commonly thought to accompany our modern information age, but which have important precursors paralleling the rise of the novel form.

Primary readings will be selected according to a rule: we will read the longest novel of each of 4 or 5 authors.  Novels will be chosen from Samuel Richardson or Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and George Eliot. Each of these authors differently reflects on local networks knitting up against the backdrop of an increasingly globalized culture. That is, each one writes a long book about a “small world” network.

Our secondary readings will initiate a deep dive into systems and network theories, the loose category of philosophical thought and sociological practice which is beginning to make its mark in literary studies. Among systems theorists, we will read Niklas Luhmann, Alex Woloch, Jeroen Bruggeman, Manuel Delanda, and Linton Freeman; from network theory, we will encounter Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold, Timothy Morton, Anna Tsing, and Michel Serres. To help find our way, we will canvass a few pieces bridging systems theory and literature, including Tina Lupton’s brilliant new Reading and the Making of Time, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, and Jonathan Grossman’s Dickens’s Networks.

I mean this class to be a laboratory, in open-ended pursuit of a number of related questions, such as: how do bigger books meet a shrinking world?  Or, how do small character networks reflect the experience of expanding empire and global capitalism? How do these long novels manage or model an experience of complexity?  How do books manage and model collisions of viewpoints?  How is the novel form representative?  How might we frame a theory of the novel based on relationships rather than characters?

Requirements will include one 2 or 3 brief presentations on secondary readings and a final essay.