The Dreaded Novel Course.

I’ve spent the last four years actively avoiding those courses whose syllabi are composed primarily of novels. That’s a fairly easy task if you like to loiter around early modern literature: a Paradise Lost here, a Utopia there, but never any novels. Not that undergraduate scholars in other fields are necessarily doomed to the novel course either: the Canadian and American short story/poetry course is always an option, while modernist and contemporary classes usually offer a mix of shorter and longer forms. Even my 18th century “Age of Sensibility” course only had four novels.

Excepting a strange love for Victorian literature, it’s usually possible to avoid a semester spent frantically skimming the last hundred pages of the assigned reading half an hour before class (followed by a game of “did you finish it? What happens at the end?” as everyone gathers outside the seminar).

Who wouldn’t try to avoid such a fate? I enjoy novels. I understand that many novels are culturally significant (a ridiculously reductive statement), but, especially in fourth year, with an average of three to five courses per term, with what seems an essay due every week (and a fifteen-page research papers at the end of term), and when one is facing the prospect of three-hour seminar discussions on the readings, voluntarily signing up for a series of novel courses starts to seem an irrational choice, perhaps even a masochistic one.

And now I’m in a novel course.

To be fair, this wasn’t an entirely voluntary decision: the course for which I’d originally signed up was canceled, and “American Masculinity” offered as it’s replacement. I did make the decision to remain in the new course however; for someone who loves gender studies, and has recently discovered contemporary American writers, the offering was a bit too compelling.

The reading load is pretty thick: primary readings average about 150-200 pages per week, plus secondary articles. The material is engaging, however; we move from Melville to Hemingway and Sinclair to contemporaries like Don DeLillo. The course is also designed to allow a lot of freedom in the research/writing aspect (the assignments only have a page limit and the general requirement that they “explore course themes”).

Of course, I signed up for a seminar presentation on the longest book in the course: Frank Norris’s McTeague. Luckily, American realism is less stifling than French realism (sorry): I managed to finish the book in a week and a half. There’s much in McTeague that’s hilarious, but I found myself a bit overwhelmed with the disgusting personalities of the “slow-witted dentist” McTeague, and his “avaricious wife” Trina: they seemed a bit hyperbolic for the genre of “realism” (though realism can also refer to the act of drawing one’s subject matter from everyday “real” life). The ending, in particular perplexes me (it turns into a western prospector outlaw narrative in the last few chapters). I suppose I’ll have to see what I can make of it.

This novel course is winning me over, in spite of all myself: maybe I was never as rational as I believed.

17 January 2009 ~ St. Catharines


3 thoughts on “The Dreaded Novel Course.

  1. I took that class back in the day, and despite only reading maybe 2/3 of the material I really enjoyed it.

    Weirdly enough, I also facilitated McTeague, and I found myself liking it far more than I thought I would. I couldn’t get into EndZone though. What’s going ON in that book?

    • No comments on EndZone yet (we won’t get to it until the last weeks of class), but I do think I found McTeague a lot more funny than Norris intended it.

      Also, I have since encountered The Jungle, and I retract my generous feelings towards American realism/naturalism. Oh, narrative subtlety, where have ye gone?

  2. Update: loved _EndZone_. It was my favourite book on the course. It’s sad and scary. Though I’m still not sure what the heck happens at the end.

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