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Matthew J Vechinski
ENGL 242
Seattle Campus

Reading Prose Fiction

Critical interpretation and meaning in works of prose fiction, representing a variety of types and periods.

Class description

FOR AUTUMN 2007: Writers of Fiction: Workmen [sic] or Artists? At the turn of the twentieth century, writers of fiction and literary critics in England and America begin to take an unprecedented interest in the craft of writing novels and short stories. Writers become more and more self-conscious of their choices and how readers perceive and react to their works. Their deliberation is thought of as demanding, and often the workman, the physical laborer, is specifically invoked by critics. The comparison is telling, not only because it is gendered, but because calls for individual works to be judged according to their writers’ intentions and pretensions—a shift from an emphasis on the beautiful or the moral. Others believe the mental exertion required of writing is really the struggle of an artist. Further, in an era of increasing modernization, many defend the artistry of writing novels and short stories against the threat of mass produced, unoriginal forms of entertainment. For them well-crafted fiction merits a special aesthetic status. Yet later in the twentieth century highbrow art raises suspicions, giving credence to the possibility that fiction can be overworked, too self-conscious and self-serious, and therefore no longer enjoyable. This begs the question of how present—or how absent—writers ought to be in relation to their fictions: are we supposed to admire their craft, or should craft be subtle and secondary? In this course we will look at a series of works of fiction by English and American writers dating roughly from 1890 to 1990 that include author characters and consider the implications of writing as a profession. Because they explore the workman-artist dichotomy in specific historical and social circumstances, these works are not, however, solely stories of young artists’ coming of age. Texts: George Gissing, New Grub Street; Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow; Iris Murdoch, Under the Net; Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook; Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy; photocopied course packet containing theory and criticism. Course web page at

FOR SPRING 2007: The Value of Fiction in British Modernism

“[It is assumed that] Literature should be either instructive or amusing, and there is in many minds an impression that these artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both. They are too frivolous to be edifying, and too serious to be diverting; and they are moreover priggish and paradoxical and superfluous. That, I think, represents the manner in which the latent thought of many people who read novels as an exercise in skipping would explain itself if it were to become articulate. They would argue, of course, that a novel ought to be ‘good,’ but they would interpret this term in a fashion of their own, which indeed would vary considerably from one critic to another.” —Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (1884)

What is the value of fiction? In the above quotation, Henry James asks how that value might be described as one step toward establishing a theory of the novel which hitherto “had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it.” During the Modernist period, British critics, many of whom happened to be authors of fiction themselves, rethought the aims of fiction which were until that point largely unexamined in a systematic way. These critics performed the necessary task of justifying experimentation in fiction as British authors broke from the dominant assumptions underlying nineteenth-century literary realism. They pointed out how some innovations in the form and content of fiction remained consistent with previous ideals, such as verisimilitude and social relevance, but that authors opted for different means of achieving them. Critics and authors also strove to persuade readers to find new value in fiction by fostering an appreciation of ambiguity, difficulty, and psychology. This course will place special emphasis on how these revised notions of value were articulated and how they gradually gained wide acceptance. Today we no longer regard the majority of British Modernist fiction to be particularly radical, which suggests that we have come to acknowledge and often share their attitudes to fiction, and perhaps even that the value we find in fiction remains essentially unchanged despite literary trends.

Students in the course will analyze essays that deal with the value of fiction and pair them with their readings of novels and short stories written by British authors between 1890 and 1950. The arguments they write will center on the means and ends of fiction as described or implied in Modernist texts, not the qualitative evaluation of individual works, critical ideas or authors or values plural in the moral or religious sense. The course will focus on four stages of British Modernist fiction: Realism Reconsidered, Literary Impressionism, High Modernist Innovation, and Consequences of Late Modernism for the British Tradition.

Four novels are required for the course: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh, and Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. The required course reader will include short stories by Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, and will feature criticism by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Rebecca West as well as a few examples of more recent scholarship on Modernist fiction.

You may explore the course web site at

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Additional ENGL course descriptions.
Last Update by Matthew J Vechinski
Date: 08/27/2007