This week, I guest-lectured in a course called “Introduction to Literary Studies” that was unlike the kinds of literature surveys I’ve taught at Maryland. While most of my classes are organized historically or thematically, this course focused on the micro- and macro-elements of literary analysis and production: plot, character, setting, symbol, etc. We tend to assume students – even English majors – have a firm understanding of these elements, but they often have vague ideas about how to write about them, and this can be encouraged through the kind of discussion that a class such as this one encourages.
Asked to lecture on “setting,” I used two stories – Edwidge Danticat’s Wall of Fire Rising and Jay McInerney’s It’s 6 Am, Do You Know Where You Are? – as a way of talking about “location” and “dislocation,” of alienation and affiliation, and the means by which settings are characters and also how characters define the worlds around them through imagination. As Milton explains, “the mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” With this quote, I’m always reminded of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis The Last Battle, who think they’re stuck in a dank barn when they’re actually standing before a great feast.
I’m willing to both listen to and make arguments that, in survey courses, we should focus more on the intersection between literature and the world more than just the fundamentals of literature itself. But teaching “setting” invites examinations of social and political urgencies that literary discourse at once shapes and responds to. The emergence of the novel – as the great scholarship of people like Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong, and William Warner have shown – is the result of an interrogation of “plot” and “character,” of narrative realism and what can be conveyed about psychology in writing. So by introducing students to these early, we offer them the foundations to discuss form and poetics in connection with epistemology and history.
David Foster Wallace is a brilliant guy who I know little about. I read about fifty pages of Infinite Jest and stopped, still planning to finish it later. His essay on Lost Highway is probably my favorite thing written about David Lynch. But a while ago I was referred to Wallace’s syllabi for a class like the one I was described. The University of Texas has released these from the David Foster Wallace archive. While teaching at Pomona college, Wallace taught elements of fiction with a syllabus made up entirely of mass-market paperbacks / airport best-sellers. Here’s the list.
Later in the syllabus, he explains that the “lightweighish” nature of these books is itself a fiction, and explains that evaluating them critically will be more difficult than other sections that use canonical texts. Here’s how he explains the “aim of the course”
Ever the iconoclastic iconoclast, Wallace is primarily interested in teaching his students not what to read, but how to read. With these selections, students don’t struggle with narrative or language, so they can focus primarily on developing critical insight and articulating it clearly. This is a 100-level class; it’s open to all comers and probably to unselective students who are probably choosing a section based on time and availability. My guess is that by and large actual English majors would prefer to read English literature, but that’s not a hypothesis I’m going to make much effort to validate. Wallace’s students probably thought they knew already how to go “below the surface,” but he apparently spends the entire time telling them how to put their findings into categories and to explain their complexities. As I thought about organizing a syllabus around elements of fiction, the one work that would seem essential when talking about setting is a haunted house story. Why not The Shining – in which the Overlook hotel is alive?
Whatever the case, reading Wallace’s materials invites us to ask what we want students to learn and what we expect them to know already. And also, we can wonder if we’re skipping this in a historical or topic-oriented survey.
(In case you missed it, here’s the link to the Wallace materials