Skip to content

The Novel as Theory: What was Postmodernism? / Spring 2021


Question: Pomo, break or bridge?

Once assumed to be the end of both modernism and realism, postmodernism has been charged with bringing about the exhaustion if not the death of the novel.  Novelists and their readers apparently disagreed with the critics on this score, however, as since that moment in the 1980s, novels have continued to be written and published, and in greater numbers than ever before.  Rather than kill off the major narrative form of modern cultures, postmodernism has arguably endowed that form with new life.

At the same time, there is no doubt that postmodernism constitutes a crisis in the history of the novel–marking a break between the novels of the first half of the twentieth-century and the contemporary novels that now win awards, enjoy global distribution, and make their way onto college booklists.  This raises a second set of questions that we hope to address this semester:  How can a crisis also serve as a bridge?  How can a novel challenge the very form of the novel (as established in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel) and still establish the salient principle of continuity between past and future, in this case, between modernism and the contemporary global novel? Given that what Henry James called “the baggy monsters” of Victorian fiction once overwhelmed the sleek economy of earlier country house novels and were in turn decluttered by literary modernism, is the decisive crisis we call postmodernism just another period marker— or is it a crisis of a different order?

The questions raised by postmodernism are, in our view, also addressed face on and answered in the novels for which “postmodernism” seems the only apt descriptor.  In this regard, we mean to persuade you that these novels, certain of their precursors, and many of the novels we consider contemporary are not only their own best theories but, perhaps more than that, bearers of a revisionary history of the novel.  Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler serves as our test case.


January 25:     Introduction: The Novel as Theory

  • Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler.
  • M. Forster, “Introductory,” from Aspects of the Novel*

February 1:     Reading for the story

  • Brown, “Ordinary Readers, Extraordinary Texts, and Ludmilla”*

February 8:     Narrator/character/thought

  • Forster, “People,” Chapter 3 from Aspects of the Novel*
  • Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.
  • Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”*
  • Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Fiction”*

February 15:   Narrator/Character/Thought

February 22:   Precursors I: Fiction, Metafiction, and Truth

  • Forster, Chapter 4 + 5 from Aspects of the Novel*
  • Beckett, The Unnamable
  • Borges, Ficciones, pp. 15-100.
  • Rancière, Borges and French Disease.*

March 1:         Precursors II: Fiction, Metafiction, and History

  • Forster, Chapter 5 from Aspects of the Novel*
  • Calvino, 6 Memos for the Millenium [excerpts]*
  • Gide, The Counterfeiters.
  • Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.

March 8:         Precursors III: Subjectivity, Fantasy

March 15:       Theory as Fiction: The collapse of time and space?

March 22:       The Pomo Legacy: Bolaño’s bulimic novel /Coetzee’s anorexic novel.

  • Forster, Chapter 8 from Aspects of Fiction*
  • Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas.
  • Coetze, The Life & Times of Michael K.

March 29:       Wrap-up – Repetition and Difference.

  • Forster, “Conclusion” from Aspects of Fiction*
  • If on a winter’s night, Again…
  • Calvino, « Comment j’ai ecrit un de mes livres », Actes Sémiotiques VI, 51 (1984)*
  • Calvino, « Se una notta d’inverno un narratore », Alfabeta, I, 8 (1979)*
  • Greimas, “The Game of Semiotic Constraints” (1968)*

April 5:            Papers Workshop I

Workshop ABSTRACTS DUE at 12 noon on March 28..

April 12:          Duke Wellness Day

(We are available during the class period to answer your questions, assuage anxieties about your concept papers, and discuss possibilities you might pursue in future work.)

April 19:          Papers Workshop II

1ST 3-5 PAGES OF CONCEPT PAPERS DUE at 12 noon on April 03.


Italo Calvino,

  • If on a winter’s night a Traveller ; William Weaver, transl.; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, First edition (1982) Vintage Books, New edition (1992).
  • The Uses of Literature; Patrick Creagh, transl.; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1987). Chapters: “Cybernetics and Ghosts;” “Literature as a projection of desire;” “Levels of reality in literature;” “The Novel as spectacle.”
  • Six Memos for the Next Millennium; Mariner Books (2016).
  • « Comment j’ai écrit un de mes livres » Actes Sémiotiques VI, 51 (1984).
  • « Se una notta d’inverno un narratore » Alfabeta, I, 8 (1979).


  • Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable ; (Faber and Faber ppbk) [ or the Grove Press ppbk edition of the Trilogy].
  • Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas; Chris Andrews transl.; New Directions (ppbk, 2009).
  • Jorge L. Borges, Ficciones; Grove Press (ppbk, 1994).
  • Octavia Butler, Mind of my mind (1977).
  • K. Chesterton, The Man Called Thursday; (annotated edition by Martin Gardner); Ignatius Press (ppbk, 2004).
  • M. Coetze, The Life & Times of Michael K. ; Penguin Books (ppbk, 1985)
  • André Gide, The Counterfeiters ; Vintage (ppbk 1973)
  • Georges Perec, “A Winter Journey”; John Sturrock, transl.; from Penguin book of Oulipo edited by P. Perry (2019).
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49; Harperperennial (ppbk, 1999).
  • Virginia Woolf, Orlando. A biography; Mariner (annotated ppbk, 2006).