English R1A

Reading and Composition: The Novel and Mass Culture

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2020 Kaletzky, Marianne
MWF 9-10 263 Dwinelle

Book List

Pynchon, Thomas: The Crying of Lot 49; Smith, Zadie: NW; Stoker, Bram: Dracula; Wright, Richard: Native Son

Other Readings and Media

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (excerpts)


Contemporary discussions of novel-reading tend to characterize it as a refined, scholarly pursuit, more closely aligned with going to the symphony or visiting an art museum than with watching TV. Yet the novel’s place in the pantheon of high cultural forms has not always been so assured. Indeed, the European novel emerged in the seventeenth century as a form of entertainment accessible to the masses—written in vernacular languages rather than Latin and cheaply reproducible thanks to the recent invention of the printing press—and novels have been negotiating their relationship to mass culture ever since.

In this course, we’ll read a series of novels that depict populations in thrall to mass media, from the adventure stories that delight Don Quixote to the movies and magazines that pervade Native Son to the social media that structures daily experience in Zadie Smith’s NW. As we read, we’ll ask how these novels understand both the workings and the value of mass culture. When and why do these texts decry mass culture, and on what grounds do they celebrate it? Does mass culture appear as an emancipatory form that all are able to comprehend and enjoy? Or is it portrayed as a carefully engineered mechanism for reproducing oppressive hierarchies? As we consider how these novels represent mass media, we will also ask how they reflect on their own status as mass culture, high literature, both, or neither.

The goals of this course fall into two categories: reading and writing. The course will develop students’ abilities to read texts closely and carefully, to examine both points of coherence and moments of tension within them, and to analyze the relationship between meaning and textual form. The other major aim is to help students express increasingly complex ideas in writing. The various writing activities in the class, from the major analytical essays to shorter creative exercises, will connect critical thinking and writing, improve students’ control over their writing voice, and introduce new ways of thinking about structure and development.

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