The Novel Project

In fall of 2016, eleven Duke faculty—all of whom were working on their own within their respective language departments—discovered that they shared a common object of knowledge and stood to benefit immensely from working as a group. The group included Nancy Armstrong (English), Miriam Cooke (Arabic), Roberto Dainotto (Italian), Anne Garréta (French), Shai Ginsburg (Hebrew), Aimee Kwon (Korean, Japanese), Cate Reilly (Russian), Anne-Gaëlle Saliot (French), Aarthi Vadde (English), and Leonard Tennenhouse (English, American).  (Bill Donahue from German is now at Notre Dame.) Convinced this group provided the right intellectual environment for challenging such Eurocentric notions as “the world republic of letters” or “world literature” and their area-studies counterparts, we applied for a multi-year collaborative grant to fund a project to discover what, if any formal features identified those novels likely to thrive in the new global market regardless of their national origin and local subject matter. Of equal concern was to identify the sort of novelist who wrote these novels and how they were groomed and packaged as writers for global distribution. Our overarching point was to discover whether the critical turn of recent novels not only on the narrative forms of realism and modernism, but also on the whole range of popular genre fiction, was just another period marker in the history of the novel—or does this recent turn indicate a crisis of a different order? Providing answers to some, if not all of these questions would depend on our explanation of their appeal to the provisional figure of “the global reader.”

With generous support from the Dean of Trinity College, Valerie Ashby, we brought to campus Orhan Pamuk, Antoon Sinan, Philippe Forest, Colson Whitehead, and Tom McCarthy and asked them to read from and discuss their forthcoming works of fiction. We also asked scholar-critics Bruce Robbins, Mark McGurl, Kenneth Warren, and Wai Chee Dimock to deliver lectures on their work in progress and to anchor symposia and workshops. Various members of The Novel Project took part in these events, and the group as a whole discussed the issues they raised at monthly meetings.  Along with the range and variety of novels, criticism, and theory that contributed to the explanatory model that was taking shape, we grew familiar with the extensive apparatus responsible for training two generations of creative writers and connecting them with agents and publishers who secured translators, nominated them for literary prizes, optioned them to be adapted for films and television serials, and publicized and distributed the finished product.  Over a three-year period, our object of knowledge became less “a literary form” than the enigmatic product of a mode of production that transformed novels along with their most promising authors into marketable commodities capable of attracting a global readership.  In March of 2020, just as we felt ready to launch a collaborative writing project, the global pandemic shut us down.

Teaching the Global Novel:

Faculty Sponsors: Nancy Armstrong, Anne Garréta, Roberto Dainotto

Their recent increase in number, geographical reach, and formal innovations has earned the novels aimed at today’s global readership a place of prominence in literary studies.  With this as our article of faith, three members of the Duke humanities faculty developed and, in pairs, co-taught a sequence of graduate courses that focuses on various aspects of what (for lack of a better term) we are calling “the global novel.”  We hope to improve the scholarly range and professional versatility of graduate students in the literary disciplines, these courses train them to think, research, and write collaboratively.  We devote the last three of four meetings of each course to workshops, which determine the concepts that have enhanced our group understanding of 1) how the novels on our syllabus question the form in which they are written and 2) what they might share in common as a result. 

In fulfillment of the course requirements, each member of the class writes an entry to a collaborative glossary of critical concepts decided on by the class as a whole.  Each “concept paper” reworks a concept from our secondary readings.  Such a paper might begin with a commonsense concept like “plot” or “character,” without which one would all be hard pressed to say much about what novels have been and done throughout the modern period. If these concepts are to say anything about the novels now succeeding in the global book market, however, they will have to be updated and retrofitted for that purpose. To do so, any definition of these concepts would have to factor in how they were reformulated "on or about December, 1910” when, as Virginia Woolf put it, “human nature changed.” During the period when Europe underwent a technological revolution in communications and industrial production, a World War, and the dissolution of Empires, she intimated, what had seemed only commonsense could no longer be taken as given.  From that day forward, like other literary forms, the novel would require specialized reading procedures and a discipline specific vocabulary — a demand to which Georg Lukács, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Erich Auerbach responded with historical theories of the novel that, in many respects, remain the state of the art. 

That was then.  Having taught the global novel over a four-year period, we find we found ourselves advancing what amounts to a parallel claim to the effect that at some point in the last two decades of the twentieth century, “human nature” changed again. If anything, it has changed more decisively, depriving teachers as well as students of the very critical concepts many of us were taught as graduate students. The collaborative glossary produced each semester takes a step toward figuring out where and how those concepts fall short and how we might update them.  In doing so, we try to negotiate, if not entirely avoid two contrary impulses on the part of novel theory and criticism that have emerged in response to this dilemma.

The first impulse imports models from the world of discourse outside the novel to replace the terms of narratology and media theory that have outlived their moment.  The advantages of doing so are obvious: Many of the novels on our syllabi feature plots that mimic the logistics of just-in-time production and put their central characters to work at jobs in data managing, communication technology, finance, entertainment, the creative arts, or one of the therapeutic services, while stocking the background with varieties of disposable extras. More than a few of the novels we assign make use of the Internet to mediate social interaction. Models imported from social science and communication theory provide a clear sense of the bewildering transformation of human experience in the last several decades. But borrowed concepts do little to account for curious forms of thinking, caring, hoping, fearing, and enjoyed enjoying that accommodate and/or challenge the programmed experience of social life at specific locations within the new world order.  That, we assume, is what novels do.

We also challenge a second impulse that tries to hasten what it sees as the decline of critical theory by declaring the present a post-critical age, specifically an age with no use for the noisy complexity of critique.  Most novel readers, this line of argument goes, are no less capable of responding to the poignant fate of human clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go than the critic who regards that poignancy as what fuels a critique of Thatcher’s welfare system. Nor will a commonsense reader be any less offended by the atrocities witnessed by a third-generation runaway slave in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad than a scholar steeped in the history of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts and tradition of slave narratives.  Neither critical impulse — not commonsense responses to these novels, nor expert knowledge of the economic infrastructure they seem bent on exposing — takes us very far toward an explanation of how these novels make local subject matter accessible to an expanding international readership.

Instead, we ask members of the class to reverse the usual relation of critical theory to fiction and consider how these novels appropriate the apparatus of critical theory for purposes of disabling many of the givens of realism and modernism, beginning with the subject-object difference itself. We ask each member of the class to explain how some of the assigned novels repurpose some concept from an earlier repertoire of critical terms and to contribute their findings to an ongoing glossary of updated critical terms.  The syllabus for the course, followed by entries selected from those submitted in fulfillment of the writing requirement, can be accessed below:

The Global Novel: Mediations Fall 2020

Novel Theory Spring 2020

The Novel as Theory: What was Postmodernism / Spring 2021