Novel Abstractions: Impersonality and Objectivity in Too Late Capitalism


Trends in the macroeconomy and the literary and cultural market evince not only that novels are over but also that they should be, because everyone prefers the subjectivity of personal expression on the memoir-instagram immediacy continuum to the mediated abstraction of longform comic-epic prose, and because soon there will be no humans to make fiction at all.  Autofiction is the prestige corollary of this economic condition; poetry its unwitting beneficiary; memoirized theory its critical modality.  This seminar engages the theory and history of the novel to try to make sense of such a present.  We will read Marxist aesthetic theories alongside accounts of personality and impersonality, narcissism, human capital, fictional worldmaking, feminism, standpoint epistemology, objectivity, and ecocide.  Our literary questions will focus on the residual faculties of novelistic fiction to conceptualize and perform the impersonal, the social, and the objective, with particular emphasis on 3rd person narration, Free Indirect Discourse, and realism.  At the same time, we will track the novel’s priority as the artform unique to capitalism, and ask how the disfavored aesthetic can still help us think the world system at the threshold of extinction.


Required Novels (available at the UIC bookstore):

Chimimanda Adichie, Americanah

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice 9780198826736

Susan Choi, Trust Exercise

Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders 9780140435474

Henry James, What Maisie Knew  0141441372

Richard Powers, The Overstory

Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway 9780156628709


Required articles and book sections available in our course dropbox:





Readings and Discussion Preparation: This is an intensive seminar, with a heavy reading load of complex texts and long novels.  We will approach the seminar space as a laboratory for experimenting with collective reading and discovering as much as we can about how novels are built, how they work, how they think.  Our reading methods will therefore be first and foremost formalist, and students should read with an eye for distinctive formal elements of any given texts, as well as common formal elements across disparate texts.  Discussions will address how the forms at work in a text produce its unique ideas; preparation for discussion should involve reflecting on aspects like narrative structure, plot, focalization, description, beginnings and endings, style, mode.  Seminar sessions will often commence by asking every student to indicate ideas or forms or phenomena in the readings that call for unpacking, and to supply page numbers where possible.  Discussion participation is key to a strong seminar and an important basis for your evaluation.


Discussion Facilitation: Lead a chunk of discussion time focusing on ideas in the critical texts assigned for a given session (drawing connections to previous readings where useful).  Focus need not be on all of the critical texts; it could be on only one.  Take pedagogical liberties as far as activities, discussion plan, etc, but be sure to include at least these 3 steps.  First step: substantive paraphrase aimed at educing the value of the argument.  Second step: highlight at least 1 passage of interest / vexation for further unpacking.  Third step: pose 3 critical questions for discussion pertaining to theoretical questions in the course, literary examples in the course, or other avenues of inquiry that strike you.  Your task is to read generously, with an eye toward what the critical text(s) illuminates, and to practice taking positions vis-à-vis critics and theorists.


Discussion Wrap-up: At the end of a seminar session, spend 5 minutes extemporaneously reviewing what emerged as key themes during that session’s discussion.  No advance preparation is necessary; simply attend to the flow of that session’s conversation and select a few central points for recapitulation and carry-over to the next discussion.


Close Reading Presentation: oral presentation based on 3-4 pages writing of concerted attention to poetics of prose in one of our novels; careful and deliberate reading of the syntax, rhythm, tonality, imagery, and lettering of language; treatment of short slices as cross-sections that reveal the formal and thematic dynamics of a longer work; concluding with 3 questions for discussion.  Consult the Close Reading techniques handouts.  While straightforward formal oral presentation is fine, interveners are encouraged to take an interactive approach to the passage / conduct pedagogical experiments in close reading, and to facilitate discussion for a chunk of the session.


Seminar Paper:  12-15 page essays should respond to and elaborate the theoretical issues raised by the seminar, and may do so by way of readings of novels not on our syllabus.  Papers should reflect / incorporate research conducted using the MLA database.  All seminar participants will submit a draft of their seminar paper before the last class session; all seminar participants will read the draft of 2 other participants and offer feedback in partner conversations during the last seminar session.





Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory “Art, Society, Aesthetics”

Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature excerpt

Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories introduction

Nicholas Brown, Autonomy introduction



Georg Lukacs, Theory of the Novel “Epic and Novel”, Historical Novel “Crisis of

Bourgeois Realism”

Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel “Realism and the Novel Form”

Mikhail Bahktin The Dialogic Imagination excerpt

Fredric Jameson Antinomies of Realism excerpt

Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel”

David Cunningham “Capitalist Epics”

Jed Esty, “Realism Wars”


29 Jan Zadie Smith, On Beauty


5 Feb  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


12 Feb THE NOW

            Alex Clark, “Drawn From Life: Why Have Novelists Stopped Making Things Up?”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle excerpt

Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation excerpt

Ocean Vuong On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous excerpt

Arne De Boever, “What is the Neoliberal Novel?”

James Baldwin, “The Art of Fiction”

Zadie Smith, “In Defense of Fiction”



Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

Jonathan Culler, “Omniscience”

Jonathan Arac Commissioned Spirits “The Argument” and “A Sense of Society”

Audrey Jaffe, Vanishing Points intro

James Wood, “Narrating”

Rachel Buurma, “Critical Histories of Omniscience”

            Tim Bewes, “Free Indirect”


26 Feb  Henry James, What Maisie Knew


4 March Susan Choi, Trust Exercise



Cris Mazza, “Too Much of Moi”

Sharon Cameron, Impersonality intro

Gage McWeeney Comfort of Strangers intro

Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion intro

Annie McClanahan, “Methodological Individualism and the Novel”
Rachel Greenwald Smith, Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism excerpt

Sara Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion excerpt


18 March Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway


1 Apr  Chimimanda Adichie, Americanah



Rob Nixon, “Slow Violence”

Ashley Dawson, Extinction

Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm excerpt

Dipesh Chakrabarty “The Planet”

Achille Mbembe, “Thoughts on the Planetary”

Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Cohen, Thea Rionfrancos, A Planet to Win “Freedom to



15 Apr  Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders


22 Apr  Richard Powers, The Overstory





Collaborative Peer Review of Seminar Papers

Caroline Levine Sustainable Justice excerpt and SKYPE visit

Nancy Fraser, Tithi Battacharya, Cinzia Arruzza “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto”

Endnotes Journal, “An Identical Abject-Subject”