Contemporary American Fiction: Graduate Seminar (Syllabus)

Sunset Gulf
“Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain.” E.M. Forster

This seminar examines works of American fiction published within the past two decades with a special focus on the novel. Its reading list highlights the growing diversity of authors who are gaining the most attention, the ways in which their works are taking an increasingly lively interest in popular genres, and a deepening engagement with the prophetic and the non-ironic. Much of the reading list undoubtedly reflects my own personal taste, but these works should nevertheless provide a full sampling of the amazing writing that is now being produced. I hope that by the end of this course you will agree with me that these works are a wildly satisfying form of entertainment, and that they also enable us to reengage with our present with a sense of wonder and critical sophistication that contemporary American fiction is adept at providing. With this in mind, one of my primary goals in teaching this course is to instill in you excitement at the prospect of reading contemporary fiction, and an appreciation for its dizzying, and exhilarating, range. In addition, I seek to expose you to critical readings that will add greater complexity to how we approach these texts, and to draw you into the intensity of current scholarly debates.


Karen Tei Yamashita, The Tropic of Orange (1997)

Junot Díaz, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)

Amy Waldman, The Submission (2011)

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)

Kiese Laymon, Long Division (2013)

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014)

Critical Readings are available on Canvas as PDFs, and are listed below in the course outline.


Participation (15%); co-facilitation (10%); class blog (15%); 15-20 page research paper (60%)

participation. Regular attendance, appearance on time, participation in discussions, and doing all of the required reading are crucial to this course, especially as it will be discussion-based. At the graduate level, you will be learning as much from each other as you will from me, so it is especially important that you participate actively. Please be sure to maintain all absences to a minimum and appear on time. You are allowed one absence. A second excused absence may be taken in extreme circumstances but must be approved by me; without approval, a second absence will result in a half grade reduction from your overall grade. A third and fourth absence will each result in a half-grade reduction from your overall class grade, and will also negatively affect your participation grade. A fifth absence will lead to failure.

It is not always easy for some people to participate in discussions, but the creation of a safe classroom environment can go a long way toward alleviating unease. I hope everyone will work consciously to create such an environment. I also expect as graduate students you will all work beyond your comfort zone, and be active participants in discussion.

co-facilitation. Each of you will help me plan and teach a class. Either you will be paired with another student or will work with me alone, depending on the number of students and the availability of classes. We will determine a schedule on the first day of class. We will meet at least once before the class, and can also trade ideas and thoughts via email or on canvas. In this way, we will work together to think self-consciously and creatively about how we lead discussion, ask pertinent questions, and encourage greater group involvement. It will also give you a sense of the invisible but crucial work that goes into the planning of a class meeting. 

class blog. We will maintain the blog It is currently closed to members of the class, and each of you will receive an invitation to join the blog just before the first class period. We will decide as a class whether we want to keep it closed, or make it accessible to a wider public.

You are expected to maintain this blog in the following ways:

  • Each of you will write a blog post about your experiences as a co-facilitator. The post should reflect on what the goals of the class were, what worked well in class, and what you wished could have been adjusted. It should also provide further thought about the topics we raised. This post should be a minimum of 500 words. This post will not receive a letter grade.
  • You should write two substantial posts (of at least 500 words) that adds to our discussion in class. At least one of these should be publish before Spring Break. The post can be a reflection on the reading, or an elaboration of a point raised in class. It must be germane to class discussion, and show a high level of polish. This post will be graded, and I will send you an email with my comments on it.
  • You should read the blog regularly (at least once a week), and make at least three substantive comments to other peoples’ posts. These comments will not be graded, but I will be actively reading them.

The blog is designed to give you opportunities to engage the work of the seminar through writing, to perform this work in a way that a broader public is welcome to access (even if we decide the broader public is only members of this class), and to encourage further reflection on the ways in which the widespread availability of technologies like a blog affects how we do intellectual labor.

research papers. This is meant to be a formal venue for you to crystallize your ideas about a specific topic anchored to one or several of the readings from the class. I will expect you to support your thoughts through the use of extensive research. Please consult with me over the course of the semester as you prepare your research project. It would be a good idea for you to see me during my office hours or by appointment at least twice throughout the semester so we can get to know each other better and to discuss your research interests.

The following is a basic rubric I apply in the evaluation of all student writing (both undergraduate and graduate):

  • Is there an argument that makes sense?
  • What’s the occasion for this argument?
  • Is the argument supported?
  • Are quotations used?
  • Are quotations appropriate to the point being made?
  • Are quotations adequately explained?
  • Are other people’s ideas clearly cited so that they are given credit for their thoughts
  • Are the ideas organized in a logical way with effective use of paragraphs?
  • Does the post use complete sentences that are grammatically correct?
  • Does the post show signs of being revised and proofread?

The paper should be a sophisticated meditation on one of the problems we’ve discussed in class and must be focused on at least one of the course’s primary texts. It should draw on research into the secondary criticism, which requires you to make use of important research databases, consult journal articles and chapters from scholarly books, and even make a physical trip to the library stacks. It should also draw on the critical readings we will read together. I expect to see effective use of the MLA citation style. Consider bookmarking the following BC library help page on MLA style:

The paper should also show self-consciousness about the craft of scholarly writing, which builds on the rubric above and demonstrates further the ability to provide precision, concretion, extended thought, provocative speculation, and vivid illustration while remaining as accessible as possible to the broadest possible readership. My thoughts about scholarly writing can be found on my blog:


It should go without saying that all written assignments must reflect your own thinking, and anyone caught cheating or plagiarizing will face stiff university-wide reprimand. For official university guidelines, definitions of terms, and procedures regarding academic integrity, visit

If you are a student with a documented disability seeking reasonable accommodations in this course, please contact Kathy Duggan, (617) 552-8093, at the Connors Family Learning Center regarding learning disabilities, or Paulette Durrett, (617) 552-3470, in the Disability Services Office regarding all other types of disabilities.


All secondary readings can be downloaded from the course Canvas site as PDF.

What Is the Present?

Jan 15 Welcome and Introduction

  • Hungerford, Amy. “On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary.” American Literary History 20:1-2 (2008): 410-419.
  • Hutner, Gordon. “Historicizing the Contemporary: A Response to Amy Hungerford.” American Literary History 20:1-2 (2008): 420-424.
  • Gladstone, Jason and Daniel Worden. “Introduction: Postmodernism, Then.” Twentieth-Century Literature 57:3-4 (Fall/Winter 2011): 291-308.
  • Caren Irr, “The Resurgence of the Political Novel.” From Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

The Hemispheric Imagination

Jan 22 Yamashita

  • Adams, Rachel. “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism.” Twentieth-Century Literature 53:3 (Fall 2007), 248-272.
  • Chuh, Kandice. “Of Hemispheres and Other Spheres: Navigating Karen Tei Yamashita’s Literary World.” American Literary History 18:3 (Fall 2006): 618-637.

Jan 29 Diaz

  • McGurl, Mark. “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fictions.” Critical Inquiry 32 (Autumn 2005): 102-129.
  • Saldivar, José David. “Conjectures of ‘Americanity’ and Junot Díaz’s ‘Fukú Americanus’ in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Global South 5:1 (Spring 2011): 120-136.

No Future

Feb 5  McCarthy

  • Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” From The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fictions. London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1984.
  • Hoberek, Andrew. “Cormac McCarthy and the Aesthetics of Exhaustion.” American Literary History 23:3 (2012): 483-499.
  • Edelman, Lee. “The Future is Kid Stuff.” From No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-31.

Feb 12 Egan

  • Sedgwick, Eve. “Shame in a Cybernetic Fold: Reading Sylvan Tompkins (Written with Adam Frank.” From Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Special Issue: Surfacing Reading. Representations 108:1 (Fall 2009): 1-21.
  • Apter, Emily and Elaine Feelgood. “Afterword.” Representations 108:1 (Fall 2009): 139-146.

The 9/11 Novel

Feb 19 Waldman

  • Gray, Richard. “Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis.” American Literary History 21:1 (Spring 2009): 128-151.
  • Rothberg, Michael. “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the 9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray.” American Literary History 21:1 (Spring 2009): 152-158.

Feb 26 Hamid

  • Smith, Rachel Greenwald. “Organic Sharpnel: Affect and Aesthetics in September 11 Fiction.” American Literature 81:1 (March 2011): 153-174.
  • Gasiorek, Andrzej and David James. “Introduction: Fiction Since 2000: Postmillenial Commitments.” Contemporary Literature 4 (Winter 2012): 609-627.


The End of Irony

Mar 12 Wallace (3-379)

  • McCaffrey, Larry. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 2 (Summer 1993): 127-150.

Mar 19 Wallace (380-619)

Mar 26 Wallace (620-782)

  • Holland, Mary. “‘The Art’s Heart’s Purpose’: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Critique3 (Spring 2006): 218-242.

Apr 2 – Holy Thursday, No Class

Apr 9 Wallace (782-981)

  • Cohen, Samuel. “To Wish to Try to Sing for the Next Generation: Infinite Jest’s History.” From The Legacies of David Foster Wallace, ed. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2012.

Histories of the Future

Apr 16 Lymon

  • Warren, Kenneth. “Historicizing African American Litearture.” From What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Apr 23 – away for a conference, No Class

Apr 30 Oreskes and Conway

  • TBA

Failure and Utopic Longing

May 7 (make-up class; the date may change depending on student schedules) Film: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

  • Halberstam, J. “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation” and “Animating Failure: Ending, Fleeing, Surviving.” From The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 173-187.
  • José Estaban Muñoz, TBA.

Thursday, May 11: research paper due

© 2015 Min Hyoung Song