Contemporary American Fiction: Graduate Seminar (Fall 2016, Syllabus)



This seminar examines works of American fiction published within the past two decades with a special focus on the novel. The 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 what’s been called the post-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 they 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. 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 American 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.


David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)

Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist (1999)

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

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

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

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)

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


Participation (15%); short paper (15%); co-facilitation (10%); 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.

short paper. This is a 5-6 page paper that gives me an opportunity to assess and comment on your writing. It will come early in the class, and should allow you to provide an engaging close reading of a section of Infinite Jest.

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? (The occasion is the reason you’re making 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 paper use complete sentences that are grammatically correct?
  • Does the paper show signs of being revised and proofread?

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.

research paper. 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 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.

The End of Irony

Sept 1 Welcome and Introduction

  • David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” (Kenyon College Commencement Speech, 2005)
  • David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13:2 (1993:Summer): 151-194
  • Larry McCaffrey, “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 2 (Summer 1993): 127-150.

Sept 8 Wallace (3-379)

  • Lee Konstantinou, “How to Be a Believer.” From Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Sept 15 Wallace (380-619)

  • Heather Houser, “Infinite Jest’s Environmental Case for Disgust.” From Ecosickness in Contemporary US Fiction New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Sept 22  Wallace (620-782)

Sept 29 Wallace (782-981)

  • short paper due (should be turned in as a hard copy at the start of class) 


Allegories of Race

Oct 6 Whitehead

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


The Program Era

Oct 13 Diaz

  • McGurl, Mark. “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fictions.” Critical Inquiry 32 (Autumn 2005): 102-129


9/11 and the Novel

Oct 20 Hamid

  • 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.

Oct 27 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.


What Is Art Good For?

Nov 3 Mandel

Nov 10 – No Class


The Literary and Genre Fiction

Nov 17 Nguyen

  • We will speak with the author for about 30 minutes via the internet.




What Is Fiction?

Dec 1 Rankine


The Humanities and the World

Dec 8 Closing discussion


Dec 12 @ noon: research paper due