August 13, 2009

Your Vote Counts!

At least, it might. Pretty soon I have to finalize book orders for a new course I'm teaching in the winter term, a second-year survey of "British Literature Since 1800." I feel strongly that despite the pressure it will put on the very limited time I have available to cover a vast range of material, I can't teach such a course without including at least one 19th-century novel and one 20th-century novel--but picking just one puts a lot of pressure on each choice! I'll be using the second volume of the Norton "Major Authors" anthology, which will take care of poetry, non-fiction, and short fiction. I've been thinking that if you're going to showcase a single Victorian novelist, it simply has to be Dickens, and as we have at most two weeks and I will mostly have students without much literary experience, I've been thinking it has to be one of the shorter Dickens, meaning basically Hard Times or Great Expectations. Before I put the order in, though, I thought I'd see how many people agreed with me and how many would consider someone else the "must read" author of that century, or another book a better choice. So I've put a little poll at the side; feel free to place your vote there and/or to put a suggestion in the comments. For what it's worth, my underlying theme in the course will be something like "what do people think literature is for, and how do they use literary form to get this done?" And the 20th-century novel I've almost decided on is Atonement, for lots of reasons, one of which is that it is kind of a two-for-one deal, given its engagement with Woolf-ian modernism (which we will address through readings from the anthology too).

11 comments:

Richard LeComte said...

Can I put in a good word for "Nice Work"? It's hilarious and counts as metafiction.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I really enjoy Nice Work as well, and of course it makes a perfect pair with North and South. That said, I think I would be more inclined to use that pairing in an upper-level course with a Victorian/Neo-Victorian focus: I'm not sure Nice Work is sufficiently interesting in itself to let it represent "the" 20thC British novel. (As an aside, I was peering at Deaf Sentence in the bookstore the other day, feeling tempted--has anyone read it?)

Sisyphus said...

Just jumping in to say that I was never a great fan of Great Expectations _and_ it is _the_ go-to text to signify "The Victorian Period" in high schools around here, including mine.

This means I had it in high school and two different undergrad surveys and I didn't like it all that much to begin with, so it was kinda overkill.

Not so much a specific vote for "for" as a vote "against" but there you have it.

Of course I wasn't a big fan of _Atonement_ either. So never mind. :)

Colleen said...

I was going to say too that Great Expectations is incredibly overdone in high schools and is responsible (well, I think the teachers are responsible) for many people thinking they don't like Dickens. Giving them something unfamiliar by Dickens, might help them get over that unfortunate mental roadblock.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Interesting. I was never taught any Dickens in school. Of course, if I had my druthers, we'd do Bleak House, but that's a non-starter for a class of this kind at this level, I think. What about Tale of 2 Cities? Except it doesn't do the things I would probably want to generalize about, re. 19thC fiction and social reform etc. Hard Times lacks the ease and humour I think is the best way to "sell" Dickens, but it is so tightly structured I think it is very teachable; I just don't like it as much as GE. Maybe A Christmas Carol, which has the advantage of being something students think they know but don't quite. Still, Great Expectations has a commanding lead in my poll (6/12 votes).

Sisyphus, I was hesitating about Atonement because I thought the first half would kill the students with boredom, but then I was re-reading it, and if you soften them up for it with some time on modernism, then they get to the second half, which I think is truly gripping, and the whole thing is so beautifully written (I think McEwan may have the best control over his language of any contemporary novelist except maybe Ishiguro...speaking of whom, Remains of the Day was my runner-up, but I teach that in other courses and wanted the intellectual stretch of working through a novel I've never lectured on before).

JRussell said...

I would recommend _Hard Times_ because it offers a more accessible connection with Victorian social issues (marriage and education as well as industrialization). I think the issue of objectification by means of technology would be easy for students to connect to their own lives, not to mention the whole idea of "useful knowledge." And you get to mention Carlyle, Ruskin, and Barrett Browning.

_Deaf Sentence_ is as funny as early Lodge, but it has an emotional charge that is new in his work. Definitely recommended.

R. T. said...

Sometimes--especially for undergraduates--shorter is better, which leads me to suggest Austen's NORTHANGER ABBEY (entertaining and challenging in spite of its shortcomings) and Woolf's MRS. DALLOWAY (accessible but complex), both of which have worked well in my courses in the past.

Amateur Reader said...

It's possible that many students who read Great Expectations in high school did not really read Great Expectations.

Long ago, in high school, I was assigned an abridged version of the novel that omitted, for example, all of the funny parts. Reading the actual novel later was a shock.

That was over twenty years ago. Maybe those horrors have all been pulped.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thank you to everyone for the input. Great Expectations has a pretty commanding lead, though it's interesting that Jane Eyre has been creeping up on it. Overall, though, I think JE is just not, well, Victorian enough for my purposes.

R.T., I've just never liked Northanger Abbey, so if I did go with as early an author as Austen, I'd teach a different one. That's just down to taste, and I can see that with NA you could create lots of interesting links to later works in Gothic or pseudo-Gothic style, but still, not for me. And since the course is supposed to come up to the present day, and the modernists are (a) a bit outside my skills set, and (b) pretty well covered through short pieces in our anthology, I'm pretty set on a more contemporary novel for the second one. As you can see, deep intellectual issues are only a small part of these decisions!

AR: Great Expectations without the funny parts? The horror, indeed. Not even the gravy? or Joe's hat?

Jeanne said...

I've been behind on my blog visiting, so this comment may be too late. At any rate, I liked all the David Lodge books up to Deaf Sentence, but I think he lost his touch with that one. My review is here: http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2008/11/ive-been-fan-of-david-lodge-ever-since.html
Also Lodge is always so ivory-towerish.

Atonement will be familiar to some students because of the movie--if you think it's a good adaptation of the novel, that can be a plus.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Jeanne, it's too late in the sense that I have just finished reading Deaf Sentence myself...but not too late to point me to your review, which I'm quite interested to read. I'll put off clicking over, though, until I've tried to put a few thoughts of my own together.