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Originally Taught: Unknown

What is wrong with fiction nowadays? Why is it so trite, formulaic, limp, posturing, and shit? According to lore, poetry is the esoteric language art we must learn to decode, the form closest to the unconscious; nobody can read it, but, due to its essential mystery, everybody can write it. Stories, on the other hand, are readily understood even by children, and conversely the writing of fiction is a matter of dogged and dedicated craft, involving much measured reflection, aesthetic restraint, and the disciplined exercise of sympathetic imagination.

This approach to the writing of fiction, popularised by the MFA, and the accompanying focus on ‘literary craft’ is, at its worst, ahistorical, depoliticising, and artistically neutering. The seminars in this short course aim to denaturalise the creative writing program’s toolkit, taking a critical approach to those ‘false problems’ of story — character, plot, perspective and style. Responding to the three traditional imperatives of creative writing programs (show don’t tell; write what you know; find your voice) this course will be structured by three provocations:


Forgoing assumptions about what fiction is (the human storytelling impulse, an expression of subjectivity, a therapeutic mechanism) and what it does (foster empathy, represent identity, redeem the horrors of life) we’ll blaze a haphazard and polemical trail through some key literary theory to figure out how fiction works. We’ll explore the relationship between fictionality and social forms, the commodity of the text, the performance of authorial selfhood, and that ineffable thing, ‘style’.

Though this course is designed to be taken alongside the MSL creative writing workshop (below), it’s appropriate for anyone interested in fiction as a reader or writer.

Course Outline


Orienting the course, we will look at some of the novel’s historical conditions of production, thinking about the rise of fictionality as a way of articulating the self and of engaging in new kinds of speculative thinking. Moving to the contemporary, we’ll discuss the development of the short story in the 20th century, and critically consider its function as a commercial outgrowth of the creative writing program itself.

  • ‘The Rise of Fictionality’, Catherine Gallagher, in The Novel vol. 1, ed Franco Moretti.
  • The Program Era, Mark McGurl, ch. 5.


The pedagogical commonplace insists that we experience characters as human beings; good characterisation is, supposedly, about authorising and evoking this response. Characters are ‘round’ or ‘flat’; protagonists are ‘convincing,’ ‘coherent’, and, worst, ‘relatable’, embedded in but not contained by the world of the text. We’ll talk about the close relationship between individual subjectivity, rationalisation, and the novel form; extending our discussion of Gallagher’s fictionality from the previous week, we’ll talk about what makes a protagonist, touching on Alex Woloch’s labour theory of character.

  • ‘Minor Characters’ - Alex Woloch, in The Novel vol 2, ed. Franco Moretti.
  • The Antinomies of Realism - Fredric Jameson, ch. 1 and 2.


Plot is often understood to revolve around two things: causality (that is, one event leading to another according to the laws of plausibility) and, to a much greater degree, character evolution (character motive, character development, and character revelation). We’ll discuss what makes the plotting of modern fiction different to the hermeneutic patterning of the mythic or legendary, and look at the constitutive tension between what a narrative tells us it wants, and what it does, with specific reference D.A. Miller’s work on closure.

  • Narrative and its Discontents, D.A. Miller, ch. 1.
  • The Rhetoric of Narrative, Wayne C. Booth, ch 1. and 7.


When the story talks, who is speaking? Where does narrative authority reside? We’ll look at the thematic, analogic and mimetic levels at which narration occurs, briefly stopping over in structuralist theory of narrative discourse. Moving beyond point-of-view analysis to think about how a focus on ‘character’ and ‘perspective’ can obscure the ideological operations of a text, we’ll discuss the disordered, complex, and sometimes sinister production of narrative ‘voice’.

  • Narrative Discourse, Gerald Genette, ch. 5.
  • The Culture of Redemption, Leo Bersani, ch. 7.


‘Style’ has a number of contradictory meanings, referring at once to a cultural unconscious expressed in individual works; to the immanent and immutable mark of the author; and to the highly agential and deliberate exercise of technique. Freud says that ‘every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of the world in a new way that pleases him.’ We’ll triangulate these definitions by way of Freud, Sontag and Nietzsche, thinking about wish-fulfillment, the volition of the author, and artistic self-shattering, in a discussion of the politics of style.

  • ‘On Style’, Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays.
  • ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’, Sigmund Freud.
  • The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche.