English 245: Modern Fiction

a collaborative exploration of pervasive tropes, themes, and concepts in contemporary fiction



“Master of None” readings

23442515In addition to watching episodes 1-5 of Aziz Ansari’s television show Master of None for Tuesday, March 22, please also read these three short pieces:

David Sim’s review of Master of None for The Atlantic.

“Aziz Ansari on Acting, Race and Hollywood” NYT.

“The Seven Ways to Write About Television” – Linda Holmes


blog post ideas


This book has given us a lot to talk about and I’m sure as we continue our conversation, we’ll keep exploring the creepy parallels to our own world as well as the array of characters and increasingly clear depictions of the world of the novel.

Here are a few ideas worth exploring as we finish reading the novel this week:

Fan: she’s our heroine, but she really makes very few choices when it comes to determining the path of her own journey. She was hit by a car, taken by Quig, traded to Leo, “rescued” by Cathy, and then by Vik, and ends up (by p. 336) with her brother who just happens to be an insanely successful doctor in the Seneca Charter. What does it mean that she has so little actual agency in the novel and yet is heralded by the narrator as mysteriously admirable?

The title and the epigraph(s): what is the significance of the title in relation to the events of the novel? How do the two epigraphs inform our understanding of what Lee is trying to get at?

Intent/themes: speaking of which, what is Lee trying to get at? This novel seems to be overflowing with vast themes: fate, destiny, storytelling, heroism, compliance, stifled humanity, social good versus independence, situational ethics/morality… what does it all mean?

Symbolism: and there are plenty of symbols and recurring details to analyze in this novel: water, pregnancy, doctors, voice/truth, art.

In defense of intellectualism, criticism, elitism, and other pretensions

The mornings on which I don’t teach a class at 8am I often spend reading random articles online. This morning these two were among them – both relating to our conversation on Thursday about the role of critics, whether or not DFW is pretentious (although we didn’t exactly define what that means), and whether distinctions ought to be drawn between “high” and “low” art.

A. O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, offers a defense of his work in the form of a self-interview and uses the example of a mixed review he gave the film The Avengers and the popular backlash it spurred. His argument/defense is interesting, and worth a read if this is a topic of interest for you.

The other, a short piece in The Guardian by Stephen Poole in response to Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, is a bit lighter and more linguistic in approach, but interestingly looks at assumptions we make about what is pretentious and why.

Just a little food for thought on this freezing cold weekend.

random Saunders stuff

Don’t believe me about all that careful-attention-to-detail crap? Check this out: Saunders’ style sheet for the editors of Tenth of December. Complete with rationales for individual punctuation choices and variation by story!

George Saunders

Other stuff:

NYT article/review of Tenth of December: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”

“Real as Hell: A Conversation with George Saunders” by Maria Bustillos from The Awl. Excellent interview.

Locating the Contemporary in the Fiction

So, I’ll probably touch on this next Tuesday as well, but I want to reiterate that one of the things I’d like us to be doing with the literature we read for this class is to read with an eye for what makes each piece contemporary. I’ve been thinking of this as a kind of fluid and reciprocal relationship between literature and culture. I want us to locate the contemporary in the fiction – to figure out which pieces of the story are particular to our time and place – and also to locate the fiction in the (contemporary) culture – put each piece in context and ask what outside of itself, it may be working in response to. To look for clues to meaning within the text, but also outside of it, if that makes sense.

Maybe one way to think about this is to conceive of each text as a two-way mirror: it both reflects and constructs reality. What we see there tells us something about the world, but also something about ourselves: what does it say about me that I immediately find Callie in Saunders’ “Puppy” a tragically sympathetic character and Marie the one who I am impatient with? And then what does it mean that as I think more about each of them, I am more sympathetic to Marie, who, after all, is only trying to do what she thinks is best for her children and really, is smothering them in love the worst thing? And that upon rereading I find myself increasingly frustrated with Callie, who seems to know that – especially as it relates to her own well-being and her relationship with Jimmy – she should be doing more and yet she can’t/won’t? We are all, myself included, products of our time in one way or another, and analyzing my/our responses can help us build this collective understanding of what contemporary fiction is and does.

By way of an example, consider how prominently the relationships between parents and children are featuring in Saunders’ stories so far. From a broad, sociological perspective, it’s not hard to see why. As a society we think a lot more about children and how to raise them “right” than we used to and we also have a tendency to seek causes in our past to explain or excuse current behavior – “Oh, that’s because when I was a kid I was never allowed to have chocolate” or “I bet she was an only child” or “Dad’s always loved my brother more than me” or whatever. Little things, big things, you name it – finding an explanation makes us feel safe and comfortable. We like when things are explicable.

Which I think is one of the reasons why Saunders’ stories are so unsettling. They take these things that we’re comfortable living with, so comfortable that most of the time they’re invisible, we don’t think about them. The stories, each in their own way, take the familiar, comfortable aspects of our everyday lives on which we rely and twist them just enough to make us squirm. But looking closely at the causes of this discomfort is exactly what will lead us toward productive areas of discussion about the elements – good, bad, and indifferent – that shape our current culture and ourselves.

Think about this as you read “The Semplica Girl Diaries” for Tuesday. It’s tricky, I know, to negotiate the space between reading and understanding the story, analyzing the details for complexity and nuance, and also zooming out to consider how the story fits into our world Right Now, but I have faith in each and every one of you, and, as always, I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

Illustration accompanying the original publication of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” in The New Yorker, October 2012

p.s. Here is the episode of Black Mirror that reminded me a little of “Escape from Spiderhead”. The description doesn’t do it justice, but the story revolves around the illusion of choice.

p.p.s. If you’re feeling a little lost in terms of grappling with some of these abstract ideas, this TedEd video might be helpful. Also, just keep asking questions. Pretend you’re a toddler: every time you react to the text in some way, ask yourself “why?” then keep going. ask why again and again. Trust your gut reaction, interrogate it, and always return to the text for evidence to back up your ideas. It’s different than reading for pleasure; it’s work, but that’s why we’re here.



This blog is where we will articulate our thoughts about the things we are reading, and other contemporary fictions. Its purpose is to enhance in-class discussions of the texts we are considering as well as take into account the many fictions we encounter in our daily lives.

Writing enhances understanding, and this assignment is designed to get you doing a lot of short, informal writing as a way to think through ideas and make connections.

The sharing of ideas often sparks new ideas, so writing in a connected, public space allows us not only to better understand what we’re reading by writing about it, but also to better understand and articulate our own thoughts in relation to those of others.

Be bold. Take risks. Make connections. Agree and disagree with one another. Explain why.

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