Tu/W/Th 01:00-03:30 233 Dwinelle Instructor: Taylor Johnston

Instructor: Taylor Johnston

R1B Session A:  May 22nd-June 30th.

Just as the twenty-first century has been defined as a self-centered age, so some of its most distinctive novels are often called selfish, entitled, narcissistic, gauche, indulgent, or just plain annoying. In this reading and composition course, we will reconsider some of these accusations. Writing about the minutiae of life seems highly self-centered, but do contemporary autobiographical novels also deconstruct, distort, or otherwise question the self as an entity?


This might sound like a purely literary question. However, it has significant relevance to the kind of self-presentation many of us engage in everyday. We gossip about our own lives, take pictures of ourselves or what we’re doing, write publicly about incidents that would have little relevance to people outside our own friend groups, or agonize about what to wear. And most of us are concerned with how to do so in a way that isn’t too selfish or too bothersome to others – maybe even a way that acknowledges our own limitations and marginality in the world at large.


The novels we will examine in this course all do the same. In his six-part novel titled My Struggle, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses events as small as sipping coffee, changing diapers, even opening and closing car doors. The Italian writer Elena Ferrante gives us intimate knowledge about a childhood friendship in My Brilliant Friend, the first of her four “Neapolitan Novels.” American Ben Lerner subjects us to the goofy details of his drug and alcohol binges during a research stay in Spain (though he researched very little) as part of his Leaving the Atocha Station. And Nigerian-American Teju Cole’s Open City adopts the diary as novelistic form. But all of these writers talk about themselves in a way that subtly questions the centrality of the individual – by mimicking technology, ironizing their own shortcomings, or writing in far greater detail than a person could actually observe.

We will read Leaving the Atocha Station in its entirety and a sampling of the other novels. Afterwards you will have the opportunity to read the rest of one that interests you and discuss it with a small, in-class “book club” of students. In order to think more deliberately about the course’s questions, you will write two compositions. The first will be your own piece of autobiographical writing – not auto-fiction in this case (the term frequently used to describe these writers), but an auto-ethnography in which you decide how to present yourself using texts associated with your life. The second will be a longer work in which you will make an argument about one of the novels, in conversation with contemporary scholars who have published articles about it. Much of our class time will be spent discussing what we read and helping you prepare for these two main projects.

You might be scared by the length and somewhat banal scope of these novels. But as James Wood, a book reviewer for The New Yorker wrote about Knausgaard, “even when I was bored I was interested.” Another contemporary novelist, Zadie Smith, wrote that she needs Knausgaard’s novels “like crack.” We hope you will too and look forward to seeing you in class!

Required texts:

Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

Teju Cole, Open City

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Book 1

The Diary of Samuel Pepys (selection)

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (selection)