Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

Writing subjects: authorship, authority, and the eighteenth-century novel

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Course Description

This course introduces students to what literary critic Ian Watt famously called “the rise of the novel.” Our readings will include several of the canonical eighteenth-century writers that Watt identifies with the individualism of the novel form, but we’ll also spend time with several others that his study neglects. We’ll think together, and in conversation with Watt, about what made these texts “novel” or different from their Renaissance and classical literary forbears, but our central questions will involve the status and function of writing itself—both as it was imagined and transformed over the course of the eighteenth century, and as it applies to us today.

In our media-saturated present, we tend to think of novels as especially serious works of literature—morally edifying and intellectually stimulating. But in the eighteenth century, the familiar acts of reading and writing that we have come to associate with the novel were very much under construction. Whether novels were good for people or not was an open question. In England, the increasing democratization of literacy and the proliferation of print media helped grant a new degree of power to the written word, and the novel was at the center of a media environment in which practices of literacy and expression could feature as particularly fraught sites of political contestation.

In this course, we’ll be tracking the relative statuses of readers and writers as they figure in eighteenth-century novels. We’ll pay special attention to class, gender, and racial categories to see how our texts create and reshuffle the power relations that were constitutive of modern identity. Throughout, we’ll look to the novel as a conceptually experimental space that made writing the medium in which any and all imaginable voices could speak to one another and lay claim to their own kind of authority.