ENGL/PCUL 2P59 Valuing Contemporary Fiction

Offered in D2 2008 by Professor John Lye
The 2008 syllabus is now available in .pdf format -- click here

Course Calendar Description:
Contesting concepts of literary value; the grounds and methods of evaluation; differing interpretive communities; social locations and uses of fiction. Novels and short stories.


More Detailed Description:

This will be a course in which we study literature much as folks in other courses do - examining the way in which the text creates complex and compelling meanings within particular literary conventions and within a historical, social and cultural context. We will however be doing such study with a particular focus and set of questions, and the basis of the selection of texts follows from that focus and those questions. The focus of the course is the value of current fiction to individuals and to society, the social processes of valuing, the nature and function of intrinsic or aesthetic value, and the ways in which we can speak and write of the grounds of values and valuing


Ultimately the goal of the course is to provide students with support and understanding as they take their place in the culture as literate citizens, as teachers or in any other capacity, ultimately as public intellectuals, people taking responsibility for the ideas, representations, dreams, anxieties, and moral and social values that ground the culture.

In the course we will be looking at such things as:

  1. Concepts of the valuing of fiction, for instance:
    • aesthetic value and the value of aesthetic value (the use value, the exchange value, the cognitive value, the social value, the moral value)
    • contingent value - value as for particular people for particular purposes in particular contexts
    • use value (see 2 below)
    • symbolic value & cultural capital
    • heuristic value - what fiction "tells" one, on purpose or inadvertently, about society and its values, standards, assumptions and concerns, about the ideology of society and what it may mask
    • formative value - the work that fiction does on or for readers (reconciling public and private selves, forming ideals, providing consolation, increasing perception, providing language through which to articulate experience, and so forth)

      -- And we will be looking at what is at stake in contending concepts of value and what the problems with various grounds of value may be.

  2. The uses of fiction, including the appropriation of works of works of fiction by interest and identity groups; the use of literature in sociality, social learning; concepts of the psychoanalytic and therapeutic uses of contemporary fiction.

  3. The moral or ethical value and valuing of fiction

  4. The ideological functions of fiction and of the assignment of value to fiction

  5. The place of modern or current fiction in social discourse

  6. Various processes of social and cultural (and consequently economic and symbolic) valuing, including the book review, the book prize, the book club (and 30% off at Chapters!)

  7. The concept of "genre" fiction and how it is (de)valued.

  8. The cultural authority of (some) 'recognized' authors

  9. The concept of ethnographic study, or how one finds out what something "means" to various readers - means interpretively, but also emotionally, symbolically, in terms of self-identity and social relations.


In support of these investigations we will be looking as well at how fiction works as a formal, aesthetic construct (hence how we analyze it, how we discuss the ways it makes its meaning).



Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun – The Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction [Vintage]

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – National Book Critic’s Award [Riverhead Press (Penguin Group)] This book has also won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Anne Enright, The Gathering – Man Booker Prize [Black Cat (Grove/Atlantic)]

Cormac McCarthy, The Road – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, James Tait Black Prize [Vintage]

Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero – Governor General’s Award for Fiction [Vintage]

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born [Vintage]

These books are available at Chapters, etc.