First Novel Class

Class Description: Million-dollar book deals, Hollywood adaptations: first novelists dream big, and understandably so. But the reality of the first novel is darker and more complex, and consequently much more interesting. Even “successful” first novels cast a long and potentially suffocating shadow over the rest of the writer’s career—almost every writer at some point in their career disinherits their freshmen fictions; some never write again. In this class, we will read the famous and sometimes obscure first novels of famous and sometimes obscure writers, including Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Eudora Welty, Frederick Exley, Don DeLillo, Jamaica Kincaid, J.M. Coetzee, David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, among others; we will also read excerpts from the writers’ later work and examine the first novel’s effect on the writers’ writing and his/her life. Each week students will be expected to read the literature and turn in short personal essays, which will address the weekly “Things to Think About” handout provided by the instructor and relate the texts to the students’ own experience as presumed (read: hopeful) first novelists. Why do some first novels “work” while others slip by unnoticed? What lessons can a first novelist learn from a first, failed novel? What is the relation of fame and failure?

Week 1
Course introduction; instructor and student introductions; creation of schedule
In-class lecture and discussion: “The First Novel: Hopes and Failures”
In-class exercise: write the blurb for your own first novel

Week 2
Henry James, Watch and Ward (1871); Golden Bowl, excerpts
Discussion: “The Impulse to Revise”
Essay due: write a review of James’ debut as if it were published today

Week 3
F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920); “Pasting It Together,” essay
Discussion: “The Manic Stylist – The Temptation of the First Novelist”
Essay due: “Weak writing, or brilliant stylistic high-wire act?”
In-class exercise: write something intentionally horrible

Week 4
Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow (1922); selected later Huxley
Discussion: “Satire and the Totalitarian Imagination”
Essay due: Does Crome work as a satire?

Week 5
Eudora Welty, The Robber Bridgegroom (1943); “A Worn Path,” story
Discussion: “Myth and First Fictions”
Essay due: discuss Welty’s appropriation of myth and its affect on her prose

Week 6
JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951); Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1959)
Discussion: “The First and Only Novel – What (If Anything) Went Wrong?”
Essay due: The Case of the Disappearing First Novelist

Week 7
Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)
Discussion: “The Fictional Memoir – Thoughts on Literary Thievery”
Essay due: review the Exley book in imitation of its style
*Evening showing of A Fan’s Notes film adaptation starring Jerry Orbach

Week 8
Visiting first novelist: Dave King, The Ha-Ha
Guest lecture: “On Writing My First Novel”
Essay due: write a short story from the perspective of someone who is without one or more of the five sense (hearing, seeing, etc.)

FALL  BREAK

Week 9
Don DeLillo, Americana (1971); excerpts of Underworld and The Body Artist
Discussion: “The Bravura Opening: Style and Substance”
Essay due: discuss DeLillo’s Opening Paragraph

Week 10
J.M. Coetzee, Dusklands (1974); excerpts from late-career memoir
Discussion: “Narrative and Politics: the Land of the Imagination”
Essay due: discuss Coetzee’s narrative strategy in his first book

Week 11
Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John (1985)
Discussion: “Fictionalizing Colonization: the Place of the Narrator”
Essay due: discuss Kincaid’s narrative strategy

Week 12
David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987); Infinite Jest, selections
Discussion: “The Maximum Imagination: The Mind of Narrative”
Essay due: imitate DFW, then critique your own imitation

Week 13
Lydia Davis, The End of the Story (1995)
Discussion: “The Disappearing Narrative”
Essay due: discuss Davis’ style in relation to her story

Week 14
Visiting first-novelist: Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (1993)
Guest lecture: “On Writing My First Novel”
Essay due: “Now what do you think about the First Novel?”
End of term party


Further First Novels to Read:
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Mary McCarthy, The Oasis
George Orwell, Burmese Days
Thomas Pynchon, V.
Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden
Stephen King, Carrie
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Richard Ford, A Piece of My Heart
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
Lorrie Moore, Anagrams
Paul Auster (as Paul Benjamin), Squeeze Play
Angela Carter, Shadow Dance
E. Annie Proulx, Postcards
Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero
Joanna Scott, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came To the End

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