What good is the novel? Questions for the future of novel studies

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


In Making Literature Now (2016), Amy Hungerford makes a case for not reading the fiction of David Foster Wallace. As a scholar of contemporary literature, Hungerford’s argument is not a personal but a professional one and turns on questions of institutional responsibility, choice and the distribution of time: what novels do we ‘choose to’ teach and how do we teach them, what novels do we research and why those few.
This paper will use Hungerford’s argument to open up a map of two developments in contemporary novel studies. One is a return to questions of ‘value’ or to the tasks/techniques of literary ‘evaluation’ and points to an ethical purpose for novel studies. The other is a development of more capacious forms of ‘microanalysis’, the use of large data sets and computational analyses to ‘read’ vast numbers of novels digitised as ‘data’.
The former development is related to a reaction against ‘theory’ or ‘critique’ governing interpretation (Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature, 2008) in favour of a model of literature which can be deployed to “cultivate sympathy” (Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, 2010). The latter development in turn is related to an aligned set of technological conditions and funding imperatives which use algorithms to move in pursuit of patterns far removed from any individual text or experience of reading. A return to ‘close reading’ on the one hand, and a mutation of the techniques of ‘distant reading’ on the other. These two seem to have only an antagonistic relation but I will argue that they may be analogous expressions of logics which are pushing novel studies in a dehistoricising and hence depoliticising direction.
Period11 May 2017
Event titlePolitics, Philosophy, Aesthetics Seminar Series 2016/2017
Event typeOther
LocationBrighton , United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational


  • Novel Studies
  • post-critique
  • Rita Felski
  • Martha Nussbaum
  • Contemporary Literature
  • Amy Hungerford
  • David Foster Wallace