Novel Theory: May 31-June 2, 2018

The biennial conference of the Society for Novel Studies at Cornell University

keyword seminars

The goal of these two-hour events will be conversation around a term or concept that crosses fields and periods. You will have a chance to rank your seminar preferences when you register for the conference. If you are not already giving a paper, your name will appear in the program as a seminar participant.

If you’re interested in presenting in addition to participating, feel free to contact the seminar organizers. Some keyword seminars will run concurrently, but you may attend more than one if they meet at different times. You may also participate a novel seminar. Your name will appear on the program only once.

  • Nancy Armstrong and Tim Bewes with Priya Joshi, Roberto Dainotto, Alexander Millen, and Peter Boxall: contemporary

Does the contemporary novel require a new theory of the novel? This seminar will take up many approaches to answering this question, such as focusing on developments in the economy, including finance capitalism, and on how novelistic accounts of the impact of these changes differ from critical theoretical engagements; on the ways that novelsregister changes in the individual subject brought on by social media; on how the novel is impacted by transformations in the social character of labor, and by the way people live together, achieve intimacy, experience pleasure, and conceptualize love. We want these comments to suggest a few routes for exploring how contemporary novels require us to modify (or throw out) the basic categories and claims of the various novel theories that have been in operation for a century or more. If you would like to be considered as a presenter, please contact the organizers ( by December 1, 2017.

  • Beth Blum with John Lurz, Günter Leypoldt, Emily Lordi, Megan Quigley, and Robert Volpicelli:: charisma

Due largely to Pierre Bourdieu’s influential refutation of the “charismatic ideology of creation,” charisma has come to embody what many feel are the worst, most embarrassing tendencies of our discipline: aesthetic piousness, superstition, vagueness, subjectivity, and fetishism of the ineffable and unquantifiable. Participants in this seminar will reassess the problem of charisma by investigating its relation to the literary experiences of soul, trust, gender, performance, and the pleasure of the text. In addition, we will pose the question of what a post-charismatic literature or literary criticism might look like, and exchange views on the desirability of such a goal. If you are interested in presenting, please contact Beth Blum at by November 1.

  • Amanda Claybaugh and Jen Spitzer with Martin Quinn, Shirley Wong and Dora Zhang: detail

In “Two Paths for the Novel”—Zadie Smith rehearses a familiar poststructuralist argument about the detail in relation to realism, that the “random detail confers the authenticity of the Real.” For the poststructuralist Barthes, the seemingly insignificant detail appears excessive, superfluous, inassimilable to the structure of narrative, but it is in fact crucial to the “reality effect” of the story, for it makes the latter feel real by fleshing out character and atmosphere.  Adopting a historical perspective, Naomi Schor argues that in spite of its poststructuralist revival, the detail has been historically abjected, relegated to feminine ornamentation. As she says in Reading in Detail, “For as any historian of ideas knows, the detail until very recently has been viewed in the West with suspicion if not downright hostility.”  The detail is associated with both the ordinary and the ornamental. As symptom and clue, it occupies a space of plenitude and of absence. Thus, central to the discourse of the detail is an anxiety about its inadequacy: its impediment to the movement from concrete particularity to abstraction and generalization; its production of narrative digression and fragmentation; its inability to yield historical insight or meaningful knowledge; its invitation to get lost in the weeds. This seminar proposes an open-ended discussion of the nature and value of the detail across a group of passages chosen by the participants. Among the questions we might ask: What information do narrative details provide? What kind of truth do they produce?  How does their accumulation in a text (quantity) relate to their qualitative effects? If you are interested in presenting, please contact the organizers ( by December 1.

  • Chris Holmes and Tim Wientzen with Sarah Brouillette, Stephanie DeGooyer, Urmila Seshagiri, and Christian Thorne. limit

This seminar explores the concept of “the limit” and its utility for novel studies in the twenty-first century. Our consideration of the limit originates from the novelist Tom McCarthy’s maxim that “all knowledge claims have to begin from the experience of limitation.” Why in the age of planetary thinking might we be drawn to the theories of limitation? Recent criticism has opened a debate about whether our desire to broaden the capabilities of novels to represent, know, and evaluate the world from ever more vantages may in fact ignore the primary ways in which novels structure such thinking—within formal and epistemological limits. A glance at major works in the newest of our subfields reveals methodologies that admonish us to stay on the surface, practice weak theory, that call our attention to feelings of failure, disappointment, and disgust, reveal borders visible and invisible, and announce the end of the age of man. With those works in mind, we propose a discussion of how the study of the novel might be reoriented according to distinct limit points which broach and divide notions of context, genre, affect, personhood, transnationalism, epochal scale, etc. If you would like to be considered as a presenter, please contact the organizers ( & by December 1, 2017.

  • Namwali Serpell with Stephen Best, Glenda Carpio, Nadia Ellis, Uri McMillan, and Ismail Muhammad: BLACK


  1. adj.
  2. lit.
  3. a. Of the darkest colour possible, that of soot, coal, the sky on a moonless night in open country, or a small hole in a hollow object; designating this colour; (also) so near this as to have no recognizable colour, very dark. From a scientific perspective, the quality of being black is due to the absence or absorption of all the wavelengths of light occurring in the visible spectrum. In general use, however, it is normally classed as a colour. The colour tends to be associated with evil and melancholy, and in Western society is the traditional colour of mourning.
  4. Characterized in some way by this quality or colour.
  5. Also with capital initial. a. Designating a member of any dark-skinned group of peoples, esp. a person of sub-Saharan African origin or descent.

This panel will take up these “definitions” of “black” from the Oxford English Dictionary in order to discuss: black abstraction, black humor, black memoir, black surface, black feeling, and black reading.

  • Jen Fleissner with Amanda Anderson, Chris Freeburg, Andrew H. Miller, Paul Stasi, and Katherine Snyderinteriority
The novel has often been associated with the rise of interiority, as privileged attribute of the modern subject.  Recent accounts call this into question (emphasizing behavior as in Jonathan Kramnick’s Actions and Objects, affect vs. emotion, other-minds skepticism, surface, and so on).  In light of this, is the novel/interiority association worth maintaining, and what would be at stake in doing so?  What might an alternative account look like?  Does interiority mean what we usually think it does: does it stabilize character?  Does an emphasis on it detract from an attention to the social or political?  Can there be an excessive (or “an excess of”) interiority?  Are “interiority” and “depth” necessarily equivalent?  How does interiority or the refusal of it figure into the distinction between novelistic realism and romance?  If you would like to be considered as a presenter, please contact the organizer ( by December 1, 2017.

  • Anna Kornbluh and Oded Nir with Kasia Bartoszynska, Bruce Robbins, and Phil Wegner: totality

One of the first theories of the novel distinguishes it as “the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given…yet which still thinks in terms of totality.”  If Lukacs’s definition still holds, then novel theory – the kind of thinking that novels do – constitutively concerns totality as a question, a problem, a condition that is nonetheless not given.  In this regard the novel participates in the abiding Marxist investigations of “the properly unrepresentable ensemble of society’s structures as a whole” (Jameson).  What features of the novel enable it to grapple with the unrepresentable, with ungiven determinations, with absent causes?  How does the novel form register or indeed perform the dynamic but necessary structural interrelationship of parts and wholes?  If novels cannot represent totality, can they nonetheless theorize it?  Is the novel Marxist?

  • Yoon Sun Lee with Pardis Dabashi, Elaine Freedgood, Billy Galperin, Brian Richardson, Wendy Xin: plot

This roundtable examines how we work with and understand plot as an indispensable feature of the novel. Should we think of plot as a form with distinct parts, or as a dynamic structuring operation, in Peter Brooks’s words, “for those meanings that develop through succession and time”? In Rancière’s account, “[Aristotle’s] Poetics declares that the arrangement of a poem’s actions is not equivalent to the fabrication of a simulacrum. It is a play of knowledge that is carried out in a determined space-time.” Multiple senses of the word plot are locked together here: a delimited space, a fluid movement of knowledge, an arrangement of interlocking actions. But many questions remain to be explored. How is plot related to historically changing models of causality? How important are reversibility and irreversibility, closure, immanence, counter-plots, anti-plots as features of novelistic form? What is the function of affect, as opposed to logical relationship? Finally, how can we describe what we are doing when we summarize plots? Does plot consist solely in the chronological arrangement of events?

  • John Marx and Jesse Rosenthal with Tess McNulty, Kalyan Nadiminti, Richard Jean So, Ted Underwood, Megan Ward: data
Has data science become normal? Until very recently, all would have agreed that quantitative approaches were on the fringes of literary studies. But now an increasing number of scholars, including many who would never call themselves digital humanists, consider data-driven approaches in their work. This roundtable asks whether and how data might be becoming an unremarkable part of scholarly practice, why it continues to challenge the limits of what is recognizable as literary scholarship, and what is at stake in normalizing quantitative literary scholarship.

  • Kelly Rich with Janice Ho, Caroline Levine, Sangina Patnaik, Jill Richards, Michael Rubenstein and Susan Ziegerinfrastructure

Our presenters offer a range of approaches for thinking through infrastructural forms, ranging from physical structures to more epistemological questions of connectivity and constellation. Topics discussed might include public works, like electricity and water; the shipping and transportation of consumer goods; social welfare systems at the level of the nation-state; the rise of the military industrial complex; transnational models of governmentality; networks, grids, and other models for the large-scale arrangement of knowledge. Taken together, our presentations will gesture towards new critical models for thinking about infrastructure, as well as ways to periodize infrastructural change.

  • David Coombs and Elaine Auyoung with Jonah Siegel, Anna Henchman, and Jonathan Kramnick: empiricism

When Ian Watt credited the ascendancy of philosophic empiricism with the emergence of a literary form committed to representing individual experience at the scale of concrete particulars, he defined the novel by a constellation of features that have continued to shape our claims about the cultural, ideological, and aesthetic work that novels perform. This seminar presents an occasion to reflect on just how and why the novel form invites us to reach for the concept of empiricism, what is decidedly empirical about otherwise very different critical methods for studying the novel, and how new perspectives from philosophy, the history of science, and cognitive psychology can help us think more precisely about what novels are and what they seek to achieve.

  • Talia Schaffer and Elsie Michie with Daniel Hack, Michaela Bronstein, Jos Lavery, Anna Maria Jones: memory/influence
In memory/influence, we want to try to develop a new model of literary tradition that can incorporate ideas about the cognitive workings of memory, the dynamics of communal relations, and the virtual space of the digital or periodical realm. In other words, we want to update the idea of the literary tradition according to more contemporary models of writing, social relations, and thought. How might we conceptualize the transnational and transhistorical movement of texts? How much agency should we assign authors, given that we have inherited theories ranging from T.S. Eliot’s tradition and Bloom’s influence (determined by one author’s personal relation to another) to Kristeva’s, Riffaterre’s, and Barthes’s theory of intertextuality (determined by the mobility of textual elements with no attention to personal agency at all)? In this seminar we will try to develop a model that thinks meaningfully about texts’/authors’ gendered and racial and colonial relations. We aim to update ideas of textual relations by invoking psychoanalytic models of memory, relational models of mutual care, and the temporal disorientation produced by the strange juxtapositions in the digital archive and the periodical form. A new theory of influence is badly needed, and we hope our seminar will begin to develop a model that showcases modern ideas about political, social, cognitive, and formal relationships.

  • Jed Esty and Paul St. Amour with Rachel Buurma, Tommy S. Davis, Nathan Hensley, and Nirvana Tanoukhigenre/scale

For the analog humanities, genre has long been an important category for linking single works to larger units of literary production and consumption. Now as our discipline, and the study of the novel within it, attempts to comprehend its objects by digital, computational, and quantitative means across many different scales of analysis, what work should genre be doing?  What traction might genre offer us as we scale up from word/image/figure to text to oeuvre to genre to genre-system to national tradition to transnational context to literary world-system? How do we—can we—conceptualize genre as part of the middle or meso-scale that mediates between 1) individual texts and large corpora; 2) local/national space and global/transnational space; and/or 3) strong theory (critique) and weak theory (e.g., post-critique)? This panel will attempt to identify and discuss useful and usable current models for thinking about meso-analysis within the history and theory of the novel, particularly as those models bear upon, or rely upon, the value of genre criticism or the salience of genre fiction.

  • Peripatetic seminars: Speculative Fiction and The Uses of Genre

Two seminar discussions will take place during walks or hikes before and after the conference proper. One, organized by John Plotz, will take place before the conference (Thursday, May 31) and one, organized by Penny Fielding, the day after (Sunday, June 3). Please email John Plotz ( if you are interested in participating in his peripatetic seminar on “Speculative Fiction,” and email Penny Fielding () if you would like to join her discussion of the “Uses of Genre.” N.B. These seminars are meant for all: please make Professors Plotz and Fielding aware of any mobility or accessibility constraints when expressing your interest, so that the nature of the walk/hike can be planned accordingly.

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