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The Novel's Political Punch

“I don't believe there can be a poetic novel without political consciousness.”  Nearly twenty years ago, American author Marguerite Young uttered these words in an interview, and today the sentiment remains as pertinent as ever.  Political thinking and context has worked itself into novels spanning from classics like Voltaire’s Enlightenment satire Candide to George Orwell’s 1984 to more recent bestsellers like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.  In the same way that visual artists incorporate aspects of the political climate of the day into their works, so, too, do writers respond to and potentially shape politics.

Alex Woloch, an associate professor of English at Stanford and director of Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel, considered the recurring significance of politics in the novel form and decided the topic was worth exploring in the Center’s annual conference. This year’s conference, entitled “Politics and the Novel,” is taking place on April 10, 2009, and features discussion topics ranging from "The Novel and the Liberal Aesthetic" to "Post–9/11: Why the Public Needs Literary Critics."

During the conference literary scholars and historians from a number of universities including Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Columbia, will engage in dynamic discussions on different facets of politics as they interact with the novel and the authors who pen them. “Politics and the Novel” will be held on the Stanford campus between 9am and 5pm. The Center invites the public to attend any of the free panel discussions taking place throughout the day.

When asked about the significance of this year’s theme, Woloch replied, “This is certainly a year in which politics has played an important role.  The novel can be a political tool, a vehicle, or a symptom of the cultural and ideological climate.  How can we apply political theory to fiction?  How can we look at the novel in relation to political history? This conference will bring together critics who have been developing a rich, varied and imaginative set of answers to these questions.”

The conference will examine the different ways that political thought and political history inform and affect the aesthetics of the novel.  Its talks will focus on the novel in relation to particular, historically specific political contexts (from post Civil-War Reconstruction through the early twentieth-century writing of American author Henry James to the 1960s) as well as on new ways of relating political theory and literary criticism. Like many of the events at the Center for the Study of the Novel, the conference will focus not just on individual novels, but also on the novel itself: as a dominant modern literary form and genre.

Stanford professor of English and of Comparative Literature Franco Moretti created the Center for the Study of the Novel in 2000 to explore the challenges raised by the novel’s global spread in the twentieth-century. One of the primary concerns of the Center is to discuss how to broaden the scope of literary studies to include a richer, more global perspective on this  key form of literary expression.  The Center aims to call attention to the importance of historical, artistic, and cultural contexts in shaping the novel in addition to examining the aesthetics involved in the construction of the novel.

In the words of the current Director Prof. Woloch, “The Center provides a bird’s-eye view  on what constitutes the structure, the history, and the cultural impact of the novel.”  The Center aims to bring together professors and graduate students working in different departments and focusing on different historical periods, national traditions, and generic contexts. .  It fosters a collaborative environment where scholars can come together to discuss how the novel works structurally and what cultural and global issues it raises.

Woloch explained that the craft of imaginative writing has shown “an unusual shift towards the novel as our preeminent literary form,” adding that novels were “often regarded, as recently as the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century as a sub-literary form of writing, frivolous, a waste of time, and even potentially dangerous.” He added, “Today, when we think about serious reading, we often equate it with the novel.”

The Center for the Study of the Novel created and hosts the Working Group on the Novel, a forum within which students and faculty discuss their current work in novel studies and related topics. Woloch, a Working Group participant himself, outlined some core questions that these literary scholars keep in mind while holding their discussions: “What does it mean that reading – and often literary criticism -- happens in relation to the novel?   What desires, capacities, and assumptions are provoked or developed by this particular form? And can we gain a sharper sense of our work – which can branch out in any number of different directions – by paying attention to the underlying patterns, rules and history of the genre of the novel itself?”  The Center encourages the public to engage with similar questions and discussions during their events like the Books at the Center series, which invites literary critics who have recently published influential books to discuss their work in conversation with Stanford professors.

The conference on the novel is the Center for the Study of the Novel’s most prominent yearly event, along with its annual Ian Watt lecture on the History and Theory of the Novel, which has been held annually since 2005.  For each year’s Ian Watt event, graduate students in Stanford's Department of English and Division of Literature, Cultures and Languages select a renowned speaker to invite to lecture on current intellectual debates in novels and their study.  This year’s Ian Watt lecture -- scheduled to coincide with the conference on politics and the novel -- will be given by Bruce Robbins, the Old Dominion professor in the humanities at Columbia University, on Thursday, April 9, at the Stanford Humanities Center.

The Center for the Study of the Novel’s conference “Politics and the Novel” takes place on Friday, April 10th in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall (Building 460).  For more information, visit http://novel/conferences.html.

Books at the Center:    
Working Group on the Novel:
Ian Watt lecture: