Form and Formation II: The Limits of Self-Help

Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success. 

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Form and Formation I: Narrative Expectations

In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets for us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.

But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.   

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