Anne H. Stevens


In defense of David Mitchell: A response to James Wood

In the September 8, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, James Wood reviews David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks. Though he praises Mitchell’s storytelling abilities, overall Wood is not a fan. I am not going to engage with the details of Wood’s assessment — to do so would require divulging too many plot points of the novel. I read it knowing next to nothing about the plot and enjoyed it all the more for the uncertainty I experienced about what was coming next. You can also find plenty of positive assessments of the book elsewhere.

Instead, I want to take issue with Wood’s mini-history of the novel, which concludes his review: 

"But didn’t the epic hand off to the novel, in the last book of ‘Paradise Lost,’…? The novel takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement….The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced too."

Wood here (in my humble opinion) misreads Milton, Mitchell, and the history of the novel. He characterizes epics like Paradise Lost as “battles involving men and gods,” suggesting that this type of story excludes “inwardness,” even though Milton’s epic contains a great deal of human psychological exploration in the characters of Adam and Eve, not to mention the fully realized psychological complexity of Satan. From Zofloya to Frankenstein to His Dark Materials, novelists have continued to draw upon Paradise Lost for inspiration, suggesting continuity rather than rupture with the tradition Wood is calling “theological allegory.”

Wood disdains Mitchell’s use of the fantastic because he equates the novel as a form with realism as a novelistic mode. Critics from Georg Lukács to Ian Watt to Lennard Davis have made this argument time and time again, and there is much validity to it. Yet other critics like Margaret Doody have pushed back against this narrative, stressing the continuance of romance and fantastic elements in the long history of the novel. To do so is to challenge the dominance of a male, realist canon in favor of women authors, subgenres like the gothic, non-Western modes of storytelling, and popular fiction more generally. 

In Wood’s account of Mitchell’s previous books, he attempts to characterize Mitchell as a realist who occasionally strays into non-realist modes. He first praises Black Swan Green, Mitchell’s most realistic novel. He describes The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as “a more or less traditional historical novel,” while adding a little further down in the review that its gothic plot of “a shadowy nunnery and an evil abbot” is “something out of Japanese anime” that spoils the achievement of the book. He seems to want Mitchell to be a different sort of novelist altogether, which makes me wonder why the New Yorker gave him the task of reviewing Mitchell’s latest.

Wood’s critique of Mitchell’s interest in modes beyond straightforward realism, as well as the Man Booker committee’s recent non-inclusion of The Bone Clocks on their shortlist, hint at a larger problem in the world of modern letters. Though things are changing a bit, the literary establishment still valorizes realism and looks down upon novels that work within the genre conventions of crime, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and young adult literature. Wood even begins his review with what seems to be an odd swipe at George R. R. Martin: “The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them.” Works that traffic in fantasy or — heaven help us — popularity are to be scorned because they’re not serious or weighty enough. And yet, if the novel is to have a future, Mitchell seems to be pointing the way forward. I have taught Cloud Atlas in a 200-level literature course and can attest to the way it engaged, excited, and challenged students. People like David Mitchell’s novels. And maybe that’s what worries critics.


hand written warning not to steal the book 
19th century - book published in 1833


hand written warning not to steal the book 

19th century - book published in 1833

ENG 298 Writing About Literature syllabus

This course will introduce you to the English major and provide the tools you will need to succeed in upper-division literature classes. We will cover the basic terms and strategies for effective interpretation of all three major literary genres — poetry, drama, and fiction. We’ll also gain practice at writing a variety of types of papers about literature.

Course goals:  In this course, you will

  • read a diverse array of poems, plays, and short stories.
  • discuss these works in class, raising and responding to questions.
  • study the three genres of poetry, drama, and fiction from the standpoint of form, learning key terms for discussing such matters as poetic meter, dramatic structure, and fictional point of view.
  • write about literary texts both informally and formally, responding to the day’s reading in a more informal manner and constructing longer papers that present arguments with clear thesis statements.
  • work on all stages of the writing process, from formulating an idea to constructing an argument to revising.

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ENG 435A/635A Milton syllabus

Course description:  Just a whole lot of Milton.

Course Goals: In this course, you will

  • read the major poetic works and a sampling of the prose works of John Milton.
  • study his texts from both a “formalist” and a “historicist” perspective; that is, we will study these texts both as carefully constructed works of art and as products of particular historical contexts.
  • write about his texts both informally and formally, responding to the day’s reading in a more informal manner and constructing longer papers that present arguments with clear thesis statements.

Required Text: (available at bookstore) The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (Modern Library)

Course requirements: This is an upper-division, reading and writing intensive course. There are no exams. Instead, you will be expected to do a lot of difficult reading, produce shorter and longer pieces of writing, do a presentation, and participate in class discussions.

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Call for papers: ASECS 2015, Los Angeles, California

I am proposing a panel for the March 2015 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual meeting on the topic of “Microgenres in the Eighteenth Century.” 

Here’s the description: 

The long eighteenth century was a glorious age for microgenres, highly specific, temporally bounded subgenres like the it-narrative, the dressing room poem, and the she tragedy. This panel invites papers that consider eighteenth-century microgenres from formal, historical, or theoretical perspectives. 

Send proposals or queries to Anne Stevens, department of English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (

Call for papers: PCCBS Annual Meeting, March 6-8, 2015, Las Vegas, Nevada

The Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies (PCCBS) invites paper and panel proposals for its 42nd annual meeting, to be held at the M Resort, Las Vegas, NV, March 6-8, 2015. We welcome proposals from all fields of British Studies — broadly defined to include those who study the United Kingdom, its component parts and nationalities, as well as Britain’s imperial cultures. We welcome proposals from scholars and doctoral candidates in a wide range of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, including History, Literature, Political Science, Philosophy, Religion, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Theater Studies, and Art History.

Proposals for individual papers, partial panels, or complete panels are all welcome, although complete panel proposals are preferred.  We encourage the submission of proposals dealing with interdisciplinary topics, as well as panels on new pedagogies and technologies associated with British Studies.

The deadline for submission of proposals is DECEMBER 1, 2014.  Proposals should include a 200-word abstract for each paper plus a one-page c.v. for each participant.  Those submitting full or partial panel proposals should include a brief description of the panel plus a 1-page c.v. for the panel chair as well as for its commentator.  Please place the panel proposal, its constituent paper proposals, and all vitae in a single file, making certain that your contact information, especially e-mail addresses, are correct and current.  Proposals should be submitted via e-mail attachment by December 1, 2014, to:

Prospect Park Zoo

Jul 6

A few photos from Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

Some terms from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of culture

Pierre Bourdieu began his career as a structuralist anthropologist. Like his friend and colleague Michel Foucault, he broke from structuralism while being shaped by it. While Foucault used historical inquiry to look at the underlying epistemological structures of different eras, Bourdieu became interested in the mental structures that shape people’s perceptions and taste. What makes us like the things we like? Why do some people prefer action movies and others independent films? And what difference do our tastes make in the world? 

Bourdieu introduced a whole new vocabulary for talking about taste to the sociology of culture. Some of his key concepts include:

  • Habitus. Habitus is the underlying mental structure that determines how people act, what they like, and how they perceive the world. It develops in childhood and is socially and culturally determined rather than innate. Habitus determines our taste. Your taste for food, music, clothing, furniture, and everything else is socially determined, and in turn it helps to determine your social position. As he says in his book Distinction, a massive study of French people’s taste and its relation to social and economic factors, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make.”[1] He also calls taste a “match-maker,” because couples come together through common tastes in movies, music, hobbies, and other matters.
  • Cultural capital. Taste can function as a type of currency, which he calls cultural capital (as opposed to economic capital). Having refined tastes like a preference for abstract art, classical music, or fine wine marks you out as a member of an elite group and can in turn lead to social advancement. Conversely, a taste for monster trucks and Budweiser can mark you as someone with “lowbrow” tastes and can lead to social scorn among the “highbrow.” In his study, Bourdieu tracks the correlation of economic and cultural capital. Some groups, such as teachers, possess high cultural capital but low economic capital, while others possess high economic capital but low cultural capital, like successful shopkeepers.
  • Fields. Fields are places of competition, like a battlefield or a playing field, with their own rules and their own competitors. Bourdieu analyzes the literary field as one such place, “an independent social universe with its own laws of functioning, its specific relations of force, its dominants and its dominated.”[2] Within a field the actors take positions organized around binary oppositions (such as left-right or high-low). These position-takings depend on the positions of all the other actors on the field, and the arrival of a new competitor rearranges the positions. People with high economic and cultural capital are more likely to stake out new positions, such as the new avant-garde literary movements coming out of France at the end of the 19th century.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. 1979. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge, 1994, p. 6.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 163.

Friedrich Nietzsche has a lot to answer for, musically speaking