‘Forms of Fiction’ will examine past and future of the novel

Nov. 7-9 event to explore classic works by Austen, Eliot, James and Joyce

Literary fads come and go, but certain books never lose their hold on the popular and scholarly imagination.

From Nov. 7 to 9, distinguished scholars and novelists will come together at the University to examine four of the most enduring novels in the English language:  Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“Forms of Fiction: The Novel in English” will open on Thursday, Nov. 7 with a lecture by novelist Tom McCarthy on Ulysses. Following the lecture, Booker Prize-winning author A.S. Byatt will join McCarthy for a reading and discussion. Byatt also will deliver a lecture on Middlemarch and The Golden Bowl on Friday, Nov. 8.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to explore these four novels with such an accomplished group of scholars and writers,” said Martha T. Roth, dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Chauncey S. Boucher Distinguished Service Professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “This conference demonstrates the vitality of our Department of English Language and Literature, and I am grateful for the leadership of my colleagues Bill Brown, Maud Ellmann, and Frances Ferguson in reinvigorating scholarly and public attention on these important works.”

Brown, the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture and deputy dean for academic and research initiatives in the Division of the Humanities;  Ellmann, the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Professor of the Development of the Novel in English; and Ferguson, the Ann L. and Lawrence B. Buttenwieser Professor in English, organized the free event, which will be held at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Those interested in attending may register on the conference website

The organizers said they hope to examine the legacy of each of the four novels under discussion and the role they might play in the 21st century.  

“Austen, George Eliot, James, and Joyce continue to fascinate their readers with their formal innovations, their ethical imagination, as well as the access they provide to their historical moment and the dynamics of the human psyche,” Ellmann said on behalf of the conference organizers.

“Through ‘Forms of Fiction,’ we hope to understand why these novels have exerted such a strong influence on readers and scholars, and how they may be enhanced or imperiled by new modes of reading in decades to come. We’re delighted to be joined by A.S. Byatt and Tom McCarthy, who as both critics and practitioners of the form, have such a deep investment in the future of the novel.”

In addition to Byatt and McCarthy’s lectures and readings, “Forms of Fiction” will include a panel discussion on each of the four novels moderated by a University of Chicago faculty member. Frederic Jameson of Duke University will deliver the final lecture of the conference, “The Persistence of Narrative.”

“As film, television, and other forms of narrative supersede the novel as the dominant modes of storytelling in popular culture, it is especially valuable to take stock of the past and future of the form,” said Elaine Hadley, professor and chair of English Language and Literature, who will participate in the panel discussion on Middlemarch at the conference. “‘Forms of Fiction’ affords us the rare opportunity to examine four key texts in depth and engage with broader questions about the role of narrative in contemporary life.”

“Forms of Fiction: The Novel in English” is supported by Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin, as well as the Division of the Humanities, the Department of English Language & Literature, and the Nicholson Center for British Studies. For additional information, please e-mail humanities@uchicago.edu or call 773-702-7423.

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Tom McCarthy

A.S. Byatt

Photo by Eamonn McCabe

Tom McCarthy

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