Literature Special Subjects
Example optional modules may include:
Fantasy and Fandom
From heroes and quests to magic and hidden identities, modern fantasy has looked to the literature of the medieval period for inspiration. Yet it has also consistently transformed and reshaped its source material, rewriting the significance of key motifs and ideas in order to address the issues of its own time and place of production. This module will examine the ways in which modern fantasy writing both adopts and adapts the culture, language, characters and narratives of medieval texts and in so doing identifies its authors as an (albeit diverse) fandom. Although not fanfiction in the strictest terms, modern fantasy writing often shares with it the desire to extend and appropriate the plots and protagonists of earlier texts and to challenge or re-examine them. In this module we will think about how this process of adaptation takes place and what is involved, in the process questioning where stories come from and who can be said to ‘own’ them.
Last Year’s Novels
How do literary critics deal with the very new? In the absence of extant scholarly discussion of recent literary works, how does one begin critical dialogues? In this module we’ll read a selection of novels first published in the UK within the last year to begin to approach these questions. We’ll read texts from across the English-speaking world and examine both bestsellers and works from independent publishers. We’ll think about the challenge of analysing the contemporary moment and the mechanics of the contemporary literature industry, including the culture of reviews and the function of prizes. We’ll review popular approaches to literature in the twenty first century and apply them to the literary works, as well as paying attention to how each novel responds uniquely to the challenge of representing the world. We’ll also explore questions raised by the particular texts under study.
Law and Literature
This module will introduce students to a vibrant area of current interdisciplinary scholarship: namely, the study of law and literature. Such study can be split into two related categories. Firstly, law in literature reflects upon the variety of ways in which law has been represented by literature (an example of which would be the depiction of criminal trials in contemporary fiction). Secondly, law as literature explores the affinities between the interpretative strategies utilised by lawyers and legal scholars and those practiced by literary theorists – in other words, the law can be read as a text. With these dual topics in mind texts by authors such as Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E. M. Forster, Franz Kafka, Truman Capote and Julian Barnes will be studied alongside the theoretical work of amongst others Michel Foucault, Peter Brooks and Hans-Georg Gadamer. The issues raised by the module will include representations of justice (both poetic and juridical); the fact-finding employed by both the criminal trial and realist novel of the nineteenth century; the pervading influence of surveillance in modern culture; the use and abuse of confession and the determining/illustrating of criminal states of mind.
The Modernist Novel
This course offers the opportunity for extended study of some of the major novels of English literary modernism. During this module we will study some of the key writers, texts, contexts and formal/thematic features of literary experimentalism within the novel genre in the first three decades of the twentieth century. One of the paradoxes of ‘literary modernism’ is the discrepancy between its retrospective, canonical definition and the often more heterogeneous movements and aesthetics of the period itself, as well as the often wayward impulses of the texts themselves. The aim of the module is to explore and debate the development of the concept of the modernist novel, analysing illustrative texts within the context of a history of literary criticism and reception from the point of their own contemporary moment to the present day.
Remembering World War One
Launched in the centenary year of the start of the First World War, this module offers students the opportunity to encounter the shock of the war - its historical, cultural and psychological enormity and incomprehensibility - as it was expressed by writers who experienced it and lived through its aftermath, as well as to explore and critically analyse the continuing significance of the War and its cultural mythology within literary history from 1914 to the present day. They will be exposed to a range of moments in the articulation and representation of the War, from the voices preserved in the poetry of 1914-18, across the curious imaginative silence of the early post-war years, to the flood of memoirs and autobiographical prose fiction that appeared in the mid to late 1920s, to the historical representations that began to appear from the 1960s, to our contemporary moment of remembrance and memorialisation as marked by 2014. Framed by a reading of Timothy Findley’s historical novel The Wars (1977), the module will encourage students to reflect upon the ways in which they themselves approach, represent and ‘remember’ the War in the act of historical research and literary criticism. Students will also have the opportunity to work with some of the World War One archive holdings in the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural collections.
Victorian Literature and Science
In twenty-first century culture, the boundaries between the arts and sciences (which are still sometimes referred to as ‘The Two Cultures’) are the source of conflict, contention and occasionally creativity. Many facets of this situation have roots in the Victorian period, an era which was characterised by both rapid scientific advancement and an outpouring of new literary forms. The relationships between scientific and literary ‘discoveries’ of the nineteenth century are anything but as simple as the ‘two culture’ model suggests – the purpose of this module is to explore them in some detail. Alongside canonical Victorian literature which engaged with scientific ideas, we will also examine some nonfictional ‘scientific literature’, taking account of the possibility that science’s influence over literary forms and contents may have been reciprocated. Can fiction influence the discourses of fact? Might science and fiction share a common language in this period? Can an English student speak responsibly to scientific debates? In short, can the gulf between these two disciplines ever be negotiated? With reference to the large body of critical writing which has recently arisen on the subject, these questions inform the backbone of this course. The course will be structured principally around the Natural and Earth sciences, which have – largely due to the influence of the Origin of Species – been central in recent critical discussions of Literature and Science. However, we will also pay attention to a selection of other scientific fields, as well as giving some thought to pseudoscience and the occult.
Bringing Out the Bodies: Technology, Transhumans and Skin
This course aims to investigate the debates surrounding the changing nature of what it means to be human by focusing on the role of technology in breaking down the barrier of our skin. The module is designed to work its way inward: from the first technologies held in the hand, to wearable devices, to the piercing of the skin with implants and ending with genetic manipulation, the search for the cure to aging and the “ideal” of shedding our bodies entirely. What role does technology play in our lives, to what extent are we willing to become entangled with our scientific discoveries and what can art and philosophy bring to the exploration, criticism and shaping of our future biology? Messing with our bodies is about a lot more than making cyborgs... Students will start each two-week section by considering a provocation from a theoretical, philosophical and/or scientific short paper. This work will then be paired in the second week with a work of literature or film. The aim is to explore cutting edge thought and as such many examples will be drawn from the late 20th and 21st century, but ideas about technology and the body must be grounded in work across history so that we might talk about the first stone tools and their direct lineage to mobile phones and beyond - students with an interest in any period will therefore be able to pursue these discussions and write about their favourite examples.
Utopia and Its Discontents
This module examines utopias from the classical period to the twentieth century. It explores ways in which projections of the ideal state address the political, social and economic challenges of their own age. We will also see how these works engage with similar themes such as the limits of personal freedom, the nature of justice, the role of women, the distribution of wealth and the education of the young. The module will consider ways in which later utopian projections challenge and revise earlier ones: William Morris, for example, rejects in his News from Nowhere the rigid hierarchical family unit which underpinned Thomas More’s vision of commonwealth in Utopia.
Politics and Terror in the Age of Revolutions
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 fundamentally reshaped the political and literary culture of the British Isles, with the hopes and anxieties which it provoked triggering waves of politically radical manifestoes; a conservative backlash that sought to control revolutionary energies; an unprecedented wave of Gothic texts which reflected and responded to post-Revolutionary fears and a startling flowering of new aesthetic ideologies which attempted to carve out a privileged position for literature above the sphere of political struggle. This module will explore the political and literary culture of this turbulent period by examining poetry, novels, plays, essays and interventions by writers including Edmund Burke, William Godwin, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Anna Barbauld, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley and Thomas De Quincey. In the texts on the course we will consider representations of wrongful imprisonment, visionary prophecy, political apostasy, religious corruption, sexual deviance and drug-fuelled crocodile hallucinations, unpicking both the aesthetic techniques employed and their wider implications amongst shifting social, political and international contexts.
Senses of the Past: Historical Fiction in the Long Nineteenth Century
This module offers students the chance to explore representations of the historical past in the prose literature of the long nineteenth century. We will be concentrating above all on the historical novel, a genre that emerged and achieved vast popularity during this period, but we will also consider examples of shorter fictional forms (novellas, stories and sketches), as well as writings that play along the border between fiction and the factual. Students will read the work of British and American writers, ranging across the Romantic and Victorian periods: authors studied may include Walter Scott, James Hogg, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James. The set primary works for the module will be studied alongside a rich array of contemporary print sources, nineteenth-century history and historiography and modern critical and theoretical approaches to historical fiction. There will be a recurring emphasis on the writing of wars, revolutions and popular uprisings and on concomitant questions of national and historical rupture, as well as on the efforts of fictional writings to restore or make up for past losses, to bridge or jump over (or side-step) ruptures in the texture of past time. Related topics for consideration will include: the impact of human history on places and ecosystems, the interactions of oral and written history, the romance of antiquarian scholarship, literary biography and book-history, superstition and the persistence of the supernatural, the progress of civilization and the costs of that progress and the recreational appropriation of the past as a field for adventure or a tourist destination. Throughout the module we will be asking how nineteenth-century historical fictions attempt to register the ideological and stylistic differences of the past while also bringing it into imaginative reach of the present.
Nation and Identity in Nineteenth-Century America
From the schisms and improvisations of a new nation that culminated in the Civil War, to the position on the cusp of industrial, economic and political dominance celebrated at the 1893 World’s Fair, the American nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary feat of nation-building without ever quite resolving the question of national identity. Nineteenth-century America’s literature and culture shaped and were shaped by debates over the institution and legacy of slavery; the competing claims of the nation’s diverse regions; emergent campaigns for women’s and minority’s rights and an evolving relationship to Europe and to the past. This module explore ideas of nation and identity in novels, poetry and other literary forms, drawing on the work of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Fanny Fern, Henry James, Mark Twain, Henry Adams and others.
John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets
In his 1921 essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, T.S. Eliot famously observed that, ‘a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.’ Is this alleged fusion of thought and feeling the hallmark of so-called metaphysical poetry? Or is this apparent synthesis instead ‘a kind of discordia concors’, as Samuel Johnson put it, in which ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’? This module sets out to explore the nature, varieties and influence of metaphysical poetry, taking as its corpus of texts selected poems by John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Edward Herbert of Cherbury and others. Through close reading of the subjects, themes and rhetorical and metrical forms of these works, students will be invited to explore broader questions of literary genre and poetic tradition, politics and religion, sexual and gender relations and textual transmission and reception (including discussion of the roles of manuscript, print and the social history of lyric poetry). The module aims to place the writers studied in relation to other contemporary groupings of English poets such as the Spenserians, the Tribe of Ben and the Cavalier Poets, as well as considering the reaction to and legacy of metaphysical poetry found in later poetic movements such as the Augustans, Romantics and Modernists. Characterised by its often outrageous logic, urgent argumentation, querulous wit and ‘discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike’, metaphysical poetry invariably elicits a criticism in kind: from Eliot and Empson, to Vickers, Fowler, Carey and Ricks. Wide reading of such commentaries will aid students’ analysis and evaluation of the poems in question and even bring into serious question the validity of the term ‘metaphysical poetry’ itself.
Shakespeare's Bodies on the Edge
Shakespeare’s plays often present the body in extremis, existing on the edge between states and stages (in both the figurative and literal senses). This module will explore the ways in which these dramatised bodies inhabit the liminal and contested spaces between life and death; remembering and forgetting; the natural and the supernatural; the human and the monstrous; the corporeal and the technological; the masculine and the feminine and between old worlds and new. Using a range of historical, contextual and illustrative material – from spectacular funerary monuments to anatomical manuals; from the archaeological remains of magic to the wonder literature of early modern monstrosity; from communal rituals of bodily humiliation to early modern automata and robotics – we’ll plunge into the hidden recesses of the Renaissance body to reveal how Shakespeare’s art was influenced by advances in the study of anatomy and dissection, changes in the understanding of natural and cosmological histories, developments in early theories of gender, prevailing anxieties surrounding witchcraft, trends in the rituals of burial and commemoration, the politics of the tortured body and the impact of new-world exploration and colonial enterprises. Our aim will be to gain new and compelling insights into Shakespeare’s staged bodies as they function at the nexus of material, textual and performative cultures. Join us on a journey into the uncharted territories of Renaissance corporeality and together we will rediscover Shakespeare’s extreme bodies; Shakespeare’s bodies on the edge.
Literature in the Age of Evolution
In this module we study how literature in all its forms has participated in and responded to the scientific discovery that life on Earth has evolved rather than being created. Charles Darwin's announcement of the theory of evolution by natural selection in On the Origin of Species in 1859 marked a watershed, but evolution as an idea had been written about by scientists and poets since the end of the eighteenth century and it has continued to be developed, refined and debated through to the present day. Ranging widely across British and American literature, on this module students study a diverse selection of texts that engage with evolutionary theory from the early nineteenth century to the contemporary moment including poetry, novels, science fiction and drama, as well as the writings of the scientists themselves. We ask how literature has explored the challenges posed by evolution to received ideas of religion and ethics. We consider how poetry and fiction can articulate what it means to live in a universe in which we have evolved through natural processes including natural selection, sexual selection and genetic drift and in which we are related by ties of kinship and ecology to other living creatures. We consider too how literature and literary language and forms have been used to promote and to challenge different evolutionary worldviews and how literary critics have sought to ground their own practice in evolutionary theory.
New York, New York
At the start of the twentieth century New York City was becoming the city of modernity; the “cubist city” as Francis Picabia described it. Its metropolitan scale, vibrant, cosmopolitan sidewalk cultures and the visceral rush of its rapid transit systems demanded new modes of expression from writers (and painters and photographers). The juxtaposition of skyscrapers and tenements created new symbolic and physical urban geographies. This module begins with Henry James, Jose Marti, Abraham Cahan, John Sloan, George Bellows, Alfred Stieglitz, Anzia Yezierska, Claude McKay, Djuna Barnes, Walker Evans, Bernice Abbott and Weejee as they meet the challenges of early-twentieth-century urban representation. The module goes on to explore changes in the City and its representation over the course of the twentieth century. For the Beat Generation New York was at once oppressive and inspirational; in the 1960s it became a site of countercultural expression and transformation. By the late 1970s the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, a byword for urban decay: the emergence of hip-hop as a visual, verbal and musical counterculture at the end of this decade exemplifies the “creative destruction” – the process of rapid degeneration and regeneration – that characterises the art of the city. From its origins at Bronx block parties to its crossover into mainstream culture, from Grandmaster Flash to Eric B. & Rakim, hip-hop created soundscapes and lyrics that described and reimagined this complex urban environment. Moving from Henry James to Grandmaster Flash “New York, New York” is, like the City itself, expansive and so, like the City, needs to be broken down into manageable neighbourhoods. Week-by-week this module explores the ways in which a particular neighbourhood and the literature and culture it fostered – for example Greenwich Village in the 1910s and Harlem in the 1920s – exemplifies or defines a particular New York decade.
Viragos, Coquettes and Prudes
Women began to be both readers and writers in greater and greater numbers during the eighteenth century. They began to write in all literary genres including poetry, prose fiction and drama, but also in lesser known genres such as journals, letters and political propaganda and female characters began to appear more prominently in literature. During the course of the century more and more conduct books and educational texts aimed at women appeared in an attempt to get women to police their own behaviour according to certain moral and cultural norms. The course will explore not only the work of some well-known literary writers of the period such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Eliza Haywood and Frances Burney and some lesser-known women such as Jane Collier and Charlotte Lennox, but will also investigate the ways in which women are represented in literature through the use of various stereotypes. The course will examine some of the issues raised by the reading of these texts such as: what are the characteristics of early writing by women? How are the politics of gender relations and identities represented? How have these writers and their texts been treated by literary critics? How did women relate to contemporary ideas of author/authority? Are these texts necessarily subversive of cultural/political traditions? How were women's voices shaped by the expectations of the conduct book tradition? How were expectations of women governed by the representation in literature of types of women such as the virago, the coquette, the prude or the termagant. Other topics will include the education of women, women and the classical tradition, publication and patronage and the intersection of gender issues with those of social class and race.
Creative Writing Modules
Creative Writing Project
This module requires students to produce an extended piece of writing in the form of a creative writing project; recognising the combined practical and self-reflective processes they have been involved in on the creative writing part of the programme, by including both a creative and a critical component. The creative element can take the form of a novel excerpt, a collection of short fiction or poetry or a stage or screenplay. For the critical component students will be expected to demonstrate an ability to place their own writing (as process and product) in a wider literary and cultural context.
Creative Writing Special Subject
Example optional modules may include Creative Non-Fiction; The Hatred of Poetry and Extreme Fictions.