Fiction and Development

Recently The Telegraph reported on the contribution fiction can make to international development, as examined by a study done by a team of scholars at Manchester University and the London School of Economics:

[Dr. Rodgers, of Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institude] said: “Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports, and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job – if not a better one – of representing and communicating the realities of international development.

“While fiction may not always show a set of presentable research findings, it does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does.

“And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.”

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner “has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research”, said the report. (read the rest here)

I actually supervised an honours thesis in Dalhousie’s International Development Studies program that examined Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South for its implicit and explicit contributions to theories of development. One source we found useful in setting up the project was Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice, which makes a related case for the potential value of literature and the “literary imagination” in developing public policy; another was an essay by Richard Horton in the TLS called “Mr. Thornton’s Experiments.” The risk of such analyses is that they risk reducing literary works to their social or historical content. What I’ve always liked about Nussbaum’s work in theory is that she aspires to consider literary form, rather than to abstract social or political messages from her texts. In practice, I don’t think she always manages to do this, but the idea that literary form is itself expressive of philosophical and other ideas seems to me a case she (and others including Wayne Booth) make quite convincingly. The IDS student I worked with did a good job at incorporating explicit consideration of genre and form into her analysis.


This Week in My Classes

The warm-up period is over: now we’re really getting down to work.

1. English 3032, 19thC Novel. This week, we start Great Expectations. In addition to placing the novel in the context of Dickens’s career and a range of social and intellectual issues (from the alienation induced by modern urban professional society, to anxieties about the moral implications of Darwinism), I like to focus on Pip’s retrospective narration and the ways his personal development prepares him, ultimately, to become the kind of man (especially the kind of “gentleman”) who is capable of telling us this story. Great Expectations is also good for shaking up casually-held stereotypes about Victorian ‘realism,’ as from Pip’s palindromic name to Miss Havisham’s wedding feast to Wemmick’s castle to Magwitch’s splendidly eerie reappearance, nearly every element in the novel pressures us to read it literarily rather than mimetically. Plus, there’s Joe’s hat falling off the mantel in Volume II Chapter 8…

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers. Here, we are taking one more look at the ‘real’ life of a Victorian woman novelist before turning our attention to the novels themselves. But with Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, we have the added interest of one Victorian woman writer writing about another, and in the process exploring the ideas of femininity, authorship, vocation, and duty that preoccupied them both, though in different ways, throughout their writing careers. Last week we considered Margaret Oliphant’s writing her own story in response to a literary representation of George Eliot’s life (she points to Cross’s biography as having prompted her to begin the Autobiography). But Oliphant has been reading Gaskell’s Life of CB as well, so as we read on, we are accumulating a range of interrelated ideas about these women and their work–from them and from their respondents, interpreters, and critics–to carry forward with us into our analysis of the fiction they produced. In class we struggled somewhat with the idea of Oliphant’s Autobiography as a literary text because at times both its form and its content seem so unselfconscious, spontaneous, and diary-like that we weren’t confident attributing intent or design (though we also considered, of course, that it has literary qualities and other effects regardless of how deliberately they were developed). Gaskell’s biography of Bronte is much more conspicuously constructed with its own aims and purposes. Critics have disputed how far Gaskell’s stated goals–such as defending Bronte against her critics and presenting a sympathetic portrait of someone we are often reminded was Gaskell’s “dear friend”–are sincere or unproblematic and how much she is using Bronte as a prop to establish her own literary credentials or to resolve larger debates about the “vexed question of sex” in authorship, as she calls it (she is emphatic that whatever their domestic responsibilities, women also have a duty to use their God-given talents, even if that means stepping outside the ‘normal’ bounds of female propriety). I expect we will have some good discussion along these lines. Reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte right after Oliphant’s Autobiography should also prompt some conversation about their very different views and experiences of being women writers.

Carlyle Letters Online

A fabulous new resource has just been opened up online by Duke University Press: the letters of Jane and Thomas Carlyle. I’ve only peered around briefly, but the site is very attractive and seems easy to use. More to the point, it gives us easy access to all kinds of gems, such as this one, from TC to Elizabeth Gaskell just after the publication of Mary Barton:

Dear Madam (for I catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well),—We have read your Book here, my Wife first and then I; both of us with real pleasure. A beautiful, cheerfully pious, social, clear and observant character is everywhere recogniseable in the writer, which surely is the welcomest sight any writer can shew us in his books; your field moreover is new, important, full of rich materials (which, as is usual, required a soul of some opulence to recognise them as rich): the result is a Book seeming to take its place far above the ordinary garbage of Novels,—a Book which every intelligent person may read with entertainment, and which it will do every one some good to read. I gratefully accept it as a real contribution (almost the first real one) towards developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long, and really ought to speak for itself, and tell us its meaning a little, if there be any voice in it at all! Speech, or Literature (which is, or should be, Select-Speech) could hardly find a more rational function, I think, at present.

The letters are fully indexed and footnoted. Thanks to Jack Kolb on the Victoria listserv for making sure we found out about this right away! I can hardly wait to browse around some more.