about the center

The Center for the Study of the Novel promotes conversation on the novel, as this seminal literary form has been practiced across history and cultures. CSN is committed to the importance of studying literature as a primary form of human expression, even as it examines what interdisciplinary perspectives may tell us about literature, and the novel in particular. Our inquiry examines the novel as a fundamental literary expression of modernity, and also asks about the powerful cultural role played by narrative beyond the novel, whether the oral forms that precede print culture or the expansion of narrative into newer media, such as cinema and digital technologies. We attend to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of the novel, and ask how the literary aspects of the novel are shaped by extra-literary contexts and other artistic paradigms. Even as CSN devotes significant attention to major works of the novelistic canon, it is also committed to the importance of studying forgotten and poetically devalued novels, and novels that are situated at, and help to define, the boundaries of the genre.

CSN offers a series of events each year, bringing speakers from across the US and beyond to address audiences drawn from Stanford and from across the Bay Area. CSN was founded by Franco Moretti in 2000. Events during his directorship (2000-2004) charted the contours of the novel across geography and history. Under the leadership of Margaret Cohen, director from 2004-2007, the center focused on how the novel edges other media, genres, and forms. Alex Woloch directed CSN from 2007-2010, and started the Working Group on the Novel, a workshop for graduate students and faculty concentrating on narrative form, genre and the history and theory of the novel. Nancy Ruttenburg organized three conferences from 2010 to 2013: Is the Novel Secular?; Is the Novel Democratic?; and What is the Nature of Literary Being? The papers given at What is the Nature of Literary Being? have been collected for a special issue of the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. Professor Ruttenburg also introduced two initiatives, the Undergraduate Colloquia and the Stanford-Berkeley Liaison. CSN’s outgoing director Mark McGurl organized the Sciences and Fictions conference in 2014, Novel Marxisms in 2016, and Novel Institutions in 2017. Nancy Ruttenburg returned as CSN director for the 2017-2018 academic year: she organized Novel Dostoevsky.  The 2018-2019 CSN director is Margaret Cohen.

The Center hosts annual Conferences at the Center each year, as well as the series, Books at the Center, which brings authors of recent influential critical books to discuss their work in the company of distinguished critics. The Ian Watt lecture in the History and Theory of the Novel presents an annual opportunity to discuss core intellectual issues surrounding the novel and its study, commemorating the renowned Stanford professor whose work has profoundly influenced literary study for nearly 50 years. Graduate students in Stanford’s Department of English and Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, select the speaker. Speakers are not limited to works of any specific nation, language, or historical period and are encouraged to engage critical theories of the form and to contest definitions of the novel itself. Past speakers have included Bill Brown, Catherine Gallagher, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fredric Jameson, Nancy Ruttenburg, Benedict Anderson, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee, Michael McKeon, Nicholas Dames, and Amanda Anderson.

The Center’s Working Group on the Novel provides an opportunity for students and faculty in different departments whose work is oriented toward the history and theory of the novel to develop a sustained conversation through the academic year. One of the goals of the group is to address the shift in novel studies, both toward less canonical European and American texts and toward novels outside of Western contexts. Workshop meetings typically include discussion of both a work-in-progress and the novel, or section of a novel, on which this work is based.

The Center launched two new initiatives in 2010-11. The Stanford-Berkeley Liaison facilitates collaboration between Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel and Berkeley’s Consortium on the Novel. In conjunction with the major conferences of the Center and the Consortium, the Liaison hosts graduate student roundtables with participants coming from both sides of the Bay. The Undergraduate Colloquium aims to enrich Stanford undergraduate education by fostering participation in Center activities. Meetings are facilitated by CSN graduate coordinators and are designed to complement the Center’s programming by including discussions of the history and theory of the novel as well as student-initiated roundtables.