The Fiction of Relationship is a book by Arnold Weinstein examining how relationships are represented, explored and used in fiction. It’s a tremendous book that looks at all kinds of relationships: lovers, of course, but also platonic relationships between the genders, within families, between humans and the state or society, relationship with the self, the body, with history. It’s beautifully written. Although it offers robust references to all kind of theoretical lenses, it consistently retains the frame of how relationship functions in the story. it reads like a long, cool glass of water. Rare in literary criticism. I don’t often recommend general lit crit books, but I highly recommend this one. If you are interested in engaging with a novel in a new, very fertile way, you should buy, borrow or steal this book.
Meanwhile, Coursera is offering a free online course based on the book, produced through Brown University, with video lectures by Prof. Weinstein. These are excellent and there’s no mystery to why his ‘Rate My Prof’ score is so high. He’s a human, nuanced and generous lecturer who has an infectious passion for his subject. Also, and very helpfully, there are videos of class discussions as students move through each of the assigned readings. The books covered for the course include: Manon Lescaut, Jane Eyre, Bartleby The Scrivener and Benito Cereno by Melville, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and A Country Doctor, Light in August, To the Lighthouse, Ficciones, The Ice Palace, Beloved, and finally, Derek Coetzee’s Disgrace. You’ll notice that at least half of the books are in the public domain. You could easily complete the course with those books alone, if you were short on cash.
I’m about halfway through the course, and I have to say, pedagogically, it’s very cleverly designed. You could go through this course at highschool, undergraduate, or graduate level. It’s really up to you: how deeply you want to delve into the texts and at what level you’d like to pitch your discussions. But on the whole, the forum discussions generally prompt you to dig a little deeper than is comfortable, and that’s great student motivation. There are TAs on the forums to keep them sane, and they do their job well and with a light hand.
The assessments are by peers – you submit your essays and assess the essays of three of your peers. It’s not a perfect method of assessment but it is what is possible on a MOOC of this kind, run for free. However, there is in my view massive learning potential to be had in the task of assessing your peers’ work – probably more than in penning your own essays. I’ve always felt that the practice of critique – especially written critique – is one of the most underrated learning tools. In having to evaluate your peers’ work, consider the structuring and strength or weakenss of their arguments, assess their references, you get an invaluable and lasting sense of your own weaknesses. It’s far deeper learning than a grade and a scrawled one liner.
The course has something called a ‘signature track’ which I believe gives you some accreditation if you finish the course. I don’t think it’s terribly expensive, but I don’t know much about it. Since I was doing this in the middle of my own doctoral work, I had no idea how heavy the workload would be and if I could be sure I could keep up with it, so I didn’t opt for it. But I have to say that having some kind of externally structured learning environment has felt like a bit of a breather from the self-directed studies of the PhD. It’s been good for my brain.
It’s caused me to think far more specifically and strategically about the relationships within my own writing – not just the erotic ones, and not just the human to human ones. As a writer, I’ve found it tremendously rich.
People have a lot of bad things to say about the internet, and some of them I agree with, but the fact that a course like this is possible, and free – absolutely free – is an amazing aspect of modern, online life. When they run this course again, if this sort of literary examination interests you, I highly recommend you join the course.