"Our concept of realism must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions. Realistic means [...] making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it."
— Bertolt Brecht

presented by: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction
November 3rd, 2017 | Brown University

Ian Watt argued in The Rise of the Novel that the modern English novel departs from previous prose literature through its intimate relationship with the “concrete,” taking as its object non-allegorical individuals, vernacular speech, ordinary experience, and the particulars of daily life. At the same time, the history of the novel suggests that it is a global form, uniquely capable of abstracting itself both formally and thematically from particular conditions. The novel, it seems, bears an intrinsic relationship to the fundamental reversibility of the category of the concrete, a term which indicates solid and sensuous material reality on the one hand, and a complex and often untraceable imbrication of different determinations, on the other.

Supplementing the novel's realist pretension to particularity with recent directions in formalist scholarship--materialist, object-oriented, post-critical, non-mimetic, global--this symposium inquires into what work the category of the concrete accomplishes in the novel. How, this symposium asks, does the novel conceive the relationship between the abstract and the concrete? To what extent can the abstract and concrete reframe approaches toward the global novel and its historicity? How does the problematic of the concrete recast discussions of historical formalism? Furthermore, does the novel configure concreteness as a productive mode of reference, or can the novel become so concrete that it prevents the reader from moving through it? Is there a dialectic of the concrete, and how can the novel produce or help us to theorize it?

In addition to denoting a merely existing reality, the novel's concreteness may serve to make visible abstract or non-existing social structures, exemplify in tangible form our ethical commitments, or stage the way that objects and material reality structure plot and activity. By revisiting familiar oppositions of history and form, description and reading, affect and critique, this symposium also seeks to rethink the status (including the politics) of critique or "symptomatic reading" in literary studies more broadly. We thereby hope to do justice to Brecht's thesis that the novel must make "possible the concrete, and [make] possible abstraction from it."


  • 9:30-10:00 Coffee and breakfast snacks
  • 10:00-10:15 Introduction
  • 10:15-11:30 Audrey Wasser, "Reading Macherey Reading: The Abstract and the Concrete in Literary Criticism"
  • 11:45-1:00 David Alworth, "Paratextual Art"
  • 1:00-2:00 Buffet lunch
  • 2:00-3:15 Emilio Sauri, "The Novel at the End of the World"
  • 3:15-3:30 Coffee and snacks
  • 3:30-5:00 Roundtable discussion
  • 5:00-6:30 Reception


David J. Alworth is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, teaching in the Department of English and the program of History & Literature. Recent essays have appeared in New Literature History, Post45, American Literary History, Contemporary Literature, and The Henry James Review. His first book, Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form (Princeton University Press, 2015) offers a new method of literary and cultural interpretation and a new theory of narrative setting by examining sites that have been crucial to American literature and visual art since the mid-twentieth century. Against the traditional understanding of setting as a static background for narrative action and character development, Alworth argues that sites figure in novels as social agents. He is currently at work on two book projects, The Jacket: Art at the Edges of Literature and Art Novels: Fiction in an Age of Visual Media.

Emilio Sauri is Associate Professor of English at UMass Boston. Sauri works on critical theory, the contemporary novel, Latin American and American literature. He has published articles on Faulkner, the Latin American "Boom," and Bolaño in MLN, Twentieth Century Literature, nonsite, Studies in American fiction and others.. His current book project, Forms of Unevenness: Literature and the Ends of Autonomy in the Americas, looks at the changing meaning of literary form and autonomy throughout the twentieth century and in the contemporary moment.

Audrey Wasser is Assistant Professor of French literature at Miami University, Ohio. She is the author of The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form (Fordham University Press, 2016). Wasser’s book interrogates the conditions of possibility for novelty in Modernist literary production, with and against the conception of 'the new' inherited from German Romanticism. She has published articles on Proust, Beckett, and continental philosophy in Deleuze Studies, Modern Language Notes, and SubStance, among others.


Sponsored by Novel: A Forum on Fiction, the Malcolm S. Fores Center for Culture and Media Studies, Mandeville Lectureship, Dean of the Faculty and the Department of Modern Culture and Media​

10:00AM - 5:00PM
Petteruti Lounge
Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center
75 Waterman Street
Providence, RI 02912