What Books Do Writers Teach?: Zadie Smith and Gary Shteyngart’s Syllabi from Columbia University


Many, if not, most writ­ers teach—whether lit­er­a­ture, com­po­si­tion, or cre­ative writing—and exam­in­ing what those writ­ers teach is an espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing exer­cise because it gives us insight not only into what they read, but also what they read close­ly and care­ful­ly, again and again, in order to inform their own work and demon­strate the craft as they know it to stu­dents. Let’s take two case stud­ies: exem­plars of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary fic­tion, both of whom teach at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own con­clu­sions about what their syl­labi show us about their process.

First up, we have Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and, most recent­ly, NW: A Nov­el. In 2009, Smith lent her lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ties to the teach­ing of a week­ly fic­tion sem­i­nar called “Sense and Sen­si­bil­i­ty,” for which we have the full book­list of 15 titles she assigned to stu­dents. See the list below and make of it what you will:

Brief Inter­views with Hideous Men, David Fos­ter Wal­lace
Catholics, Bri­an Moore
The Com­plete Sto­ries, Franz Kaf­ka
Crash, J.G. Bal­lard
An Exper­i­ment in Love, Hilary Man­tel
Mod­ern Crit­i­cism and The­o­ry: A Read­er, David Lodge
The Screw­tape Let­ters, C.S. Lewis
My Loose Thread, Den­nis Coop­er
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
The Los­er, Thomas Bern­hard
The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doc­torow
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
Read­er’s Block, David Mark­son
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
The Qui­et Amer­i­can, Gra­ham Greene

Smith’s list trends some­what sur­pris­ing­ly white male. She includes not a few “writer’s writers”—Kafka, J.G. Bal­lard, and of course, Nabokov, who also turns up as a favorite for anoth­er Russ­ian expat writer and author of Absur­dis­tan, Gary Shteyn­gart. In a Barnes and Noble author pro­file, Shteyn­gart lists two of Nabokov’s books—Pnin and Loli­ta—among his ten all-time favorites. Also on his list are Saul Bellow’s Her­zog and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Com­plaint. All three authors appear in a 2013 Colum­bia course Shteyn­gart teach­es called “The Hys­ter­i­cal Male,” a class specif­i­cal­ly designed, it seems, to exam­ine the neu­ro­sis of the white (or Jew­ish) male writer. With char­ac­ter­is­tic dark humor, he describes his course thus:

The 20th Cen­tu­ry has been a com­plete dis­as­ter and the 21st cen­tu­ry will like­ly be even worse. In response to the hope­less­ness of the human con­di­tion in gen­er­al, and the prospects for the North Amer­i­can and British male in par­tic­u­lar, the con­tem­po­rary male nov­el­ist has been howl­ing angri­ly for quite some time. This course will exam­ine some of the results, from Roth’s Port­noy and Bellow’s Her­zog to Mar­tin Amis’s John Self, tak­ing side trips into the unre­li­able insan­i­ty of Nabokov’s Charles Kin­bote, the mud­dled senil­i­ty of Morde­cai Richler’s Bar­ney Panof­sky and the some­what qui­eter des­per­a­tion of David Gates’s Jerni­gan. We will exam­ine the strate­gies behind first-per­son hys­te­ria and con­trast with the alter­nate third- and first-per­son meshugas of Bruce Wagner’s I’ll Let You Go. What gives vital­i­ty to the male hys­ter­i­cal hero? How should humor be bal­anced with pathos? Why are so many pro­tag­o­nists (and authors) of Jew­ish or Anglo extrac­tion? How have ear­ly male hys­ter­ics giv­en rise to the “hys­ter­i­cal real­ism” as out­lined by crit­ic James Wood? Is the shout­ing, sweaty male the per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion of our dis­as­trous times, or is a dose of sane intro­spec­tion need­ed to make sense of the world around us? How does the change from ear­ly to late hys­ter­i­cal nov­els reflect our progress from an entire­ly male-dom­i­nat­ed world to a most­ly male-dom­i­nat­ed one? Do we still need to be read­ing this stuff? 

I would haz­ard to guess that Shteyn­gart’s answer to the last ques­tion is “yes.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

Don­ald Barthelme’s Syl­labus High­lights 81 Books Essen­tial for a Lit­er­ary Edu­ca­tion

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

The Book Trail­er as Self-Par­o­dy: Stars Gary Shteyn­gart with James Fran­co Cameo

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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