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The Art of Fiction & The Future of the Novel (Online)

Combining theory and practice, this online course will introduce students to outstanding pieces of fiction from across the East and West and provide them with a set of skills enabling them to create original prose fiction.

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Fiction is one of the most powerful forms to explore human emotions, as well as the non-human world. Novel writing and storytelling have evolved and been dramatically transformed throughout the centuries. Through fictions, we can depict real historical events and supernatural beings, we can explore an interior and private world or narrate a collective society. We can write in a personal voice or from an omniscient point of view, we can be a social realist or a radical experimentalist. In this course, we will be reading outstanding pieces of fiction from across the East and the West, and we will discuss in detail the craft of the novel and the techniques of writing – characterisation, narrative development, prose style etc – across different literary genres. We will perform in-class exercises, and conduct workshops based on student homework.

Close readings and discussions will focus on works from a selection of authors, including James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Doris Lessing, Lu Xun, George Orwell, Annie Ernaux, Ernest Hemingway, Frank O’Connor, Bernadine Evaristo and Anton Chekov.

Weekly Structure


We start from the famous six-word story (attributed to Ernest Hemingway): For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, in order to discuss the dramatic and emotional impact a good story can offer.

We then move to Lorrie Moore’s witty and sharp essay How to Become A Writer to discuss the possibility of a writing career. We will do a few short oral exercises in class, inspired from her essay.

Session 2:

Excerpt from Chekov’s The Lady with A Dog. We will discuss the social settings and character development.

Close study of two pages from James Joyce’s The DeadWe will study how Joyce represents a family group (as opposed to a single central character). We will also pay attention to the dramatic conflicts at the personal and political levels.

Session 3:

We will read together Borges and I by Jorge Luis Borges in order to discuss the writer’s position within a text – the fictional self and the writerly self. And ask what Borges means by: ‘I shall remain in Borges, not in myself ’.

Excerpts from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. We will discuss first person writing and the diary form, in contrast to the third person point of view.

In class exercise: switching between points of view workshop.

Assignment of homework for Session 4.

Session 4

Excerpt from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. We discuss the nature of the political novel and science fiction. We will focus on metaphorical settings and the unfolding of interconnected themes.

Close reading of Lu Xun’s masterpiece The True Story of Ah Q. We discuss the styles of political satire as well as realism.  We shall pay attention to the author’s unique voice and critical perspective on society.

Discussion of narrative fragmentation and the documentary style in A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo.

Workshop on selected homework from students.

Session 5:

Reading and discussion about multiple POV from Women, Girl, Others by the Booker Prize Winner Bernadine Evaristo.

Study of autobiographical work: A Simple Passion by the Noble Prize Winner Annie Ernaux.

The future of novel writing and conclusions.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the course students will have acquired a set of skills enabling them to create original prose fiction, demonstrating effective use of narrative structure, character development, a central theme, and a narrative arc. Through close analysis of the prose style of selected authors students will develop and refine their personal writing style, which they will learn to craft on the basis of their particular linguistic and cultural influences. In addition, they will be able to experiment with different points of view in storytelling. By reading attentively and trying out their own versions of the techniques we have studied, students will gain the confidence to explore either a personal narrative or a broad social portrait. The course will provide them with a critical perspective on the future of novel writing and equip them to imagine and deploy innovative narrative strategies of their own.

Student Tasks

During the class, students will be separated into groups for short exercises in storytelling. This can be in oral form or in a short written form. Towards the end of the course, students will finish one short piece of fiction of their own with an identifiable narrative design.

Students who enroll in the class are encouraged to familiarise themselves with writing by key authors beforehand, such as Franz Kafka, Lu Xun, Borges, J.M. Coetzee, Yasunari Kawabata, Angela Carter, Julio Cortazar and Zadie Smith. In general, it will be helpful if students can read a wide range of fiction across different cultures in advance of the first session.

This course will be delivered via online distance learning, and students will require a computer or other internet connected device.

This course takes place across 5 Tuesday evenings (7pm to 9pm) from 9th May to 6th June.

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Photo credit: Adam Pietrazewski



Xiaolu Guo


Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese British novelist, memoirist and filmmaker. Her novels include A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and I Am China. Her memoir Once Upon A Time In The East won the National Book Critics Circle Award 2017 and shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Her recent novel A Lover’s Discourse, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2020 and longlisted for the Orwell Prize. Her most recent book is Radical, A Life of My Own. Named as a Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist in 2013, she also directed a dozen films, including How Is Your Fish Today (Sundance Official Selection) and UFO In Her Eyes (TIFF). Her feature She, A Chinese received the Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno Festival 2009. Her documentary We Went to Wonderland was in the Official Selection of ND/NF at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Once Upon A Time Proletarian was selected for the Horizon Section at Venice Film Festival 2009. She had her film retrospectives at London’s Whitechapel Gallery 2019 and Cinematheque Switzerland 2011, as we as at the Greek Film Archive in Athens 2018. She was a 2021 visiting professor at Columbia University and Baruch College in New York. Guo is currently a Samuel Fischer Guest Professor at the Free University in Berlin and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.