Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: The Political Novel in the 21st Century

Instructor: Johannes Lichtman

In James Baldwin's seminal essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel," the author argues that two historically important American protest books, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Native Son, are failed novels. Baldwin contends that these stories traffic in sentimentality rather than humanity and that "this makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel."

In "Why I Write," George Orwell discusses how, in his book Homage to Catalonia, he included lots of information that was detrimental to the story simply because he felt it was important that the public become aware of the facts. He believed that the artistic value of literature is secondary to its political function.

So who is correct?

Through the reading of four novels from the 20th and 21st century, which deal with important and controversial topics, we will discuss the novel's role in a society where unprecedented access to information may be minimizing the efficacy of the form as political weapon.

The topics will include sexuality (Giovanni's Room), gender roles (The Handmaid's Tale), race relations and apartheid (Disgrace), and the Iraq War (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk). We will analyze each book as both a work of literature and an argument, and will discuss whether a work of literature can succeed in both regards.

Assessment criteria will include discussion board posts, short analytical assignments, a short creative assignment, and a final essay. No group work, presentations, or "projects." Skype meetings available every week but not required.


  • Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (p. 1956; ~150 pages)
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (p. 1985; ~300 pages)
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (p. 1999; ~200 pages)
  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (p. 2012; ~300 pages)

Last Update: February 6, 2017