May 16


A new series: my PhD comprehensive reading exams

What am I doing this summer?

Firstly, I’m writing the first draft of a historical novel, set in 18th century Scotland.

Secondly, I’m preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams. That means reading a whole lotta books.

A PhD in Creative Writing basically has three stages: classes, comp exams, and dissertation. The first stage, which usually takes two years, is to do the coursework on literature, teaching, and fiction writing. With the spring semester finally over, that’s where I am now. Done! Done!

(It’s a great feeling to have completed all the classes I need ever take. It’s an even better feeling to think about all I’ve learned and written these last two years.)

Then, once the required number of classes are done, you put together judging committees for your three “Comprehensive” exams. You take two of those exams in the autumn semester and one in the spring. The two in the autumn come from the list of set subjects: you choose whatever two subjects you think best fit your interests and future teaching career.

In the spring, you do your third exam, the “specialised exam,” on a reading list of your own design, specifically meant to prepare you for your dissertation.

Zora: on the list!
Zora is certainly on the list.

Complete that third exam successfully, and then you begin the final stage of the PhD: writing the dissertation. Because I’m focusing on fiction writing, my dissertation will be a work of fiction and an accompanying historical essay / manifesto / artist’s statement.

Knowing me, it will probably be quite long.

So. Now it’s summer, and I need to read. Out of the possible reading lists, I’ve chosen the “novel” and the “contemporary literature,” because I figure that’s what I’ll most focus on in the future. This means reading the history of the novel and (for the contemporary exam) a host of poems, plays, and novels written after 1945, plus the great works of scholarship relating to both.

To give you a sense of what each list involves, I’m cutting and pasting most of the titles for the Novel comprehensive exam below. Which ones would you most like to read? Which ones frighten you the most? Would you have chosen a different list entirely?

Over the summer, I’m going to write some comments on these novels as I read them (avoiding, most likely, the books on the list I already know–there won’t be time to re-read Lolita), and share some particularly fun or extravagant paragraphs from those novels. First up will be the book I’m reading right now, Thomas Pychon’s infuriating, enormous, ingenious WWII conspiracy novel, Gravity’s Rainbow.

I should have a short post on Gravity’s Rainbow ready over the next few days.

Best wishes for your own summer reading!

The list:

1. The Novels: 


Robinson Crusoe


Tom Jones

Tristram Shandy

The Castle of Otranto

Pride and Prejudice



Jane Eyre

Wuthering Heights

Bleak House


Jude the Obscure

The Pioneers

The Scarlet Letter

Uncle Tom’s Cabin



The Portrait of a Lady

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Sister Carrie

Heart of Darkness

The Good Soldier


A Passage to India

Mrs. Dalloway


The Marrow of Tradition

The House of Mirth

The Great Gatsby

The Sun Also Rises


The Sound and the Fury

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Native Son

Invisible Man


Gravity’s Rainbow



Maus I and Maus II

Don Quixote

The Red and the Black

Père Goriot

Madame Bovary

Crime and Punishment

Anna Karenina


The Trial

Swann’s Way

The Magic Mountain

Things Fall Apart


A House for Mr. Biswas

Wide Sargasso Sea

One Hundred Years of Solitude

If on a winter’s night a traveler

Midnight’s Children


2. The Scholarly Texts:

The Rise of the Novel

The Dialogic Imagination

Essentials of the Theory of Fiction

Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach


Desire and Domestic Fiction

The Novel and the Police

The English Novel

Reading for the Plot

Story and Discourse

The Sense of an Ending

Love and Death in the American Novel

The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition

The Theory of the Novel

For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction

“The Literature of Exhaustion”

Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction

Towards a Postmodern Theory of Narrative




fiction writing, historical novel, James Joyce, PhD comprehensive exams

You may also like

  • …I’m in a similar situation — all my coursework is done. I do get to take more classes though. Workshop rocks. 🙂 And I’ll take two other classes over the next (and last) year of my schooling. I’ll keep an eye on your reading posts — there may be some overlap with my own reading list. 🙂 I’ll be focusing on poetry and the theoretical readings but there’s still a good deal of fiction left for me to tackle. Happy reading!

  • p.s. — I’ve posted in-depth on Lolita here ( and here ( and on The Sound and the Fury here: The latter I was a little intimidated by because everyone kept telling me it’s hard to read. I really, really enjoyed it though!
    I also loved Wide Sargasso Sea — it’s a quick read, and so well-written. That said, Jane Eyre won’t be the same for you after you read it.

    • Thanks for the links! I’m reading JR now, so maybe I’ll read Sargasso Sea after it.

    • Also: I listened to the Sound and the Fury on audiobook. This was extremely hard going in parts: I probably missed a great deal. But on the plus side, the novel just kept going, washing over you, with no time to worry or ponder.

      • That’s what I did with “The Age of Innocence”… I know it would have taken me ages to read, but as an audio recording, it’s so much more enjoyable…

  • Wow, you have a lot going on this summer, however, they do sound fun 🙂 Good luck to you, and hope you do really well on your Ph.D exams.

  • Brilliant reading list! I love it. Reading through it was like a whirlwind tour of my own undergrad and graduate experience. Moby Dick, A Passage to India, Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Ulysses, Heart of Darkness–okay, I have way too many favorites on this list. 🙂 I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your literary journey.

  • Larry Shelby says:

    For a lowly studio graduate, your reading list is daunting.
    On average, how many hours a day do you devote to reading, and how many pages a day, + or -?
    Thanks. I enjoy reading your Blog, it’s very instructive.

    • Hi Larry,

      The reading list is daunting and I am not devoting enough time to it. I’ve been trying to read a few hours each day, but recent travel has made this harder. Fortunately, I’ve already read a lot of the novels, maybe half of the list. But I may get a lot more stressed as the summer continues…

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Get writing today: join my free course

    All you need is an email address: work at your own pace as you write a new short story.