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Fiction, Belief, and Disbelief

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Organizer: Daniel Hack

Co-Organizer: Rachel Ablow

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According to Deidre Lynch, eighteenth-century British culture displayed “a new readiness to explore the subtle and supple deployment of belief and disbelief that fiction reading entails.” There is, we suggest, a renewed readiness among novel scholars to revisit and extend such exploration, a renewal that follows upon a period of relative consensus concerning the novel’s status as the quintessential discourse of suspended disbelief and the realist novel’s status as the paradigmatic genre of disillusionment and disenchantment. This seminar seeks to take stock of and build on this recent interest.

The kinds of questions we hope participants might address include: How are the very concepts of fiction and belief historically entangled (see, e.g., Duncan)? When and how do various subgenres (Gothic, the historical novel, realism itself) break from what Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt describe as the novel’s generic invitation “to appreciate the believable as such,” and instead invite readers to accept or reject specific beliefs? How have narrative theory and literary pedagogy taught readers to respond to such invitations (see, e.g., Hack)? How do the limits of the believable register politically significant exclusions or hierarchies, and what role does the solicitation of belief or disbelief play in what Yogita Goyal calls “the logic binding races with literary genre”? How might novel studies address Colin Jager’s claim that “the dispositional habitus of literary studies…is marked by the ease with which literary form turns phantom belief into belief in phantoms”? How might Jager’s claim be put in dialogue with Elaine Freedgood’s account of “the intrusion of belief into disbelief, and of disbelief into belief,” in the Victorian ghost story, and of this dynamic’s role in liberal cognition? How does the play of belief and disbelief (normatively) solicited by fiction reinforce or challenge what Rachel Ablow describes as the contemporary commitment to “the inextricability of belief or conviction with identity”? How might we further the work of deprovincializing scholarship on this cluster of topics (see, e.g., Bartoszynska and Mufti)?

Please direct questions to Daniel Hack ( and Rachel Ablow (

Works Cited
Ablow, Rachel. “Postcritique and the Poetics of Disagreement in George Eliot's Romola” (2021).
Bartoszynska, Katarzyna. Estranging the Novel (2021).
Duncan, Ian. Scott’s Shadow (2016).
Freedgood, Elaine. Worlds Enough (2019).
Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism (2000).
Goyal, Yogita. Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature (2010).
Hack, Daniel. “Reading for the Foreshadowing” (forthcoming 2024).
Jager, Colin. “Phantom Belief and Belief in Phantoms: The Strange Objects of Literary Study” (2022).
Lynch, Deidre. “Gothic Fiction and ‘Belief in Every Kind of Prodigy’” (2016).
Mufti, Nasser. “Counterfactual Literary Theory” (2018).

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