Studying novels with novelist Jennifer Egan

The Pulitzer-Prize winning author returns to her alma mater to teach a course on English literature.

Jennifer Egan stands in front of classroom holding papers in hand.
Novelist and Penn alum Jennifer Egan taught a literature course on modern fiction this semester as an artist-in-residence. 

Page markers of many colors peek out of the book that author Jennifer Egan is holding, standing in front of 60 students filling every seat at Penn’s Fisher-Bennett lecture hall. Class is about to start, and she is ready with dozens of specific references in the texts she is teaching this spring day. 

The books are not the ones she’s written, not “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, nor her latest, “Manhattan Beach,” a historical novel that has won great acclaim. 

“It is the combination of surprise and inevitability that is the holy grail of fiction writing,” she says to the class during the lecture, which covered the last part of Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” and Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image.” 

This is not a writing course but a literature course, built around the books she knows and loves, some discovered when she was a Penn undergraduate. 

“Books are always in conversation with other books,” she says to the students while discussing Roth’s allusions to James Joyce. “With all of my books I was self-consciously aware of contributing to a constellation of work.”

The constellation of works on the syllabus for the course Self, Image, Community: Studies in Modern Fiction are wide-ranging, beginning with Trollope and concluding with Joan Didion. So is the classroom discussion, woven together with Egan’s anecdotes and references, from Joyce’s “Ulysses” to the real baseball player Mike Trout. 

The students who pack the classroom are a diverse group, from across the country and the world, pursuing a range of majors. There are also auditors from the faculty, graduate school, and Penn alumni community. One aspect they have in common is that all are focused, writing in spiral-bound notebooks as Egan speaks. Computers and phones are banned. 

“I won’t have it. I won’t,” she says in an interview later. “Unless people have a problem with handwriting, I have no computers in the classroom. I think these devices really erode our engagement with whatever it is we’re trying to do.”

Jennifer Egan stands with book in hand lecturing class.
More than 60 students enrolled in Jennifer Egan's course, taught at Fisher-Bennett Hall. 

“Perfect for this new idea”

Seeing not one open laptop in a college classroom is unusual, but Egan is unusual in the role of a teacher of literature. And that is the point, says Jed Esty, English Department chair in the School of Arts and Sciences. Many successful creative writers come to Penn through Kelly Writers House and the Creative Writing Program to teach their own craft. 

“We wanted a major contemporary writer to teach a literature class from the writer’s point of view. Jenny was perfect for this new idea; she’s deeply committed herself to literary history and specifically to the history of the novel form,” Esty says.

“When she and I began to brainstorm ideas for a class she could teach, I could see instantly that it was going to be a terrific experience for the students because she’s such an enthusiastic and hugely literate person, with strong, long-held, and interesting views of Victorian fiction, of the American novel, of contemporary writing.”

Egan is the author of several novels and a short story collection. Her most recent novel, “Manhattan Beach,” a New York Times bestseller, was awarded the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. “A Visit From the Goon Squad” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times book prize in addition to the Pulitzer in 2011. Also a journalist, Egan has written frequently for several publications, including the New York Times Magazine, most recently about pregnancy and childbirth among opioid-dependent women. 

“Manhattan Beach” was the choice for Penn’s Winter Reading Project, which invites English students and alumni to read a book during Winter Break and join in a discussion with the author in January. During that session, Egan described her approach to writing the novel and her years of extensive research on post-World-War II New York, complete with slides to depict the era and her encounters with people she interviewed. 

“Goon Squad” had been a previous Winter Reading Project choice. “Jenny struck many of us as a fantastic speaker and skilled lecturer—quick, funny, humane, large-minded—and generous with all kinds of interested parties. There was a huge buzz in the room,” Esty says. “I remember two or three different colleagues saying to me how amazing it would be if we could get Jenny in contact with our students more often.” 

Egan says she chose to accept the position of artist-in-residence, because she is enthusiastic about Penn and the pursuit of a liberal arts education. 

“I love Penn. I feel a great allegiance to it. It is where I became me,” she says, explaining that she took a gap year before starting college. “When I got here I pointed myself in the direction I am still pointed. It really does feel like coming home. This is the place where I figured out who I wanted to be and became that person.”

Coming to Penn to teach literature, the preparation it takes, underscores her view. “I believe so fervently in the value and essentialness of a liberal arts education,” she says. “I am asking myself all the time, what can I do to make people, parents especially, understand how valuable the skills of a liberal arts major are in the real world— ability to read well, write well, spot patterns and connections in human experience, and imagine your way into mindsets far from your own.”

Rows of students in class, writing in notebooks.
Students in Jennifer Egan’s course wrote in notebooks because she banned computers. 

An English major and 1985 graduate, she went on to pursue a master’s in literature at St. John’s College of the University of Cambridge as a recipient of Penn’s Thouron Award scholarship. She says she spent most of her time reading 19th-century literature, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and poetry. She traveled throughout England and Europe, also visiting China and the Soviet Union.

“My education was really enhanced there. Although I did write a terrible book that no one could bear to read,” she says, laughing, adding that she has drawn on the travel experience throughout her career. “As someone who relies so much on place in my writing, it was crucial; I cannot overstate how much.” 

She then went to New York City, temping while writing fiction, often offered jobs because she knew grammar and could write with clarity and color. “It made me realize how precious an English degree is in the job market,” she says. “So few people can write well. I’m not sure there is anything more valuable you can do than spend four years reading and thinking about literature.”

As a student, she says discovered it was important to her that the instructor was prepared and the course had a sound structure. Some of her most memorable classes were survey courses on the history of art and of music. 

And so Egan has prepared, extensively, for each Tuesday class—so much so that it became her main vocation, along with her other commitments. She has also been crisscrossing the country to speak, about her novels but also for her work as president of PEN America, an advocacy group that champions literary culture and free speech. And she has an active family in their Brooklyn home, husband David Herskovits, a theater director, and two teenage sons.

“What I’m thinking about in the shower is not fiction right now; it’s arguments involving these books. I waste a lot of water in the shower, and I do a lot of lecture planning on the elliptical machine,” she says. “Every one of those lectures is like writing an article; it requires some synthesis and flow and development. I have to be thinking about it for several days and writing it over more than one day for it really to be sound.”

Writing fiction has been on pause this semester while she has been teaching. “Right now, teaching feels more urgent,” she says. “I want to do a good job and find resonances and make new discoveries about the books we’re reading and about the world that made them.”  

Jennifer Egan speaking in front of full classroom looking at a book.
The reading list Jennifer Egan created was demanding and diverse, covering a range of authors and periods. 

“Deeper affinity”

Egan’s class preparation is apparent, checking the colored tabs sticking out of the pages to find the specific references she has chosen to move the lecture along. 

She also shows slides of pictures and even paintings and drawings to help the students visualize the different time periods covered in the reading.

“She delivers a lecture so eloquently. It is so well-researched. She is really, really dedicated to it and I think it really shows,” says sophomore Rachel Pak, an English major from Wilton, Connecticut. “All that background has informed my interpretation of the novels.”

Egan’s approach has made the course especially engaging and accessible for students who are not as familiar with literature. “It’s a great class from someone from other disciplines,” says senior Maxwell Abram, a philosophy, politics, and economics major from New York City. “Most of the reading I have done in the past has been nonfiction. I have a much deeper affinity for literature, and I have more desire to read fiction now.” 

Egan spoke in a special session, known as Perspectives, for graduating seniors. “She said the novel is important because it is the only medium that allows you to inhabit someone’s mind,” says Abram, a member of Penn’s varsity lightweight crew team. “The books we are working on lets us inhabit a character’s mind, and see how someone else thinks.”

One of four teaching assistants for the course, Hao Jun Tam says Egan has opened his eyes to multiple ways to discuss a text. “It has been an absolute joy,” says Tam, in his sixth year of pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

“I am learning from her. As she is a practitioner of fiction writing, the way she enters a text is very different than mine as an academic,” continues Tam. “When I read a text, I look closely at thematic concerns and generic conventions. She, however, has an almost intuitive way of getting into a text by sensing subsurface forces and motives. She brings our attention to how even a small paragraph can be packed with tremendous energy.” 

Her “craft-centered” perspective has impressed him, says Tam. “We can’t overlook the difficulty of writing that paragraph,” he says. “It does make me slow down in my reading and think more carefully about the labor of prose style and craft.”

“Instinctive feeling”

The books Egan chose “cover a sweep of time,” she says, and also “look at both stasis and change” throughout the narrative. “I wanted a mix of ethnicities, gender points of view, all different angles,” Egan says. “And I wanted books I thought would be very rich and ideally interesting in juxtaposition.” 

For example, Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep” to Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” written 20 years apart, which both focus on Jewish immigrants in New York City, but in different times, successive generations.  

“I picked books I hoped they would really love and books they probably wouldn’t have read; almost no one had read anything I assigned,” Egan says. “It was an instinctive feeling, choosing works that I thought would resonate together.”

Fiction offers details of popular culture not found in history books, “essential” Egan says, to her research for her novels. “I love using literature as cultural artifacts. Reading fiction from another period is a really efficient way to enter an alternate mindset,” she says. 

Pak says she would not have otherwise chosen to read the books, “but every single one has been so important to read as far as history and how time and place plays such a huge role in every novel.”  

An English major who is also minoring in Spanish and computer science, with the hope of going to medical school, Pak says the class has “helped me as a writer and inspires me to execute my projects in a more focused way.”

Office hours were important to many of the students, to have the chance to have one-on-one discussions with Egan. “She has really opened herself as a resource to us in a lot of different ways,” Pak says. “We just really look up to her and she does really well at closing that gap that we might place between us and her. I just find that really special.” 

Jennifer Egan standing in grand stairwell.
Jennifer Egan was an English major at Penn, graduating in 1985.

“It’s already succeeded” 

Although not a writing course, the students did a lot of writing. The four teaching assistants held smaller weekly classes with about 15 students each that are discussion based, and also designed to go over weekly writing assignments. The course includes three longer pieces as well. And Egan often has the students do brief, in-class writing exercises that are purely for themselves.

Abram says he was encouraged by Egan’s personal stories, about her first novel she considers unreadable, to the successful author she has become. The exercises to “get stuff on paper,” have been revealing, he says.

Egan says she plans to return to her own fiction writing with a sequel to “Goon Squad.” She learned long ago that she is not interested in teaching creative writing, but would she teach a literature course again? 

“My analysis about whether I’d want to teach more literature courses will have to include a synthesis of how well did I really do with this class.” she says. “The jury is still out.”

“When I’m teaching them, it feels like it matters so much. Even though I’m surprised at how hard it is. I am going at it with everything I have; it feels really worth it,” she says. “I may want to do it again sometime.” 

Esty says students will complete a course evaluation, as with all courses, and he will go over the results with Egan on this experimental artist-in-residence experience, and consider whether to invite other authors. 

“In some ways, it’s already succeeded, in shaking up our curriculum and getting a large group of students to think about the overlapping and distinct ways that writers and scholar-critics approach the history of literature,” he says. “Students always want to know what motivates and inspires artists and authors, I think.”

The Artist-in-Residence appointment was supported by the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation at Penn and Dean Steven J. Fluharty of the School of Arts and Sciences.