CFP: What Makes a Modernist Plot? A collaborative special session proposal for MLA 2014, organized by the ISSN and the Modernist Studies Association

In her 1925 essay “On Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf characterized the typical Edwardian novelist as “constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot.” Plot was a Procrustean bed, and Woolf proposed that modern novelists refuse to lie down in it any longer. Since 1925, scholars have tended not only to applaud Woolf’s vivid repudiation of plot but also to apply it generally to modernist fiction, tabulating modernism’s rejections of suspense, emplotment, and other conventional means by which fiction engages our attention through narrative. But recent developments in both modernist studies and narrative studies prompt a reconsideration of modernism’s ostensible plot to overthrow plot. The new modernist studies has begun attending to a broader range of fictions—colonial and postcolonial novels, genre fiction, middlebrow narrative, and other mass cultural forms—that exhibit much greater continuity with forms of plotting familiar from nineteenth-century realism. At the same time, even the undeniable swerves and innovations of modernist plotting have come to seem far less disruptive of established narrative conventions in light of the arguably more extreme departures that postmodernist fiction has made familiar. And developments in narrative theory have complicated the modernist relationship to narrative form: cognitive and rhetorical approaches to narrative conceive of it less as a text type (more or less well-formed) than as a mode of sense making, both innate and highly acculturated, upon which modernist novels draw as strongly as previous fictions in eliciting the engagement of the reader. This panel therefore asks, “what makes a modernist plot?” as a question of both motive and form, and re-examines the issue of modernist plotting in the light of developing scholarly perspectives upon both modernism and narrative.

The CFP as published on the MLA website reads as follows:

Modernism’s supposed resistance to plot needs reconsideration, given an enlarged modernist corpus and new cognitive and rhetorical approaches in narrative theory. 250-word abstract and bio by 1st March 2013; Richard Walsh (

Nb. In the event that this collaborative session proposal is not accepted for MLA 2014, it has a guaranteed place at ISSN 2014, March 27-30 in Cambridge, MA.