Plot Twist! Or When Art Gets You Got
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I won’t spoil it for you, but if you read Tennessee Williams’s poem “Life Story,” you'll see that it ends on a pretty unexpected note. Williams quite literally burns your expectations as a reader to the ground with that ending. In keeping with this year’s theme of baptisms by fires, this session wants to consider the quotidian yet nevertheless searing little devastations that readers encounter as readers of written texts and visual images that have, incorporated in them, some element of surprise.

- How do elements of surprise in a poem, a work of visual art or a work of fiction make us more aware of our position and evolution as readers (before and after the surprise is revealed to us)?

- What, if anything, can those elements of surprise teach us about ourselves—about the language/scenes it takes to lull us and the language/scenes it takes to wake us right back up again?

- Can a wake-up call manufactured via plot device, an inconspicuous visual detail, or narrative style translate outside of the context of a reading experience in and for the classroom, or is the duration and utility of the sudden epiphany limited to the classroom?

- What good is the epiphany or the shock after class? 

- What exactly is the art or the craft of the curveball?

- What's the state of the plot twist in the age of spoilers?

- Who are plot twists even for anymore? Do readers grow out of them the more sophisticated they become?

- Do plot twists have a pattern of targeting specific kinds of characters for ridicule? 

- What are the implications of making only certain kinds of characters the fulcrum of the plot twist?

If these surprises help to breathe new life into our reading experiences or awaken something in us, then how exactly do they do that? In this session, we will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the various and sundry ways in which the element of surprise can take shape in literary and visual texts: Through 1. plot twists; 2. stories literally ending with the word "surprise"; and 3. experiments with narrative style, for example.

But what are some of the other ways? A few works of North American literature that would fall under this category might include, for example: Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno,” Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet,” William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, short stories by Flannery O’Connor, Richard Wright's poem "Between the World and Me," and Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif.” What aspect of our delicate sensibilities does the plot twist upend? And what, if anything, does that disturbance in our state of mind—however great or small—subsequently leave us more open to or more closed off from (Once surprised; twice shy)? What can these metaphorical and literal roof fires in literary and visual art prepare us for? Let’s come up with a syllabus on this topic together; let’s share our different disciplinary perspectives on this; let’s sharpen our thinking skills as we ruminate on these questions together; let this session be a helpful space for you to get useful feedback as you think through a paper, chapter, or book that you're writing on this very topic; let us know what good these artistic surprises are doing out in the world--for you, your students, your research projects, etc.

Please send a cv. and a 250 word abstract to Sandy Alexandre ( by 11:59pm EST on Tuesday: January 25th.

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Sandy Alexandre
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