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July 30, 2010

St. John’s College magazine interviews English professor on what makes a great novel

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Jana Giles was recently interviewed by The College, the alumni magazine of her undergraduate alma mater, St. John's College in Annapolis, Md.

She and several other alumni who are literary scholars and teachers were asked to discuss what makes a great novel, as well as what works they might recommend for enhancing the curriculum at St. John's, which uniquely centers on a Great Books reading list.

Giles believes that a truly great novel will have a puzzle of some kind because literature isn't necessarily meant to provide fixed answers in the same way as some other disciplines.

“There are interpretations that are stable, that you can go through and prove that this is how you came to a certain conclusion” she said. “But at the center of a good story is a fundamental uncertainty. That's probably true of a lot of great novels."

As examples, Giles pointed to two novels she teaches at ULM in her British Literature course, Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” and Elizabeth Gaskell's “Mary Barton.”

“Novels like these,” she said, “not only give us the thoughts and actions of an individual's subjective consciousness, but also are emblematic of a particular historical and cultural moment. Novels can illuminate unstated or unexamined opinions as effectively as philosophy or other areas of study.”

The full article can be read in the Spring 2010 issue of The College, at

A PDF version of the article is available here.

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