"Required Rereading" examines a set of late-twentieth-century fictional works that rewrite canonical novels. As replies to classics by Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, the novels in my dissertation have appropriated their own literary history; their authors—J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, and A. S. Byatt—present that history as an integral part of the project of contemporary fiction. They place the practice of canonical reading at the center of their work. My intent, in turn, is to analyze these works as direct commentaries on reading and rereading as a collective endeavor.
Most analyses of rewritings to date have been determined by the contours of the former British empire, dealing only with those works whose main purpose might be construed as contesting cultural imperialism. By reading novels from postcolonial settings together with their English and American counterparts, I provide a new analysis, one that takes into account the ways these texts operate within the Anglophone canon through their formal engagement with their genre’s own past and with issues of authorship and reception history. Coetzee’s Foe directs us to Robinson Crusoe and Roxana and thus to the novel’s rise in the eighteenth century. Carey’s Jack Maggs, with its references to Dickens, situates the novel uneasily on the verge of its Victorian-era heyday, while Cunningham’s The Hours takes on the formal challenges of modernism posed by Mrs. Dalloway. Byatt’s Possession brings readers into the present, setting its literary investigations of Henry James in the context of the professional English department. Together, these contemporary works expand on ideas the novel has treated since its beginnings—inheritance and genealogy; investment and return; creativity, originality, and authorship; and the representation of time and history—and add their own contribution: a searching inquiry into canonicity, or how classics come to be.