New American Canon

John Smith, Will Wordsworth

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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New American Canon

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Pynchon's California

Scott McClintock and John Miller

Pynchon’s California is the first book to examine Thomas Pynchon’s use of California as a setting in his novels. Throughout his 50-year career, Pynchon has regularly returned to the Golden State in his fiction. With the publication in 2009 of his third novel set there, the significance of California in Pynchon’s evolving fictional project becomes increasingly worthy of study. Scott McClintock and John Miller have gathered essays from leading and up-and-coming Pynchon scholars who explore this topic from a variety of critical perspectives, reflecting the diversity and eclecticism of Pynchon’s fiction and of the state that has served as his recurring muse from The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) through Inherent Vice (2009).

Contributors explore such topics as the relationship of the “California novels” to Pynchon’s more historical and encyclopedic works; the significance of California's beaches, deserts, forests, freeways, and  “hieroglyphic” suburban sprawl; the California-inspired noir tradition; and the surprising connections to be uncovered between drug use and realism, melodrama and real estate, private detection and the sacred. The authors bring insights to bear from an array of critical, social, and historical discourses, offering new ways of looking not only at Pynchon’s California novels, but at his entire oeuvre. They explore both how the history, geography, and culture of California have informed Pynchon’s work and how Pynchon’s ever-skeptical critical eye has been turned on the state that has been, in many ways, the flagship for postmodern American culture.
 
CONTRIBUTORS: Hanjo Berressem, Christopher Coffman, Stephen Hock, Margaret Lynd, Scott MacLeod, Scott McClintock, Bill Millard, John Miller, Henry Veggian 

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Reading Capitalist Realism

Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire LaBerge

As the world has been reshaped since the 1970s by economic globalization, neoliberalism, and financialization, writers and artists have addressed the problem of representing the economy with a new sense of political urgency. Anxieties over who controls capitalism have thus been translated into demands upon literature, art, and mass media to develop strategies of representation that can account for capitalism’s power.

Reading Capitalist Realism presents some of the latest and most sophisticated approaches to the question of the relation between capitalism and narrative form, partly by questioning how the “realism” of austerity, privatization, and wealth protection relate to the realism of narrative and cultural production. Even as critics have sought to locate a new aesthetic mode that might consider and move beyond theorizations of the postmodern, this volume contends that narrative realism demands renewed scrutiny for its ability to represent capitalism’s latest scenes of enclosure and indebtedness.

Ranging across fiction, nonfiction, television, and film, the essays collected here explore to what extent realism is equipped to comprehend and historicize our contemporary economic moment and what might be the influence or complicity of the literary in shaping the global politics of lowered expectations. Including essays on writers such as Mohsin Hamid, Lorrie Moore, Jess Walter, J. M. Coetzee, James Kelman, Ali Smith, Russell Banks, William Vollmann, and William Gibson, as well as examinations of Hollywood film productions and The Wire television series, Reading Capitalist Realism calls attention to a resurgence of realisms across narrative genres and questions realism’s ability to interrogate the crisis-driven logic of political and economic “common sense.”

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Richard Ford and the Ends of Realism

Ian McGuire

Richard Ford and the Ends of Realism examines the work of award-winning American novelist and short story writer Richard Ford, and places it firmly in the context of contemporary debates about the role and meaning of literary realism in a postmodern environment. In this fresh study of Ford’s oeuvre, Ian McGuire argues that Ford’s work is best understood as a form of pragmatic realism and thus positions him as part of a deeply rooted and ongoing American debate about the nature of realism and pragmatism. This debate, which reaches back to transcendentalist thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and continues on to today, questions the meaning of independence and the relationship between the self and history. In this context, McGuire explores Ford’s deep engagement with American literary and philosophical traditions and repositions his work in its appropriate intellectual and literary context.

McGuire also uses this idea of pragmatic realism to mount a larger defense of contemporary realist writing and uses Ford’s example to argue that realism itself remains a useful and necessary critical category. Contemporary realism, rather than being merely conventional or reactionary, as some of its critics have called it, can offer its proponents an aesthetically and philosophically sophisticated way of engaging with and contesting the particularities of contemporary, even postmodern, experience.

In offering this new reading of Richard Ford’s fiction, as well as a fresh understanding of the realist impulse in contemporary American fiction, both become richer, more resonant, and more immediate—reaching both backward into the past and forward to involve themselves in important contemporary debates about history, postmodernity, and moral relativism.

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Violet America

Regional Cosmopolitanism in U.S. Fiction

Jason Arthur

Violet America takes on the long habit among literary historians and critics of thinking about large segments of American literary production in terms of regionalism. Jason Arthur argues that classifying broad swaths of American literature as regionalist or “local color” writing brings with it a set of assumptions, informed by longstanding habits of thought about American culture, that marginalize important literary works and deform our understanding of them. Moreover, these assumptions reinforce our ideas about the divisions between city and country, coast and center, cosmopolitan and provincial that lie behind not only our literature, but our politics.

Against this common view, Violet America demonstrates just how cosmopolitan the regional impulse can be. In the works of James Agee, Jack Kerouac, Maxine Hong Kingston, Russell Banks, and Jonathan Franzen, the regional impulse yields narratives about the interdependence between privilege and poverty, mainstream and margin, urban and rural. These narratives counteract the polarizing cultural lens that, when unquestioned, sees the red-state/blue-state geography of twenty-first-century America as natural. Tracking the evolution of this impulse to depolarize, Violet America develops a literary history of “regional cosmopolitanism,” a key urge of which is to represent the interconnectedness of the local, the national, and the global. Writers incorporating this perspective redress the blight of America’s neglected places and peoples without also falling victim to the stigmas of being purely regional in their scope and interest. Rather than simply celebrating regional difference, the regional cosmopolitan fiction that Arthur discusses blends the nation’s cultural polarities into a connected, interdependent America. 

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Workshops of Empire

Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

Eric Bennett

During and just after World War II, an influential group of American writers and intellectuals projected a vision for literature that would save the free world. Novels, stories, plays, and poems, they believed, could inoculate weak minds against simplistic totalitarian ideologies, heal the spiritual wounds of global catastrophe, and just maybe prevent the like from happening again. As the Cold War began, high-minded and well-intentioned scholars, critics, and writers from across the political spectrum argued that human values remained crucial to civilization and that such values stood in dire need of formulation and affirmation. They believed that the complexity of literature—of ideas bound to concrete images, of ideologies leavened with experiences—enshrined such values as no other medium could.

Creative writing emerged as a graduate discipline in the United States amid this astonishing swirl of grand conceptions. The early workshops were formed not only at the time of, but in the image of, and under the tremendous urgency of, the postwar imperatives for the humanities. Vivid renderings of personal experience would preserve the liberal democratic soul—a soul menaced by the gathering leftwing totalitarianism of the USSR and the memory of fascism in Italy and Germany.

Workshops of Empire explores this history via the careers of Paul Engle at the University of Iowa and Wallace Stegner at Stanford. In the story of these founding fathers of the discipline, Eric Bennett discovers the cultural, political, literary, intellectual, and institutional underpinnings of creative writing programs within the university. He shows how the model of literary technique championed by the first writing programs—a model that values the interior and private life of the individual, whose experiences are not determined by any community, ideology, or political system—was born out of this Cold War context and continues to influence the way creative writing is taught, studied, read, and written into the twenty-first century.

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