McGurl, Mark

Assigned: McGurl, Mark. From “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction” (2588-2603). Also read the editors’ introduction (2586-88).

“The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction” (2005)

1. Getting with the Program

1. On 2588-89 (“The American writer’s intimacy…”), Mark McGurl sets out to examine the “gradual conjoining of the activities of literary production and teaching over the course of the postwar [post-World War II] period” (2588) in the U.S. How does he describe the very different consensus that held for the prewar period? In what way were the formalist school known as the New Critics (John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and others) an exception to this consensus, and how, according to McGurl, did their growing respectability within academia herald a change in the relationship between literary artists and universities? (2589)

2. On 2589-91 (“Indeed, one might imagine that…”), McGurl addresses the very limited pro or con debate that has long structured academics’ thinking about the increasingly intimate connection between creative writing and university employment. How does he describe the con arguments of authors such as Tom Wolfe and John W. Aldridge—what is the basis of their disdain for university writing programs and their literary output (2590)? How does he construe the pro side, as represented by the hallowed University of Iowa writing program or Writers’ Workshop? (2590-91) How does McGurl, in his turn, want to transform the discussion and move it beyond the old debate? What questions does he set out to answer? (2591)

2. In Studentdom

3. On 2591-92 (“It’s hard to say when exactly…”), McGurl, citing novelist John Barth, addresses the nature of the universities that were hosting ever-more creative writers by the 1960s. How do Barth and McGurl describe Pennsylvania State University, which is apparently a good representative of the type of school they are referring to? (2592)? How, too, does Clark Kerr, in his 1963 book The Uses of the University, describe such sprawling institutions? (2592)

4. On 2592-93 (“* * * Barth’s disciplinary allegory works…”), how do novelist John Barth and author Clark Kerr link creative writing as a discipline to developments in academically based scientific research? In what sense do these authors expand the definition of the term “creative” (2592)? Why does McGurl prefer his own term, “technomodernist” (2592), over the more generic usage “postmodernist” to describe the style emerging within academic creative writing departments around the time he covers?

3. Autopoetics

5. On 2593-95 (“Giles Goat-Boy is only one…”), McGurl introduces the concept of the “campus novel” (2593). What is a campus novel, and what is it generally designed to do—what is perhaps the most labor-intensive task that goes into the making of such a book? In McGurl’s view, how does “systems theory” (2594) help us understand that the campus novel is not necessarily out to make a radical point by its setting or insistent “reflexivity” (2594)? How does McGurl’s term “autopoetics” encapsulate the purpose of the reflexive writing he is referring to? How did the advent of the New Critics (John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks and others) with their interest in the formal properties of “interwar literary modernism” (2595) prove to be significant in advancing the practical value of campus-based literature?

6. On 2595-96 (“Consider the case of Philip…”), how does the academic and literary career of American novelist Philip Roth reinforce McGurl’s claims about the reflexive qualities of academia-based fiction? How does McGurl describe the “singular authorial persona” (2595) and prose style of Roth’s many novels (most famous among them being Portnoy’s Complaint)? In what estimation does he seem to hold Roth’s output as a novelist?

4. High Cultural Pluralism

7. On 2596-97 (“Another way to get at the…”), McGurl identifies “the aesthetic ideology of postwar literary fiction” as “high cultural pluralism” (2596) and then explores the significance of that ideology. What are the distinguishing features of high cultural pluralism, including its emphasis on the writer’s ethnic identity as a major theme? What is the relation of high cultural pluralism to the concept of the “multiversity”? How does McGurl trace the history of cultural pluralism in the United States, and what relation does it bear to the “mass culture or genre fiction” (2596) that surrounds it? (2596-97)

8. On 2597-98 (“Occurring in the broader context…”), McGurl writes that “in the broader context of the rise of mass higher education in the U.S., high cultural pluralism is the product of a certain institutional history…” (2597). How does he describe this “institutional history” and its result; namely, high cultural pluralism itself? What does Philip Roth, as cited by McGurl, suggest about his own “initiation into the modernist tradition” (2597) at a Protestant college in the early 1950s—when did he realize that he could, in fact, write about his own experience as a young Jewish man? What evidence does McGurl mention for the success of “writers with no strong ethnic associations” (2598) within the modernist or cultural pluralist tradition?

9. On 2598-99 (“Regionalist fiction has always been…”), how did Flannery O’Connor, according to McGurl, attain to “the logical equivalent of an ethnic difference within the system” (2598) of American culture? What did she suggest about Southern writers in relation to the broader American cultural context? At what point, in McGurl’s telling, does one meet with “technomodernism” within what he calls “the high cultural pluralist enterprise” (2599) in American literature? How can technomodernism be seen in its own right as “a discourse of difference…” (2599)?

6. Systematic Excellence

10. On 2599-2601 (“What is creative writing to…”), McGurl addresses the status of creative writing within the American university system. He first asks how such a complicated system as the American university can “hold together” (2600). What principle does he identify as the one keeping the system together, and how does this principle work in support of universities’ interests and even as “an expression of […] national culture” (2601)? How does the latter point mark a disagreement between the author and Bill Readings, from whose 1996 study The University in Ruins he otherwise borrows with seeming approval?

11. On 2601-03 (“It is safe to say, then…”), McGurl further addresses the survival and even thriving of creative writing programs at American universities. What do university administrators apparently value about these programs? (2601) In what sense, according to McGurl, are creative writing teachers considered “inspiring exemplars of the unalienated laborer” (2602)? What kind of “prestige” do these programs offer universities, and why does their status as “luxuriously useless” (2602) sometimes work for them rather than against them? What final thoughts does McGurl offer about the “excellence” (2602 bottom) of American fiction in the post-World War II period—to what extent and on what basis does he apparently reject the notion that American fiction has gone downhill since that time?

12. General question: In our selection from “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction,” Mark McGurl examines the material and cultural bases for the increasingly close ties that literary authors have with American college and university writing programs, which themselves have greatly multiplied in recent decades. Does your school have a creative writing program or at least offer an emphasis in creative writing along with the English degree? If so, how would you describe the relationship between the creative writing faculty and the period- or genre-based research professors? What seems to be the philosophical and pedagogical approach of your school’s creative writing department? Are they ambitiously oriented towards commercial success for their graduates, or do they follow a more egalitarian or “high art” path, etc.? In general, what is your assessment of your school’s creative writing department and/or creative writing faculty?

13. General question: In our selection from “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction,” Mark McGurl touches upon one of the big questions long posed by professors, administrators and students in the humanities. Essentially, that question is, “how should the humanities justify themselves in a modern university system that obviously leans toward scientific and other practical, ‘paying’ research?” After all, one doesn’t expect to hear that creative writers or professors of literature have discovered a cure for cancer. How do you see the value of humanistic study in your own career as a student and in the broader context of the life of the nation in which you live? McGurl has given us a sense of how creative writing programs have found a stable place in thoroughly corporatized academia, but reflect on your own relationship to the texts you read; what is the basic value of them to you, and what larger, culture-wide value do you believe they have?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake