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In The Program Era, Mark McGurl offers a fundamental reinterpretation of postwar American fiction, asserting that it can be properly understood only in relation to the rise of mass higher education and the creative writing program. McGurl asks both how the patronage of the university has reorganized American literature and—even more important—how the increasing intimacy of writing and schooling can be brought to bear on a reading of this literature.
McGurl argues that far from occasioning a decline in the quality or interest of American writing, the rise of the creative writing program has instead generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with energy and at times brilliance by authors ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison.
Through transformative readings of these and many other writers, The Program Era becomes a meditation on systematic creativity—an idea that until recently would have seemed a contradiction in terms, but which in our time has become central to cultural production both within and beyond the university.
An engaging and stylishly written examination of an era we thought we knew, The Program Era will be at the center of debates about postwar literature and culture for years to come.
[There's] much food for thought in what [McGurl] has to say about literary trends. Most, interesting, though, is his sensitive exploration of the interplay between individual writers and the Creative Writing programs...Opinionated and lively...He delivers a cornucopia of exciting new ideas and insights in a work which will be indispensable reading for teachers and students of creative writing, and for anyone interested in modern fiction...[A] complex, energetic and fascinating book.
— Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
McGurl does have some smart things to say about the evolution of this creative writing movement—he documents it as part of the rise of progressive education in general—and about the many paradoxes involved when universities get in the business of trying to structure, codify and reward artistic endeavor.
— Charles McGrath
What has the movement of postwar writing into the university done to our literature?...The obvious nature of this question only places the decades-long lack of a proper answer in higher relief. It is proportionately exhilarating to find, in Mark McGurl's The Program Era, a brilliant and comprehensive mind developing one at last. McGurl trains his gaze on the university writing programs and some of the masterful novelists they have incubated. But he makes his most compelling arguments at the level of the writer's practical place in the academy, examining the distorting (and enabling) effects of university discipline on individual artists, and considering the wider role of "creative writing" within a chain of notions of creativity (lasting from high school to the service-economy workplace) that inculcate skills for late-capitalist life...McGurl gives the best account I have seen of [Flannery] O'Connor's cruel maximization of "ironic distance"; in her third-person narration, she aspires, as he puts it, almost "to the unimaginable condition of fourth person narration—narration from a higher dimension." His pages on Raymond Carver and '80s minimalism, a mode that "came to be seen, oversimplifing the case drastically, as the 'house style' of the creative writing program," are similarly unrivaled...McGurl's clear-sighted exposure of the hidden institutional background of postwar literary production is one of the first reliable signs that we will finally see that era thoroughly anatomized in a new generation of scholarship.
— Mark Greif
McGurl's book is not a history of creative-writing programs. It's a history of twentieth-century fiction, in which the work of American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Bharati Mukherjee is read as reflections of, and reflections on, the educational system through which so many writers now pass...The Program Era is an impressive and imaginative book.
— Louis Menand
McGurl performs a complicated series of critical and interpretive maneuvers in The Program Era. He describes in detail how the institutionalization of creative writing "has transformed the conditions under which American literature is produced" and how that has "converted the Pound Era into the Program Era."
— Jennifer Howard
[A] fascinating and (at times) beautifully argued book...[It] introduced me to many forgotten or unfairly neglected authors whose books I will seek out, as well as provocatively repositioning unlikely authors such as Raymond Carver as academic intellectuals.
— Matt Thorne
If you find postwar American fiction interesting, you may wish to explore the academic system that begat it: a story well told by The Program Era.
— David Gewanter
A remarkably generous, unusually inclusive, and irresistibly buoyant work of literary criticism and scholarship.
— Brian Lennon
McGurl's study rises above the conventional thinking to draw some surprising conclusions about how the proliferation of creative writing courses has shaped American literature for over half a century...The Program Era is an intelligent, persuasive and thought-provoking book; by shifting the focus away from individual writers towards the institutions that nurtured (or inhibited) them, McGurl breaks new critical ground.
— Patrick Langley