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The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

London Review of Books - Fredric Jameson
[A] magisterial book...[It's a] magnificent and unique theoretical construction [McGurl] has achieved in The Program Era.
Irish Times - éilís Ní Dhuibhne
[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.
New York Times - Charles McGrath
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.
Bookforum - Mark Greif
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.
New Yorker - Louis Menand
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.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Jennifer Howard
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."
Catholic Herald - Matt Thorne
[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.
Times Higher Education Supplement - David Gewanter
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.
Electronic Book Review - Brian Lennon
A remarkably generous, unusually inclusive, and irresistibly buoyant work of literary criticism and scholarship.
Times Literary Supplement - Patrick Langley
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.
Irish Times - Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
[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.
Irish Times

[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

New York Times

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

Bookforum

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

New Yorker

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

Chronicle of Higher Education

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

Catholic Herald

[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

Times Higher Education Supplement

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

Electronic Book Review

A remarkably generous, unusually inclusive, and irresistibly buoyant work of literary criticism and scholarship.
— Brian Lennon

Times Literary Supplement

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

Jim English
It is a cliché to say that a book so changes your view of a particular historical period or problem that you never see it the same old way again. But this is the kind of book that warrants such praise. McGurl has brought deep learning, sweeping ambition, and stylistic brio together here to produce a whole new story of postwar American fiction. There is nothing else like it on the shelves of contemporary literary criticism.
Sean McCann
The Program Era is a brilliant book of great ambition and originality. It will be rightly regarded as a landmark work and will shape the critical understanding of postwar American literature and culture for many years to come.
Lee Konstantinou
The Program Era juxtaposes an unlikely cast of writers between its covers: Flannery O‘Connor, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, George Saunders, and on. McGurl positions this diverse crew squarely in the context of the remarkable growth of creative writing programs in the U.S. after World War Two. McGurl‘s reinterpretation of these writers, whom scholars have so often read separately from one another, promises to unsettle all the standard ways literary historians carve up the postwar world of letters. McGurl has a rare talent for writing literary criticism that smuggles its theoretical concepts into your brain under the cover of lucid and readable and unpretentious prose. Academic literary critics, perhaps by necessity, spend lots of time becoming specialists in their patch of intellectual turf and speaking only to each other in an ever-subdividing glossolalia of theory. If we're lucky, McGurl‘s book will inaugurate for us a new genre of literary history that, though wholly intelligible to the general reader, doesn't pull its punches or water down the complexity of its vision.
Ed Park
The institutionalized teaching of creative writing thrives in America. In Mark McGurl's wide-ranging, audacious study, the academy comes to define postwar fiction in surprising ways. You won't think of most of your favorite authors quite the same way again.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674033191
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark McGurl is a Professor of English at Stanford University.
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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction: Halls of Mirror
  • Part 1: “Write What You Know”/“Show Don’t Tell” (1890–1960)
    • 1. Autobardolatry: Modernist Fiction, Progressive Education, “Creative Writing”
    • 2. Understanding Iowa: The Religion of Institutionalization


  • Part 2: “Find Your Voice” (1960–1975)
    • 3. The Social Construction of Unreality: Creative Writing in the Open System
    • 4. Our Phonocentrism: Finding the Voice of the (Minority) Storyteller


  • Part 3: Creative Writing at Large (1975–2008)
    • 5. The Hidden Injuries of Craft: Mass Higher Education and Lower-Middle-Class Modernism
    • 6. Art and Alma Mater: The Family, the Nation, and the Primal Scene of Instruction
    • 7. Miniature America; or, The Program in Transplanetary Perspective


  • Afterword: Systematic Excellence
  • Notes
  • Index

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