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The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing Paperback – October 17, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


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. (Jim English, author of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value)

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. (Sean McCann, author of A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government)

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. (Lee Konstantinou, The Believer)

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. (Ed Park, author of Personal Days)

[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 Irish Times 2009-04-18)

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 New York Times 2009-04-19)

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 Bookforum 2009-06-01)

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 New Yorker 2009-06-08)

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 Chronicle of Higher Education 2009-06-29)

[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 Catholic Herald 2009-06-26)

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 Times Higher Education Supplement 2009-09-03)

A remarkably generous, unusually inclusive, and irresistibly buoyant work of literary criticism and scholarship. (Brian Lennon Electronic Book Review 2009-07-31)

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 Times Literary Supplement 2009-09-25)

About the Author

Mark McGurl is a Professor of English at Stanford University.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674062094
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674062092
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #613,793 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I hardly thought that bold, broadly accessible, culturally significant literary scholarship was being produced anymore, but Mark McGurl has proven me wrong with "The Program Era." Ranging widely through a variety of authors and their alma maters (most notably Iowa in the '50s and Stanford in the '60s), McGurl's book makes an excellent case that postwar American fiction has to be understood in its institutional -- that is, academic -- context, and his is the first discussion of MFA programs that really transcends the sterile pro-con debates on the subject.

McGurl moves past the question of whether writing should be taught to the fact that it is taught, and he challenges a lot of romantic ideas about creativity and productivity in a discussion that ranges from Thomas Wolfe to Ken Kesey, from Flannery O'Connor's apprentice stories to Gordon Lish's grammar textbook. Whether in his discussion of the "aesthetics of shame" in O'Connor or the class anxieties of minimalist writers, McGurl reads fiction from sharp angles. He is a great close critic when he wants to be, but he never loses sight of the broader picture, linking the development of the MFA with broader currents in progressive education and the "creative economy." He also writes prose of amazing clarity for an English professor, and even makes a few charming jokes at his own expense. It's hard for me to say what the PhDs will make of all this, but I'd call this essential reading for any MFA student wanting to understand his or her work in the broader context of American higher ed after World War II.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book as a must for my research I'm doing on contemporary fiction. I never thought it would be this informed, comprehensive, wide in range and scope but also capable of keeping the micro level in focus, and on top of it, most entertaining. If you care about contemporary fiction and the develpment that lead to its current state, no matter whether you are PhD or MFA, you simply can't miss this one. It's the most intelligent scholarship I have read in quite some time. After all those boring and out-of-touch theoretical pieces going around the subject, this really feels like a breath of fresh air.
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Format: Paperback
This book is far more favorable than many might be to the results of the uniform application of fairly standardized teaching methods to literature. Nonetheless, Mr. McGurl makes clear how the writing program approach has come to dominate writing, editing and general literary standards in the US.

For instance, readers may find it illuminating to discover that the trinity of nostrums: 'Write what you know' ; 'Find your voice'; and 'Show don't tell' are the watchwords of writing program tutelage.

Those who admire Karl Popper's admonition that any proposition whose contradictory is meaningless is itself meaningless (as happens when framing the opposite of the above 3.), may be happy to be back at the brighter and fresher air of square one.
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