Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mark McGurl

Mark McGurl is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.

His new book is The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press).

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His response:
I’m grateful for the invitation to talk about what I’m reading, which got me thinking anew about how I read.

The first thing I need to say is that I am a professor of 20th and 21st century American literature, and that reading is a large part of my job. This is partly why it is such a great job—but it also means that I read in a particular way, with an eye toward appropriating whatever I am reading for the larger arguments I want to make in my own critical writing. However, I often encourage my undergraduate students to do the something similar once they graduate: follow a line, whether that means reading several books by one author, or on a single theme or in a single genre. This gives one’s reading a cumulative significance beyond the single work.

The line one follows always ends up being jagged. At any given time I find myself pursuing a handful of interests, each of them of greater or lesser immediate relevance to what I am writing about. For one project I am currently re-reading a lot of early-20th century American fiction—classics like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but also some lesser-known works from the period, including John O’Hara’s Appointment at Samarra and Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost. For another, different project I am reading as much as I can about natural history and evolution, for example Daniel Lord Smail’s excellent Deep History and the Brain.

At the outer edges of my research—in the sense that I don’t know exactly why I am reading it, or whether I will have anything to say about it when I am done—I have developed a fascination with contemporary secular apocalyptic fiction. The relevance of this body of work to our time is perhaps too obvious to go on about. What strikes me instead is how strong much of it is. “The Golden Age of Apocalyptic Fiction” would be an ironic label for our times, but it might be accurate.

A literary scholar like me is required to be suspicious of the patriarchal pathos of a work like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a father and son experience the end of the world as we know it, but I was moved by the novel anyway, and impressed with the grim authority of its vision. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is more political in its sensibilities, and equally impressive. While McCarthy needs no other reason for the apocalypse than human damnation, Atwood traces the path to the collapse from current cultural tendencies. Lee Konstantinou’s Pop Apocalypse is distinct from these two in being very funny and satirical in tone, but it like the Atwood novel performs a convincing analysis of how all our current silliness could go very wrong. I also loved Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, which deserved a more memorable title, and should not be allowed to languish in the genre fiction ghetto where it currently resides. Next up for me in this vein are Jared Diamond’s nonfictional Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jim Crace’s novel The Pesthouse and, on the lighter side, Victor Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse.
Read an excerpt from McGurl's The Program Era and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Visit Mark McGurl's UCLA webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue