American Academic Post-Modernism and the Problem of Audience

Unsworth, John Merritt, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia
Rorty, Richard, Department of English, University of Virginia
Winner, Anthony, Department of English, University of Virginia
Day, Doug, Department of English, University of Virginia

This study compares the rhetoric of American academic post-modern fiction with the realities of its institutional practices. In particular, I examine the influence exercised by certain representative authors over the reception of their works,ยท and the reciprocal effects of criticism on their creative production.

In my introduction, I distinguish between two generations of post[-] modernism--an earlier one characterized by its adherence to modernist precepts, and a later one which reacts against modernism; I suggest the presence or absence of a hyphen in the term as a way to indicate the respective attitudes toward modernism, but my study is concerned only with writers of the earlier, post-modern era, because it is in them that the contradictions between rhetoric and practice are, at the moment, most apparent.

The nature of that practice is demonstrated through readings of selected fiction and non-fiction texts by William H. Gass, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, and Gilbert Sorrentino, and through close consideration of various interviews, and critical responses. By following specific metaphors and ideas as they are transmitted from author to critic--and sometimes from critic to author--I show how this community of readers arrives at an understanding of a writer, and how it may shape that writer's self-understanding as well.

The institutionalization of the literary writer has taken place over a relatively long period of time, and many of the behaviors I discuss have precedents in modernism, and roots in the same cultural changes that produced the modern university. For that reason, historical precedents, such as the genealogy of our critical understanding of Henry James and the influence of T.S. Eliot in professionalizing literature and literary criticism, are reviewed, and changes in the publishing industry and in the societal status of the intellectual are also considered.

Finally, by re-reading various texts against the developing consensus, and by proposing the work-in-progress as an emblematic form of post-modern fiction, I attempt to demonstrate some of the constraints under which this interdependence places both parties, and I briefly suggest some alternatives to the critical status quo.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
post-modern fiction, institutional practices
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