A Reading List from Mark McGurl’s The Program Era

One of the truly valuable things about Mark McGurl's study of the influence of creative writing programs on American literature is simply the breadth of reading that went into it, ranging from the iconic to the obscure. McGurl exhumes a number of novels–some by men and women better known for other things (poetry, teaching, university administration)–that rarely see the light of scholarship, much less general reading. Some of these books might even be a little tough to track down–but I guess that's what we have the internet for.

I just spent some time running through the index and the footnotes, trying to assemble something like a reading list from the books mentioned (most of which are given at least a couple of paragraphs of analysis and commentary), and I put together a fairly long (but not entirely complete) list of books he mentions (unfortunately, the book does not provide its own bibliography). The list is far too long to post here, so I've made it available as a Google Document (apologies for the very simple formatting). I have also included a number of the works of scholarship and analysis which he uses and references–some of them would also be worth tracking down if you feel inclined.

Please note that McGurl's use of these books doesn't mean that he found them uniformly enjoyable, so don't take this quite the same way as a list of recommendations. Hopefully, though, you will find out about some new books, some of which may be very good indeed.

In particular, McGurl has a little bit of fun working with the "campus novel" genre, and I'll put a few of his selections here:

  • The Big U, by Neal Stephenson.
  • Japanese by Spring, by Ishmael Reed.

  • Moo, by Jane Smiley.

  • Straight Man, by Richard Russo.
  • "Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way," by David Foster Wallace (from The Girl with the Curious Hair).

  • The Dean's December, by Saul Bellow.

  • The Groves of Academe, by Mary McCarthy.

  • Blue Angel, by Francine Prose.
  • The Disguises of Love, by Robie Macauley.

  • Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers.

  • The Professor of Desire, by Philip Roth.
  • The Handmaid of Desire, by John L'Heureux.

  • Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov.

  • The Professors Like Vodka, by Harold Loeb.

He leaves out Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell, but you shouldn't–read that one first.


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Great List.
If you can expand to include non-Americans, then the classic Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is still worth reading; as is The Tale of a Dog: From the Diaries and Letters of a Texan Bankruptcy Judge by Lars Gustafsson; The Crazed by Ha Jin; and Beauty by Zadie Smith.

John Williams’s Stoner is worth adding. It’s a campus novel set in the first half of the twentieth century; as such–and because it’s deeply serious rather than comic–it’s got a very different feel than the books I’ve read from the list above.

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