We’re excited to share the news that UCLA English Professor Mark McGurl has been awarded the 2011 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism for his 2009 HUP book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. The $30,000 award—the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism—is administered for the Capote Estate by the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Past winners of the award include Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, and Seth Lerer.
“I am truly honored by this award and delighted by the irony that it is made in the name of a wonderful writer, Truman Capote, who contradicts most of the generalizations about postwar American fiction made in my book,” McGurl said. “I’m proud to think that I have helped move the conversation about creative writing and the university forward a few steps and shed new light on recent literary history, but humbled by this reminder that contemporary literature is a much larger and richer enterprise than any one book or critic could grasp.”
Many critics have strong opinions about the general effects of the now-ubiquitous creative writing programs that McGurl studied. They’re often accused of having ushered in a formulaic approach and standard tone which detractors suggest now dominate and degrade American fiction. McGurl doesn’t hold that view himself, but wrote The Program Era because he recognized the lack of an objective study of the effects of their prominence:
“It is only a small exaggeration to say that the rise of the creative-writing program has been entirely ignored in interpretive studies of postwar literature,” McGurl wrote. “Discussion of the writer’s relation to the university has instead largely been confined to the domain of literary journalism and to the question of whether the rise of the writing program has been good or bad for American writing.”
Rather than a mere history of these programs, then, The Program Era became a major study of American fiction. Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker, observed, “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.”
In the video below, produced by UCLA, McGurl discusses the book and outlines his take on American fiction in the era of the creative writing program.