Panel Description

In the past decade or so, the study of contemporary literature has enjoyed a growth spurt.  It has become a field of its own—new journals and book series have been created, jobs are advertised, and students can put together committees with professors who themselves trained to specialize in the field rather than with Victorianists or modernists who have developed interests in more recent literature. One of the field-defining issues that has surfaced during this spurt is the shift from postmodernism to whatever is coming next; with the end of the Cold War, the century, and the heyday of high postmodern fiction, questions of ends and beginnings are dominating scholarship.

This panel will be devoted to a way of thinking about contemporary literature that is sometimes neglected in these discussions and sometimes assumed uncritically—the importance of generations. In examining three generations of contemporary writers, from writers born starting in the late 1950s to those born starting in the late 1970s, the panel will assess defining characteristics of each generation, positing generational sensibilities and testing the connections between the cultural moment and the literary output of each. The panel will also test the definitions of each generation, differing in some cases over their beginnings and endings, and it will test the concept of generations itself, asking what it helps us do as literary scholars and cultural critics and historians. In addition to the question of how to think about the “after postmodernism” issue, the discussion will touch on periodization as a heuristic; on the tendency of the field of contemporary studies to keep chopping itself into smaller and smaller bits, versus the tendency of some older fields to go in the other direction, e.g. the ever expanding long eighteenth century); on the connection between historical sensibilities and literary ones (are they identical? Homologous? Is the latter by definition oppositional, or is opposition impossible?).

We often tend to think in terms of the influence of predecessors and the spirit of the age (including Tillyardian or Foucauldian variants) as two things that have great influence on writers, and as forces that (as opposed to universal truths or individual psychology, whatever they are) inform the movements of literary history; talking about generations gives us a chance to air these assumptions out a bit. For this reason, this panel should appeal not only to those who study contemporary American fiction and culture or contemporary fiction, literature, or culture more broadly; it should appeal to anyone with an interest in literary history and in literary interpretation even more broadly.

The three panelists will take up three successive generations on American writers. Jeffrey J. Williams of Carnegie Mellon University will take up the first in his talk, “Generation Jones and Contemporary American Fiction.” In it he will examine how we might understand contemporary American fiction in terms of generations. In particular, he will use the new sociological designation of “Generation Jones,” which is a medial generation between Baby Boomers and Generation X. This is the cohort that is dominant now, in American politics as well as culture. For instance, Obama is not a Boomer but a member of this medial generation, as are writers like Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Brett Easton Ellis, and Jennifer Egan (all born between late 1950s and early 1960s). Williams  will talk about the main waves of fiction of this generation, from the 1980s to present, and its different relation to American culture than that of Boomers or of Gen X.

In “Solve for X: The Generational Equation in American Fiction,” Samuel Cohen of the University of Missouri will take up the fiction of Generation X. In addition to a squabble with the previous speaker over the line dividing Generation X and Generation Jones, Cohen’s talk will include a consideration of the work of a number of writers born in the 1960s such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead, Jess Walter, Camden Joy, Jennifer Egan, Sam Lipsyte, and Dana Spiotta, and it will ask what it is that holds these writers together beyond the coincidence of their births (all between 1962 and 1969) and what can be gained by thinking of them as a cohort. Answers will include their belated relation to the 1960s, to their literary predecessors, and to their moment in history, prominently including the end of the Cold War, and a shared orientation as a result of all of these influences toward futurity.

The final talk will bring us to the present. Kathryn Knapp of the University of Connecticut, in “Diminished Expectations: Generation Me and the Post-2008 Coming-of-Age Novel,” assays the work of the newest generation of American writers. Focusing on the economic and demographic trends affecting that cohort, in particular since 2008, in which unemployment and debt have led recent college graduates not on “quests for self-fulfillment,” as David Brooks wrongly describes the life journeys occupying this group, but rather back to their parents’ homes. Knapp will examine several recent coming-of-age novels written by members of what Jean Twenge calls “Generation Me”—those born from the late 1970s onward—who have ostensibly been raised to think that “the individual always comes first” and that they will “make lots of money, and perhaps even . . . be famous.” In contrast, the novels Knapp considers—Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Benjamin Nugent’s Good Kids—offer characters whose personal quests are variously interrupted by thwarted ambitions, financial instability, and a devastated environment, among other things. Rather than being bleak, Knapp argues, these novels deploy failure and disappointment to redirect a supposedly self-absorbed generation away from coming into their own and toward a larger view of the world emphasizing community.

Special Session for MLA 2014: Generations of Contemporary American Fiction

Thursday, 9 January

1:45–3:00 p.m.

Presiding: Kathryn Knapp, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

1. “Generation Jones and Contemporary American Fiction,” Jeffrey J. Williams, Carnegie Mellon Univ.

2. “Solve for X: The Generational Equation in American Fiction,” Samuel Cohen, Univ. of Missouri, Columbia

3. “Diminished Expectations: Generation Me and the Post-2008 Coming-of-Age Novel,” Kathryn Knapp

keywords: Contemporary, fiction, literary history, periodization