"The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing," written by UCLA English professor Mark McGurl and published by Harvard University Press, has been awarded the 2011 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin.
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.
McGurl will accept the award next fall at a public event at the University of Iowa, where he will deliver remarks on a literary topic of his choosing.
The book was chosen by an international panel of prominent critics and writers — Terry Castle, Garrett Stewart, Michael Wood, John Kerrigan, Elaine Scarry and Elaine Showalter — each of whom nominated two books. Books of general literary criticism in English, published during the last four years, are eligible for nomination. After reading all of the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees.
"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."
While Capote himself never attended a college writing program, "The Program Era" buttresses McGurl's view that "the rise of the creative-writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history."
"McGurl does not belong to the sausage-factory camp," Jennifer Howard observed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "He is not an apologist, either, but a favorably disposed observer."
"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."
Jim English, the author of "The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value," wrote, "It is a cliché to say that a book so changes your view of a particular historical period or problem that you never see it the same old way again. But this is the kind of book that warrants such praise. McGurl has brought deep learning, sweeping ambition, and stylistic brio together here to produce a whole new story of postwar American fiction. There is nothing else like it on the shelves of contemporary literary criticism."
Sean McCann, who wrote "A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government," predicted, "[The Program Era] will be rightly regarded as a landmark work and will shape the critical understanding of postwar American literature and culture for many years to come."
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."
McGurl is also the author of "The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James" and many articles about 20th-century American literature. After graduating from Harvard University, he worked at the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, then earned his doctorate in comparative literature from the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University. He joined UCLA's faculty in 1997.
The Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994, during a breakfast at Tiffany's in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Capote's novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Past awardees include British scholar P.N. Furbank; Helen Vendler of Harvard University; John Felstiner of Stanford University; John Kerrigan of Cambridge University; pianist/scholar Charles Rosen of the University of Chicago; Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher of Harvard University; Malcolm Bowie of Oxford University; Declan Kiberd of University College, Dublin; Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney; Susan Stewart of Princeton University; Angus Fletcher of the City University of New York Graduate School; Geoffrey Hartman of Yale University; William Gass of Washington University in St. Louis; Helen Small of Pembroke College, Oxford University; Geoffrey Hill of Boston University; and Seth Lerer of the University of California, San Diego.
The establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author's will, and the annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote's frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field.
Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin's academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.
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