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W.D. Clarke - ePortfolio

The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time. If we‘re not doing the big social novel fifteen years from now, it‘ll probably mean our sensibilities have changed in ways that make such work less compelling to us — we won‘t stop because the market dried up. The writer leads, he doesn‘t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer‘s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one [...]
PS [...] If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we‘re talking about when we use the word ‘identity‘ has reached an end.  
– Don Delillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen


About My Research

Department: English and Comparative Literature Studies

Supervisor: Professor Neil Lazarus, Dr. Nick Lawrence


The Social Novel and Fictitious Capital: Economic Change and Continuity 1982-1990

Recently, criticism of the social novel of the 1980s and 90s has tended to comprehend it within a rubric bounded by exaggerated metaphors of ‘epochal change‘ such as ‘post-Fordism‘, ‘globalization‘ and ‘flexible accumulation‘. My thesis will attempt to correct such hyperbole by drawing on the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood, who though influential in sociology and political theory, has been overlooked by cultural critics. Wood argues that thinkers such as David Harvey, Frederic Jameson, and Immanuel Wallerstein tend to ‘naturalize‘ the very economic categories which they purport to explain, and that there needs to be a return of focus to the imperatives of capitalism. My thesis will thus fill a telling gap in the understanding of the workings of capital in novels that were ‘critiques from within‘ the ‘changing‘ economic times of the Thatcher-Reagan years and the subsequent, accelerating boom-and-bubble cycles of 1993-Present.

The Roots of the alleged ‘epochal‘ changes in the economy lie in what is now called ‘the long downturn‘ of ‘persistent stagnation‘ which followed the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency system and recession of 1973. Why this happened, how the advanced capitalist nations managed to pull themselves out of the gutter through an unprecedented deployment of credit or ‘fictitious capital‘; how the ensuing ‘wealth effect‘ played itself out in the cultural sphere; and how a revival of the ‘social novel‘ attempted to trace the causes and document the effects of this conjuncture — is what I‘ll be looking at here.

My primary fictional sources are Jonathan Franzen‘s The Twenty-Seventh City, David Lodge‘s Nice Work, and Thomas Pynchon‘s Vineland. In arguing against the critic James Woods' contention that literary innovation has led to the aesthetic dead end of 'hysterical realism', I also look closely at the deployment of metaphor as an intentional act in Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Karl Marx's Capital, partly because Woods traces what is allegedly pathological in writers like Franzen and Delillo back to Dickens, but partly too in order to emphasise how important continuities in capitalism have been glossed over in academia in favour of theories of radical change.


Year Started: 2005