Backlash Realism: The American Novel during the Long 1980s
Abstract: Backlash Realism studies the limits of the novel: what can and
cannot be represented in a novel, given the historico-structural architecture of the genre?
How elastic is the genre? Where is its horizon? This dissertation focuses these questions
by examining a specific literary-historical moment: the American novel during the waning
years of postmodernism, a period I designate as "the... read morelong 1980s." This period follows what
Mark McGurl has characterized as "the Program Era" and precedes the fiction of the new
millennium. Consequently, this dissertation offers a prehistory of the present. Relying on
conceptions of fictionality taken from Catherine Gallagher and Dorrit Cohn, and drawing on
literary-sociological methods employed by scholars like McGurl, this dissertation traces a
crisis of representation that faced American writers who sought to produce important novels
during the 1980s, after decades of modernist and postmodernist experimentation had
seemingly exhausted the possibility of innovation. In response to this crisis, many
novelists discovered renewed interest in both realism as a mode of representation and the
durability of "fictionality" when juxtaposed with fact. This dissertation first offers a
historical-theoretical frame for this crisis and then examines several novelists - Gore
Vidal, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, and Nicholson Baker - whose
quasirealist or neorealist projects can be characterized as "backlash" against
postmodernism. This backlash coincided with the rise of neoliberalism and a broader
cultural backlash against the political and social projects of the 1960s and '70s: in the
United States, the so-called "Reagan Revolution." The metaphors or tropes that novelists
like Vidal, Wolfe, and Franzen employed to debate and discuss the state of the novel after
postmodernism borrowed language from contemporary anxieties over nationalism and national
decline, urban decay, white flight, financialization, a return to the language of the
market economy, and the AIDS epidemic. These novelists also reinvested heavily in a
remarkably literal conception of realism, one that engaged heavily with factuality,
privileged the universalized liberal subject, and eschewed paranoid hermeneutics. The
resulting aesthetic proved influential for the fiction of the new millennium and produced
useful tensions through which to understand and analyze the limits of novelistic
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2017.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: Ichiro Takayoshi.
Committee: Nathan Wolff, Joseph Litvak, and Andrew Hoberek.
Keywords: American literature, American studies, and American history.read less