I have been lurking on here for a little while and I have a question I think a lot of you may be able to help me with, so here is my first post. I am registering for a creative writing class in which students are able to design their own curriculum, including the reading list. I am taking this class for 8 credits. I am supposed to write a proposal to the professor outlining my project and give a reading list. I’d like to get this in as soon as possible since the class is filling up.
For the past couple years I’ve been focused on literature of place. What I’ve decided to do with this class is to take that in a new direction and begin to focus not so much on the positive values of “nature writing”, i.e. regional culture, language, customs, etc., as the negative values. By this I mean I want to examine the evolving nature of industrial societies devoid of nature and local color, a homogeneous zone, the anti-place, if you will. Unlike most literature of place, I also want to focus a bit more on the character, and examine the neuroses and pathologies of humans in these sorts of damaged communities. In fiction I tend to fixate on character more than anything else. So this won’t be regional writing that celebrates particularity and intact natural communities; it will be writing that observes the spiritual and mental collapse of a society devoid of these things. JG Ballard comes to mind first for me. In most science fiction man conquers setting, but in Ballard it’s flipped around. Characters are perverted lunatics, casualties of technology. I’ve read a lot of Ballard’s short stories, but not much of his longer stuff, so I am putting High Rise on my list. I have a couple other ideas for my reading list, but I would be grateful for a few suggestions. Here’s what I was thinking of so far. This is very tentative…
JG Ballard - High Rise
Bret Easton Ellis - American Pyscho
Theodore Dreiser - An American Tragedy
Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange
Sinclair Lewis - Dodsworth
Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Interesting idea there, moving into the negative aspects of setting.
I can’t help you much, but I recently read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, and I believe it fits your criteria. It revolves around a man and his extended family coping with life in a failing mill-town. I’m not sure it qualifies as Literature (note the capital L), but it wasn’t bad and had an interesting aspect regarding characterization. It’s difficult to explain, but the characters just were. Most of their motivations were fairly opaque (with some glaring exceptions) and none of them seemed to really grow. Sounds terrible, I know, but it didn’t strike me as a total lack of character development or gross ineptitude on the part of the author so much as a conscious choice-these are the characters and this is how they act. Not that it was necessarily a good choice, but it was different and perhaps worth your time.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but I have a nagging feeling that there’s another example that I can’t recall. I’ll let you know.
And welcome to the boards. Stick around.
Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply is, on one level, about the soullessness of the Internet and of our global consumerist transnational society. Its sense of place, its message, is partly that every place is like every other place today. But it’s also a terrific, creepy novel about identity theft.
William Brinkley’s The Last Ship is about the claustrophobia of a tiny society - a ship’s crew, stuck on a single U.S. Navy destroyer - after WWIII. Its sense of place is one of strict limitation.
George R.R. Martin’s vampire novel Fevre Dream, set on the Mississippi River before the Civil War, wonderfully evokes the heat, torpor, stench and unhealthy conditions of life on the river back then.
Have you thought of William Gaddis? If this is a semester course, it might be a little over-ambitious, but JR is very thematically focused on “the spiritual and mental collapse of a society devoid of [nature and local color]”. The characters’ interiority, if it’s broached at all, comes about solely in terms of the words they speak - we can only glimpse the cityscape in which they move in a very oblique way. Take a look at it and see if it’s what you’re thinking.
Bernard Malamud has a few interesting short stories about the specific negative effects of urban life on the individual (“The Cost of Living” and “In Retirement” both deal compellingly with this theme).
This is a novel I find myself recommending a lot, but Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat deals with this theme in an intriguing way, combining a specific thematic focus on autonomy and anonymity as negative facets of modern life with a sense of geographical dislocation. (And it’s easy to read in an hour if you’re looking to build your reading list :))
And not to push this thread in that direction, but considering Atlas Shrugged might be interesting: the anti-pastoral use of setting, the conventional dystopia as paradoxical utopia.
Howards End by E.M Forster
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Watchmen by Alan Moore