Novel affirmations: defending literary culture in the fiction of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Richard Powers



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Texas A&M University


This dissertation studies the fictional and non-fictional responses of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Richard Powers to their felt anxieties about the vitality of literature in contemporary culture. The intangible nature of literature's social value marks the literary as an uneasy, contested, and defensive cultural site. At the same time, the significance of any given cultural artifact or medium, such as television, film, radio, or fiction, is in a continual state of flux. Within that broad context I examine some of the cultural institutions competing with literature for public attention, as well as some of the cultural developments impacting the availability of public attention for literary concerns. With Wallace, I study his efforts in fiction and essays to establish an anti-ironic mode of literary rebellion, in opposition to the culturally pervasive tone of self-protective irony modeled by television. Franzen opens discussion about the transience of cultural authority, a situation in which the imprimatur of the academy, for instance, confers a cultural significance different in kind but not degree from the imprimatur of a popular televised book club. My study of Franzen in particular demonstrates the impact of proliferating sites of cultural authority, addressing the emergence of middlebrow culture and audiences from contested space to authoritative cultural arbiter. The chapter on Franzen also examines the increasing role of corporate interests in the production of cultural artifacts with an eye toward their financial viability more than their cultural impact. And finally, my study of Powers focuses on the animosity between the sciences and the humanities. Powers produces fiction that serves as an indispensable tool for communicating between disparate and otherwise isolated disciplines, and for helping those specialized fields synthesize their information with others.