Understanding Jonathan Lethem

Understanding Jonathan Lethem

Understanding Jonathan Lethem

Understanding Jonathan Lethem

Synopsis

Understanding Jonathan Lethem is a study of the novels, short fiction, and nonfiction on a wide range of subjects in the arts by American novelist Jonathan Lethem, who is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for Motherless Brooklyn, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel for Gun, with Occasional Music. Matthew Luter explores the key contemporaries of and influences on Lethem, who is the Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College.
Luter begins this volume by explaining how Lethem's innovative and provocative essay on creative appropriation, "The Ecstasy of Influence," differs from other writing about influence, suggesting an artistic mode that celebrates thoughtful borrowing. Readings of Lethem's three major novels follow: taken together, Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and Chronic City present a novelist coming to terms with the joys and downsides of artistic influence. Luter concludes the edition with an examination of Lethem's third collection, Lucky Alan: And Other Stories.
Borrowing openly and promiscuously from earlier traditions both high and low (experimental fiction, comic books, art film, detective novels), Lethem displays a career-long interest in questioning what literary originality might mean in a postmodern age. Some suggest that such borrowings indicate a literary well that has run dry, making writers such as Lethem mere patchwork artists. Luter argues instead that Lethem's propensity for wearing his influences and obsessions on his sleeve encourages new thought about originality itself. Out with "it's all been done" and in with "look at all that's been done, and all that we can still do with it!"

Excerpt

The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931–2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date and to embrace a host of new writers only now making their marks on our literature.

As Professor Bruccoli explained in his preface to the volumes he edited, because much influential contemporary literature makes special demands, “the word understanding in the titles was chosen deliberately. Many willing readers lack an adequate understanding of how contemporary literature works; that is, of what the author is attempting to express and the means by which it is conveyed.” Aimed at fostering this understanding of good literature and good writers, the criticism and analysis in the series provide instruction in how to read certain contemporary writers—explicating their material, language, structures, themes, and perspectives—and facilitate a more profitable experience of the works under discussion.

In the twenty-first century Professor Bruccoli’s prescience gives us an avenue to publish expert critiques of significant contemporary American writing. The series continues to map the literary landscape and to provide both instruction and enjoyment. Future volumes will seek to introduce new voices alongside canonized favorites, to chronicle the changing literature of our times, and to remain, as Professor Bruccoli conceived, contemporary in the best sense of the word.

Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor . . .

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