Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

Article excerpt

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

by Sally Bachner

Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 172 pages

Roth and Trauma: The Problem of History in the Later Works (1995-2010)

by Aimee Pozorski

New York: Continuum, 2011. 175 pages

In their 2014 New Literary History essay "The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us," Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood explore the question of what kinds of histories of literary criticism might emerge if instead of relying on the clash-of-ideas model to explain changes in the way we do what we do, we used the methods of computational humanities to track those changes. In this suggestive essay, they demonstrate the promise of this mode of inquiry to turn up the slower, longer, not publicly argued changes (and continuities) in assumptions and concerns that are often left out of the standard histories in favor of explanations focused on schools of thought or the influence of great men.

One of the examples Goldstone and Underwood cite is a chronological trend in the career of violence as a topic in literary studies, (1) which they argue "became much more prominent in literary-critical discourse over the course of the twentieth century. The frequency of the topic roughly triples between 1890 and 1980" (2014, 7). (2) On the causes of this trend, they are less certain. But they hazard a guess informed by their observation that the trend does not exist in print culture generally or in the work of historians: "Its reasonable to speculate that the rising importance of violent themes in twentieth-century scholarship reflects an underlying shift in the justification for literary study. Early-twentieth-century scholarship places a fair amount of emphasis on literature's aesthetically uplifting character.... As the century proceeds, that emphasis on aesthetic cultivation wanes, and appears to be replaced by a stance that one could characterize as ethical concern" (15). This explanation, Goldstone and Underwood convincingly argue, avoids the pitfalls of oversimplifying the history of literary criticism by overemphasizing particular schools or figures. As an example, they show how explanations based on Michel Foucault's influence seem to be invalidated by the fact that this trend did not noticeably increase during the time when his influence was most strongly felt.

But although Goldstone and Underwood note that the uptick of interest in violence cannot be explained by the fact that critics are increasingly writing about increasingly modern texts (because this is a trend in work about many periods), it is of course both a truism and true that violence becomes increasingly present in literary work as the century grows longer. The idea that this happens because life seems increasingly violent also seems sensible--despite Steven Pinker's tendentious, scientistic claims that the world has been growing less violent in the long and short term. (3) Nor, indeed, does one require computational methods to know that one of the less quiet transformations of literary studies over the past two or so decades has been the rise of trauma studies. Informed by Freud's early work on individual and structural trauma and born from a number of factors, including the growth of Holocaust studies and the recognition of posttraumatic stress disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, trauma studies itself, it could be argued, is another effect of the increasingly violent recent history of humanity. (4)

Two fine new books on contemporary American fiction--Sally Bachner's The Prestige of Violence and Aimee Pozorski's Roth and Trauma--are informed by and reflect on this phenomenon. Concerned respectively with the predominance of violence in post-1962 American novels and the focus on Americas historical traumas in the post-1995 novels of Philip Roth, these books ask why the novels that are their subjects emphasize trauma to the extent that they do. …

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