Thoughts on 2015’s Extended Essay Topics…

Every year the English Department at NUI Galway offers final year undergraduates the opportunity to complete a five thousand word Extended Essay in lieu of taking an additional seminar course. Acceptance onto this independent research module is competitive. Students have to propose and design their own project, the idea being to apply the skills they have honed over the prior two-and-a-half years to a topic which interests and excites them. These Extended Essays naturally attract the best of our undergraduates, those who wish to challenge themselves and who typically go forward to undertake MA or PhD level work (I’ve also noticed, not for the first time, a significant crossover with those undergraduates who have previously gravitated towards Creative Practice options; it’s something echoed in the number of MA in Writing students here who go on to do both traditional Lit. Crit. and Creative Practice PhDs).

Yet one thing is clear to me as I look over this year’s list of projects: the next generation of scholars and critics have no interest in Literary Fiction.

You’ll pardon that blanket statement, but it is a generalization which is impossible not to make while looking over the authors which this year’s cohort are focusing on: Ray Bradbury, Margret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, George R.R. Martin, Angela Carter, Philip Pullman, Flann O’Brien, Mark Z. Danielewski, Elmore Leonard, John Green, and Kurt Vonnegut. This year’s students want to engage critically with fan fiction, with films and TV shows and adaptations of all kinds. They want to study Dystopias, Utopias, Fantasies, and, yes, vampires and werewolves. It’s true that there’s a case to be made about how some of the texts the students wish to look at are indeed Literary Fiction (A Clockwork Orange, say, or Brave New World and The Road) and that a certain number of their chosen authors have also been claimed by the Lit. Fic. genre, but in almost all cases it is impossible to separate the speculative element from the work in question without removing what makes it distinctive and attractive (consider again A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and The Road).

Obviously these choices reflect what the students themselves are reading. But then that is the point. They’re not reading literary fiction. None of these students are doing projects on the kind of funerals-in-the-rain misery novels which too often seem to dominate the review pages and awards lists in this country (though, with the exception of a few looking at drama, this year’s Extended Essay cohort have shown very little interest in Irish writing full stop, which is a shame as there are some tremendous and innovative contemporary Irish writers out there like Mike McCormack, Maura McHugh, or Kevin Barry). As one of my undergrads said during the week – in the context of discussing Irish fiction – ‘Could we, just once at university, study a book with a happy ending, no sexual harassment, wars, or people dying, please?’

That comment reminded me of a recent Stephen Marche article on the decline of Literary Fiction. It is a piece filled with observations not dissimilar to those I hear from students all the time: ‘Literary Fiction has become much more boring’ […] ‘Perfectly constructed, and quite frankly dull’ […] ‘Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a masterpiece, but did anyone read the whole thing?’ […] ‘There are no Chewbaccas in Alice Munro stories; there are no smartphones either’.

Thus though the word ‘crisis’ is overused in academic discourse these days (sometimes it feels like everything is in crisis!), in this case there does indeed seem to be, from the perspective of the Literary Fiction genre, a brewing crisis in the disconnect between the kinds of book which academic elders, mainstream reviewers, and prize committees are telling us are worthy vis-à-vis those books which the next generation are actually reading. Arguably this has been the case for a long time however increased access to education has resulted in a situation where the generation about to confidently move onto MA programmes and/or begin doctoral research in this country is finally in a position to articulate their resistance to the kind of writing which privileges aesthetic beauty over ideas and imagination. Or course, thirty-something Extended Essay students in no way constitute a comprehensive survey, yet their intentions do at least suggests a trend. One cannot help but feel that, in the next few years, the narrow, jealously guarded definition of what constitutes legitimate literature in this country is about to be blown wide open by a much more inclusive and unbiased generation of readers and scholars.

And this is no bad thing.

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