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DemCP colloquium - KAI HOPEN: "Of Venture Literature: Contemporary American Literature and the MacArthur Fellowship Program"

When:We 17-02-2021 16:00 - 17:15

Kai Hopen, University of Groningen
Of Venture Literature: Contemporary American Literature and the MacArthur Fellowship Program


This colloquium will outline a PhD project proposal under development. The project will research the literary work of six recent winners of MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ Fellowships: Ben Lerner, Valeria Luiselli, Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jesmyn Ward, and Ocean Vuong. These writers share three increasingly striking traits: (1) all write “prestige literature,” (2) all have won Genius Grants, and (3) all write literature that is explicitly political.

Some context: the term “prestige literature” denotes literature that is both respected as art and commercially respected—both prizewinning and bestselling. The MacArthur Fellowship Program (MFP) provides highly prestigious Fellowships of $625,000 ‘no strings attached’ paid out over five years. Part Nobel Prize, part need-based granting system, the MFP is a paradigmatic literary institution of the contemporary period. The notion of “explicitly political” literature refers to remarkable attempts, in literature, to solve or reflect on how to solve real-world US-American social problems.

The project proposes to investigate these authors and their work along their commonalities. As a hypothesis to test and specify, the supremely ambitious, all-or-nothing literary work is characterized as Venture Literature—a term that echoes venture capital but is taken from the inspiration for the MFP, George E. Burch’s 1976 editorial “Of Venture Research.”

Building on the recent flourishing of institutional literary criticism, this project assesses the societal functions of these authors and their work, and of their legitimation by the MFP. It will explain literary aesthetics and ideological literary functions mobilized in this corpus, and ask whether these point towards particular dynamics in the institutions that undergird it. The research will illuminate the contemporary period in US-American literature, culture, and society; especially relating to the developments of capitalist intensification and institutional dissolution (specifically of the university) in which both Venture Literature and the MFP have thrived.

About the speaker

Kai Hopen is a recent graduate of the University of Groningen’s research MA Arts, Media, and Literary Studies. He is teaching at the RUG and feverishly writing applications to get a PhD position. His research focuses on the societal functions and value of literature, and especially of contemporary US-American literature. His MA thesis, “Reengaging Literary Criticism: Purposeful, Semiotic, and Social Interpretation with Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School,” was an attempt to reinvent literary criticism in theory and a reflection on the experience and potential value of reading The Topeka School.