Fictive institutions: contemporary British literature and the arbiters of value.

Purvis, Samantha (2020) Fictive institutions: contemporary British literature and the arbiters of value. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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My thesis assesses the relationship between contemporary British literature and institutions. Literary culture is currently rife with anxieties that some institutions, such as prizes, exert too much influence over authors, while others, such as literary criticism, are losing their cultural power. As authors are increasingly caught up in complex, ambivalent relationships with institutions, I examine how recent British novels, short stories and ‘creative-critical’ texts thematise these engagements.

My thesis mobilises Derrida’s term ‘fictive institution’, which marks the fact that institutions are self-authorising; they are grounded in fictitious or invented origins. Institutions, then, share with literary texts a certain fictionality. My project considers how Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, Gordon Burn, Alan Hollinghurst, and—most prominently—Ali Smith, have used the instituting or inventive power of fiction to reflect on the fictionality of institutions. Each chapter assesses how a different institution—academic criticism, public criticism, the book award and publishing—reproduces aesthetic discourses and values which my corpus of literary texts shows to be grounded in an institutional fiction. In making this argument, my thesis marries three disparate strands of contemporary criticism: literary sociology, aesthetic theory and deconstruction. This approach repositions Derrida—a figure maligned by postcritique and the aesthetic turn—as an important and surprisingly timely thinker of the literary.

Situating my readings in terms of a resurgent critical discourse on the value of the novel, my project traces how a wide range of twenty-first-century writing mounts a defence of literature by asserting fiction’s power to ‘speak back’ to institutions. While contemporary culture seems to suffer more and more from what David Shields calls ‘reality hunger’, and the rise of autofiction seems to augur the outmodedness of fiction, this thesis ultimately suggests that it is precisely as a fictional medium that literature retains its cultural power.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Literature and Creative Writing (former - to 2011)
Depositing User: Chris White
Date Deposited: 11 Nov 2020 08:44
Last Modified: 11 Nov 2020 08:44


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