New naturalism: the resurgence of American literary naturalism in the neoliberal twenty-first century

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McCreedy, Sarah
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University College Cork
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For a literary tradition that has persisted in America, naturalism has rarely been discussed in the context of contemporary American fiction. Considering this a serious deficiency, this thesis investigates naturalism’s resurgence in twenty-first century American fiction. In the field of naturalist studies, this thesis’s main contribution lies in the connections that it draws between new naturalism and a distinct cultural phenomenon that has dominated the social, political, cultural, and economic hemispheres since the late 1980s: namely, neoliberalism. Expanding its influence during the 1980s, the neoliberal project emphasises the privatisation of the state. But neoliberalism is more than a free market policy; it is an ideology. Through its positioning of competition and self-interest as moral imperatives, individual subjects living under neoliberalism are to be viewed as self-responsible; their decisions need not be understood as anything but their own. This not only removes accountability on a systemic, governmental level, it also significantly obscures the harsh realities of social inequality in relation to the intersectionalities of gender, race, and class. As this thesis will illustrate, contemporary American literature that responds to the neoliberal era gives rise to familiar themes that emerged with literary naturalism in the late nineteenth century, including the agonies—as opposed to the luxuries—of choice, masculinist discourses of rugged individualism versus feminine discourses of disempowerment, and, more broadly, the acknowledgement of a force that works beyond the power of individual will. However, in ‘new’ naturalism, the deterministic worldview of more traditional naturalistic texts has been supplanted by a more nuanced conception of free will. The new naturalism imagines a world where free will exists but in the context of excruciatingly limited choices; choices, indeed, that may not even qualify as choices at all. The existence of free will only creates the illusion of freedom, creating a process that I term Naturalistic False Consciousness. Over the course of four chapters, this study examines literary texts including two of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2012), Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles (2016), ZZ Packer’s short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003), T.C. Boyle’s The Harder they Come (2015), Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006), and, finally, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves (2017). Spanning a fourteen-year period and a number of associated forms, styles, and generic categorisations that are implicated in both high and low art, my aim is to establish that while new naturalism may have a recognisable philosophical core, there are several directions in which writers can, to employ a documentary analogy that resonates with classic naturalism, zoom out from that core, resulting in a range of conflicting ideas and affiliated ideologies that emerge in specific yet analogous cultural contexts. With its non-anthropocentric view, naturalism is uniquely placed to engage with the self-interested fantasies of American identity and nation-building; fantasies that may take on a new and specific meaning in the neoliberal context, but which also echo the very foundation upon which the nation has historically been constructed and understood. As such, this thesis understands naturalism as a significant interpretative lens through which to view a nation that has taken centre stage during a young yet tumultuous century.
Naturalism , American literary naturalism , American fiction , Neoliberalism
McCreedy, S. 2022. New naturalism: the resurgence of American literary naturalism in the neoliberal twenty-first century. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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