beyond the attention space

a review of Amy Hungerford’s Making Literature Now

Hungerford’s attack on the ‘sainted posthumous reputation’ of David Foster Wallace illuminates a broader problem faced by scholars of contemporary fiction. From a different perspective, this problem has long been familiar to publishers, who know that most contemporary novels achieve prominence less through spontaneous cultural uptake than through bidding wars, big advances, and, as a result, big marketing budgets. This wasn’t entirely untrue of Wallace himself who, as Hungerford notes, first acquired celebrity status by way of an ‘agent, an editor, a particular reviewer, and two publishers … powerful enough in the market to set the literary press in motion for a book they got behind’. The problem, in other words, concerns the contingency of cultural visibility. Or, even if Wallace’s widespread review coverage, TV appearances, and national book tours simply reflected his work’s intrinsic value, then the problem concerns what the sociologist Randall Collins has termed the ‘attention space’ – a zone of focalized interest which, it seems, only a handful of cultural figures can simultaneously inhabit. Studying contemporary fiction means living and working alongside that space, and being instinctively drawn to it. But what might we see if we look beyond it?

read the rest in The Cambridge Quarterly, March 2017