Sam E. Phillips: ‘Reading Great Recession Fiction During the Great Pandemic’

Early in 2019, my uncle joked that by the time I’d finished my doctoral thesis — a comparative analysis of fiction inspired by the Great Recession — we’d be in another world-changing recession. I could laugh along with him at the time. Partly because I had thought it unlikely (and partly because the idea of me, grey-haired, surrounded by dusty ceiling-high piles of books and still working on the thesis in 2047, seemed vaguely amusing).

My uncle turned out to be right, but it’s no laughing matter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so sceptical though, because this is the very nature of capitalism: boom and bust — and culture responds in interesting and creative ways.

Indeed, the Great Recession of 2008-2012, which followed the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, inspired a collection of novels from predominantly the US, UK and Europe, but also other parts of the world. My thesis examines 62 such novels through a cultural materialist analytical framework that also draws on Marxist and feminist thinking. The novels, which cover a variety of genres, though predominantly literary fiction, portray or utilise crisis and recession causes and/or conditions in their plotting or as a part of their backdrop.

My thesis examines the popular deployment of literary realism within such Great Recession fiction (and the implications of this); it describes a post-crisis ‘structure of feeling’ (following Raymond Williams); and it identifies and analyses popular motifs, archetypes and myths circulating within Great Recession fiction.

Literary realism was the dominant style across the 62 novels, even amongst the small collection of fantasy and dystopic Great Recession novels I identified. As a narrative style, realism enabled some authors to depict and reveal the workings of capital that are taken as common-sense and natural; in other words, it played an important function in denaturalising capitalism in their works. However, as I found, literary realism, in its traditional commitment to verisimilitude and mimesis, is also often a double-edged sword. It can lead to the reproduction or reflection of the status quo, thus contributing, in various ways, to the reification of naturalised ideologies — particularly neoliberalism in the case of much Great Recession fiction.

So, why Great Recession fiction? Following the media reportage throughout the instigating Global Financial Crisis, I found myself appalled and fascinated by the devastation wrought on national economies and innocent people (particularly from the “working” and “middle” classes) by neoliberal capitalism and the impropriety of major banks. When novels clearly inspired by crisis and recession began to emerge, I was interested in their social commentary on capitalism and subjectivities under capitalism. I was particularly interested in how the novels “spoke out” against capitalism, if at all. Thus began my research journey.

After working on my thesis part-time, I submitted it for examination in early November this year and immediately felt a mix of loss, relief and anxiety. I was anxious because I knew the journey wasn’t over yet; the examination process had only just begun. But I’d submitted it and that was something. I’m grateful to the CSAA for their part in helping me achieve this milestone.

Specifically, I received a small research grant this year from CSAA at a critical time — a strange time, really. A time of global pandemic and lockdowns. A time when the workforce was feeling the effects of a tremendous economic slowdown, and when universities were reaching out to their PhD candidates regarding mental health, extra support and deadline extensions.

During this strange time, I was busy finalising a thesis that considered Great Recession fiction amid … another great recession. The grant helped me cover various research and living expenses in the final critical months before submission, and for this I am hugely grateful to the CSAA.

Bio: Sam Phillips is an English literature PhD candidate with the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Sam enjoys rainy weather, PNG coffee, and reading anything with an anti-capitalist flavour.

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