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The Rise of the Debut Novel

Laura B. McGrath, Temple University

Tue, 4/30 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · Betts Auditorium

Department of English

In the 21st century, the debut novel has become a major literary-sociological phenomenon. More than simply a “first novel,” the debut heralds the arrival of a “fresh, new voice” on the literary scene. Not a week goes by without multiple debut novels reviewed in major legacy media outlets. They have generated their own literary prize economy, as well as a thriving para-academic literary community — online courses and handbooks, podcasts and publications.

Drawn from my book-in-progress, Middlemen: Literary Agents and the Making of Contemporary American Literature, this talk will, first, trace the rise of the debut novel in the United States alongside the ascendancy of the literary agent, arguing that the debut emerged as a direct result of the material demands of literary agency. Second, drawing on ethnographic interviews conducted with agents, I will show how the debut novel has become central to the literary agent’s position-taking in the field — crucial for launching not one, but two, careers. Finally, relying on large-scale data extracted from online clearinghouse Publishers’ Marketplace, I reveal statistical commonalities in paratextual “debut narratives,” showing how this powerful marketing category has come to shape the horizon of possibility for the debut novel itself. The result, I argue, is a literary field is defined by its immaturity.

Laura B. McGrath specializes in computational literary criticism and contemporary American literature. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University. Prior to joining the faculty at Temple, she was associate director of the Literary Lab at Stanford University. Her research and teaching focus on American literature post-1945, digital humanities and cultural analytics, literary sociology, and contemporary literary production.

She is at work on a book called Middlemen: Literary Agents and the Making of Contemporary American Literature, under contract with Princeton UP, and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She draws on a range of methods — data analysis, close reading, literary ethnography — to reveal the literary agent’s centrality in the development of American literature, post-1965.

Her work has been published or is forthcoming in New Literary History, American Literary History, Post45, CA: The Journal of Cultural Analytics, and the Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Fiction, 1980 2020. She is the recipient of the 1921 Prize in American Literature, awarded to the best essay by an untenured scholar in 2021, for her essay “Literary Agency,” published in ALH. Her public writing has appeared The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, and Post45:Contemporaries. She is one of the founding co-editors of the Post45 Data Collective.

She has held fellowships with the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and the Smithsonian Institute of American History. Her work has been supported by the Mellon Foundation and the Big Ten.

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