Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions With Laura Wright


What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I earned a BA in theatre and a BA in English at the University of Montana and completed my MA at UConn.  I am currently a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Connecticut and a Draper Dissertation fellow at UCHI.


What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am completing my dissertation, “Prizing Difference: PEN Awards and Multiculturalist Politics in American Fiction.” In this project, I examine the Poets, Essayists, Novelists (PEN) organization and map the contested national and international politics of book prizes. In particular, awards such as the PEN/Faulkner have determined the scope of what has become an identifiable twentieth- and twenty-first century American literary canon. Focused on Latinx, African American, Asian American, and Jewish American writers “Prizing Difference” considers multiple hierarchies of power, the material factors of publishing, and the evolving politics of “multiculturalism” in the US academy.


How did you arrive at this topic?

There were two moments that really launched my thinking on this topic. I have had a long-standing interest in canon formation (adjudicating what “counts” and what doesn’t in American Literature) and my committee asked me a question specifically on this topic in my PhD exams.  In attempting to answer the question, I struggled to define “canon.”  There were too many variables in play to settle on a stable definition that scholars, teachers, students, and readers could agree upon.  Is Toni Morrison a great African American novelist or a great American novelist?  What are the political and cultural consequences of these different designations?  Book prizes helped me negotiate this difficulty by offering a fixed list of winners that constitute a particular idea of the American novel as determined by the prize committee.


The idea that book prizes can form canons was reinforced the next time I took a trip to my public library.  In browsing the shelves, I noticed that the library has stickers that help identify the genre of a novel.  For instance, a space ship sticker helps readers readily locate science fiction while a sticker of a magnifying glass indicates detective fiction.  One of these stickers, to my surprise, used a blue ribbon to categorize books as “Prize Winners.”  This suggested that prize-winning novels might have significant commonalities between texts, forming a new genre of their own.


What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

Book prizes offer a way of discerning “what counts” as American Literature historically, but also as recently as this year.  Without the vantage of a lengthy publication history or repeated encounters with a particular work in a classroom setting, book prizes help us identify significant cultural texts.  Additionally, these prizes form a critical link between the public and the university.  People (myself included) often select reading material based on the endorsements of a particular prize.  I argue that by thinking through the engagement between prizes and politics, we can gain a better understanding of our cultural values, particularly around racial identity.

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