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Contemporary Literature’s Vexed Democratization

a network of names

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant.

At the National Book Awards in 2016, held a few days after Trump was elected, Colson Whitehead won for Underground Railroad. In a widely quoted acceptance speech, he said “We’re happy in here; outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland.” Whitehead was noticing something about the political concerns and attentions of prestige literature: its exclusionary culture, its limited audience, and its liberal concerns.

This project explores the literature and writers that can be found “in here” and how they came to be prestigious. Using a range of approaches including data collection, computational analysis, archival research, and close reading, investigators explore the insular nature of contemporary literary production. Much of this work examines the contradictions that define contemporary literature. On the one hand, technological changes in literary production and distribution have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of works published each year. At the same time, the path to becoming a writer has become more difficult, and more exclusionary than in the past. 

This work began with a dataset of winners and judges of major literary prizes from 1919-2020 (recently published at post45 From this data, investigators published a series of articles exploring contradictions within literary prestige: “Who Gets to Be a Writer?” (,  “On Poets and Prizes” (, and “Literature’s Vexed Democratization” ( 

Currently, investigators are working to expand the dataset so as to explore the relationship between literary prestige (as established by these various literary prizes) and marketplace sales. They are also in process on a study of prize judges and a detailed social network analysis of the dataset.

Principal Investigators

Juliana Spahr, Faculty, Oakland, English; Stephanie Young, Faculty, Oakland

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