Robert Coover Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is the function of repetition in Robert Coover’s work?

In what ways does Coover suggest that everything— including literature and life itself—is a fictional construct?

How does Coover incorporate popular culture into his work?

Coover is considered a postmodern writer. How is postmodernism exemplified in his work?

Why does Coover mix “invented” characters with “historical” figures as characters?

What is the role of the reader who engages Coover’s fiction?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111207072-Coover.jpg Robert Coover. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Besides the above-mentioned collections of short fiction and novellas and many uncollected short stories, Robert Coover’s production includes the novels The Origin of the Brunists (1966), The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), The Public Burning (1977), Gerald’s Party (1985), Pinocchio in Venice (1991), John’s Wife (1996), and Ghost Town (1998); a collection of plays entitled A Theological Position (1972), which contains The Kid, Love Scene, Rip Awake, and the title play; the screenplay After Lazarus (1980); a play, Bridge Hound (1981); several poems, reviews, and translations published in journals; a screenplay/novella Hair o’ the Chine; the film On a Confrontation in Iowa City (1969); and theater adaptations of “The Babysitter” and Spanking the Maid. Coover has also published a few essays on authors he admires, such as Samuel Beckett (“The Last Quixote,” in New American Review, 1970) and Gabriel García Márquez (“The Master’s Voice,” in New American Review, 1977).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Coover is one of the authors regularly mentioned in relation to that slippery term “postmodernism.” As a result of the iconoclastic and experimental nature of his fiction, Coover’s work does not enjoy a widespread audience; his reputation among academics, however, is well established, and the reviews of his works have been consistently positive.Although in the beginning of his career he had to resort to teaching in order to support his family, he soon began to gain recognition, receiving several prizes and fellowships: a William Faulkner Award for Best First Novel (1966), a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1969), two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships (1971, 1974), an Academy of Arts and Letters award (1975), a National Book Award nomination for The Public Burning, a National Endowment for the Humanities Award (1985), a Rea Award (1987) for A Night at the Movies, a Rhode Island Governor’s Arts Award (1988), and Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Fellowship (1990). The publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s rejection of The Public Burning after initial acceptance brought some notoriety to Coover. Since the novel deals with the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and presents former president Richard M. Nixon as its central narrator, the publisher thought it would be too controversial. Eventually, The Public Burning was published by Viking Press and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Critical studies about Coover started in the late 1970’s. Still, in spite of the critical acclaim and the considerable amount of scholarship about his work, Coover’s work remains relatively unknown to the public, and some of his early novels are now out of print.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his novels and novellas, Robert Coover has published numerous, usually experimental short fictions, most of which have been collected in Pricksongs and Descants (1969), In Bed One Night, and Other Brief Encounters (1983), A Night at the Movies: Or, You Must Remember This (1987) and A Child Again (2005). His reviews and essays, while few in number, are exceptional in quality; his studies of Samuel Beckett (“The Last Quixote,” in New American Review, 1970) and Gabriel García Márquez (“The Master’s Voice,” in New American Review, 1977) are, in addition to being important critical works in their own right, useful for the light they shed on Coover’s interests and intentions in his own fiction. His plays The Kid (pr., pb. 1972), Love Scene (pb. 1972), Rip Awake (pr. 1972), and A Theological Position (pb. 1972) have been successfully staged in Paris and Los Angeles, and the New York production of The Kid at the American Place Theatre in November, 1972, won for its director, Jack Gelber, an Obie Award. Coover, who finds some relief from the fiction writer’s necessary isolation in the communal aspect of theater and motion-picture production, has also written, directed, and produced one film, On a Confrontation in Iowa City (1969), and published other screenplays, including the novella/screenplay The Hair o’ the Chine (written some twenty years before it was published in 1979). His poetry and one translation have appeared in various “little magazines.”


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Robert Coover’s preeminent place among innovative contemporary writers has already been firmly established by academic critics. His various honors include the William Faulkner Award for best first novel (1966), a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1969), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1971, 1974), a citation in fiction from Brandeis University (1971), an Academy of Arts and Letters award (1975), and a National Book Award nomination for The Public Burning. In 2000, he received the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction.

Even before its publication by the Viking Press, The Public Burning became a succès de scandale when Alfred A. Knopf, which had originally contracted for the novel, refused to publish it. The ensuing literary gossip undoubtedly fueled sales (including copies of the book club edition), though not to the extent expected, and had the unfortunate result of bringing to both the book and its author the kind of notoriety neither deserved. The short-lived paperback editions of The Public Burning and The Origin of the Brunists (the latter novel had long been out of print) seemed to confirm that, except for The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which has attracted a diversified readership, Coover’s works appeal to a fairly specialized audience.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Andersen, Richard. Robert Coover. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A useful and very accessible introduction to Coover’s production up to 1981. Andersen combines plot summary with commentary, helping the reader to make an initial acquaintance with Coover’s work. Notes, select bibliography, and index.

Coover, Robert. “Interview.” Short Story, n.s. 1 (Fall, 1993): 89-94. Coover comments on the difference between the short story and the novel, the writing of Pricksongs and Descants, his use of sexuality in his fiction, his iconoclastic streak, postmodernism, and his use of the short story to test narrative forms.

Coover, Robert. Interview by Amanda Smith. Publishers Weekly 230 (December 26, 1986): 44-45. Coover discusses the motivations that lie behind his experimental fiction; states he believes that the artist finds his metaphors for the world in the most vulnerable areas of human outreach; he insists that he is in pursuit of the mainstream. What many people consider experimental, Coover argues, is actually traditional in the sense that it has gone back to old forms to find its new form.

Cope, Jackson I. Robert Coover’s Fictions. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Cope’s readings of selected texts are as provocative as they are unfocused; Cope considers the various ways in which Coover extends the literary forms within and against which he writes. The densely written chapter on Gerald’s Party and the Bakhtinian reading of The Public Burning are especially noteworthy.

Couturier, Maurice, ed. Delta 28 (June, 1989). Special issue on Coover. Includes an introduction, a chronology, a bibliography, a previously unpublished Coover story and brief essay on why he writes, and critical essays on a wide variety of topics and fictions, including Gerald’s Party.


(The entire section is 834 words.)