Jennifer Egan's (C '85) name has been in my mind for a long time. I remember it from bookshelves, New Yorker articles, and award lists. But it was only when I came to Penn and realized she was a Penn English graduate that I truly delved into my obsession with her literary work.
Egan, in a sense, never quite left Penn. Her signed editions adorn the bookshelves of Penn Bookstore and you can’t escape her influence in Fisher Bennet Hall, from her presence on multiple syllabi to currently holding the prestigious position of Artist in Residence within the School of Arts and Sciences. On Oct. 17, Egan returned to Fisher Bennett Hall to chat with students about literature, creative writing, the English major, and her new spring 2024 course at Penn.
Her body of work, encompassing seven fiction books, stands out not for its consistent style and approach but for its continuously evolving ambitions. Her stories revolve around themes of identity, reality, and the quirks of consumerism, but she's got a style that’s all her own. Egan's creativity is boundless, and she's not afraid to have a little fun with her writing. When her sister teased that "her brain works in PowerPoints," she accepted the challenge and penned a chapter in PowerPoint in her latest novel, The Candy House.
Egan doesn't just write; she brings a creative and innovative twist to the literary world. In Look At Me, she spins a satirical tale of a model who loses her beauty in a bizarre accident. At the same time, The Keep dives headfirst into a gothic adventure involving a haunting business venture. She's the Pulitzer Prize winner behind A Visit from the Goon Squad and the recipient of the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The Candy House made it to Barack Obama's Summer Reading List and became the star of Penn's Winter Reading Project in 2024. Her works have been impactful on media, with The Invisible Circus turned into a Cameron Diaz film and Look at Me becoming a National Book Award finalist.
But she isn't just a literary powerhouse—she's a social activist too. For eight years, Egan was the president of PEN America, a nonprofit that champions literature and human rights. She's not afraid to tackle the big issues, as seen in her recent New Yorker piece on homelessness.
During our talk in Fisher Bennett Hall, Egan seemed to be at home, which later on would be confirmed by her mention of the number of hours she spent there as a young English major. She received a warm welcome back from several professors and was genuinely delighted to be spending time with us, even on a cloudy and cold Tuesday afternoon.
She started by mentioning the significance of writing in her life. For her, writing is using language as a way to make the world meaningful, to impose meaning on a totally chaotic, difficult world. Egan stated that here at Penn, “the English Major was the perfect place to do that,” recalling her literary theory class about John Milton, and how literary critique “was when and how I fell in love with writing.” Being an English major and writing about books shaped her taste for fiction writing.
“When I moved to Penn is when I think I became the person I am today. It’s very meaningful to return,” she said. When asked about the anxieties and insecurities surrounding being an English major, Egan passionately answered, “Quiet the voices saying: What's next?” She followed, giving perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard and comforting all the English majors present, “If you can read, write, and think, and you have a degree from Penn, you can do everything you want.”
Many writers find it tough to admit that writing involves trial and error, but Egan openly acknowledges that "there are a lot of failures in all of my books." Despite her dislike of criticism, she recognizes it as "the only chance to do the best work I can." She also mentions how it's not just about writing; it's about sparking an intimate connection with the readers. Writing is like going on a date with the reader, she says. "I read for fun, and I want to be seduced into a book."
My fascination turned into excitement as Egan delved into the details of her upcoming English course. She was happily interrupted by her previous literature professor, Carla Locatelli, who urged students to take Egan’s spring lecture, "Writer in Residence: Jennifer Egan and the Art of Fiction." In Professor Locatelli's words, “Not many people can conjugate different complexities of skills—Jenny can do it.”
In her course, Egan will emphasize themes related to modern life, including communication technology, class and ethnicity in urban America, and the regulations surrounding female power and sexuality. For her syllabus, she says how she chose books that “would be fun yet maybe little known to the average undergraduate.” The class will be a mix of examining texts from both a cultural and craft perspective and encouraging students to respond through their own writing. Egan expressed her desire to incorporate workshop opportunities and personally read some of the students' work, fostering a hands–on learning experience.
As an English major myself, I was mesmerized by Egan’s words. Her charisma, her deep appreciation for Penn and her past mentors, and her vulnerability when discussing her creative process all combined to make her all–too–relatable. Egan's talk made me understand there's no one–size–fits–all journey to becoming a writer.
And no matter where my path leads, I'll always carry Penn with me.