by Daniel Green
I.The Educated General Reader
Among the lighter casualties of the great Internet crash must be counted the possibility of a cyber-based style of literary criticism offered up initially by such web publications as Salon, Slate, and Feed. Salon, for example, eventually stopped featuring on any consistent basis the reviews of serious literary fiction that at first seemed to distinguish this “zine” from others professing to bring a “literary” sensibility to the World Wide Web; Slate relatively quickly replaced book reviews per se with E-mail book chat of a sort unfortunately interesting mostly to the two correspondents engaged in the ongoing dialogue; and Feed no longer even exists, a state of affairs all too indicative of the larger failure of the Internet to deliver on the hyped-up promise so insistently claimed for it by its partisans. Perhaps cyberspace still has the potential to provide a kind of critical middle ground between the over-theorized and super-politicized current version of academic criticism and the superficiality of what remains of “popular” criticism, a few bytes left over for those willing to give serious literary commentary another try, but these initial attempts to measure out that potential do not seem particularly auspicious, to say the least.
That contemporary literature, not to mention criticism itself, would greatly benefit from the cultivation of this middle ground cannot be denied. As academic criticism becomes more and more closely joined to sociology, and literary journalism less and less distinguishable from coverage of fashion and celebrity, some setting in which a sustained and careful, but also lively and accessible criticism might be carried out could prove indispensable to the survival of literary criticism as an identifiable practice, and perhaps of serious literature as well. Salon especially seemed alert to the general absence of this sort of literary commentary and criticism and to the possibility that a sufficiently engaged and intelligent webzine could begin to compensate for this absence (the very name “salon” evoking the cultural romance of the celebrated literary gathering-place and its accompanying atmosphere of aesthetic discrimination). Although it also covered culture and politics more widely, arguably what made Salon immediately distinctive was that, for a while at least, it could be relied on for reasonably well-informed reviews of most significant new literary fiction.
Unfortunately, many of these reviews came to seem somewhat formulaic, marked by a sameness of tone and an artificial coating of attitude that has all too often come to characterize not only web discourse but also much nonacademic writing about literature and the arts. It is as if since the institutionalizing of “close reading” within the academy all literary criticism that features careful scrutiny and interpretation of text has been stigmatized as “academic” in the worst possible sense—that is, as pedantic—and tolerated only when undertaken by professors. (This reluctance to overly indulge in critical analysis is perhaps exacerbated by the purported influence of populist values in the Internet culture.) Thus, with occasional and notable exceptions, even the best of Salon-style criticism remains detached from the real literary qualities of the works under review, an opportunity not to examine the aesthetic claims a particular work might make on the reader, nor even to describe the actual experience of reading that work, but to write about whatever tangential issues—political, social, cultural—strike the reviewer’s fancy. Such issues are presumably of more interest to the “educated” readers logging on to Salon than the more frivolous pleasures afforded by the consideration of mere fiction. Although this approach does not necessarily preclude some attempt at evaluation, the measure of worth tends not to be related to the work’s literary merit so much as its value as another kind of consumer item: the book as lifestyle accessory.
Precisely this sort of assumption about the status of literature would seem to be the informing principle behind the creation of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, a print publication that ironically may be the most significant legacy of Salon’s brief encounter with contemporary American fiction. The book’s subtitle immediately signals that it shares with the webzine the same preference for attitude and hype over considered judgment: “An opinionated and irreverent look at the most fascinating writers of our time.” Regrettably, the alphabetically arranged brief entries discussing the work of selected contemporary fiction writers are generally much too sketchy to offer more than the most glibly stated and least convincingly supported opinions, usually no more than the crude thumbs up/thumbs down variety leavened by the occasional yes/but. The advertised “irreverence,” furthermore, too often takes the form of rather lame and labored jokes: “For all his time-travelling, his dream logic, his cinematic jump cuts, his erotic interludes, his postapocalyptic future worlds, Los Angeles novelist Steve Erickson is an old-fashioned guy.”
Users of this reader’s guide are most likely to wonder, however, at the assertion that the authors included herein are “the most fascinating” that could have been chosen. According to the book’s primary editor, Laura Miller, the criteria for inclusion were simply “our contributors’ enthusiasm and curiosity” about particular writers, a standard that ensures that as an authoritative reference source on current fiction, The Salon.com Reader’s Guide is from inception foreordained to disappoint. The additional claim that the contributors were asked to think of the guide’s reader as an “intelligent, interested friend” whose most penetrating query is “So tell me about ——. What are his books like?” only further guarantees that, given the restricted format imposed by the editors, the entries will rely heavily on plot summary and facile commentary. “What is reading X’s book like?” is a perfectly good question, especially if the critic is able to answer with suitable specificity. Apparently a more expansive form of critical writing would be too close to the “lofty, detached, authoritative approach to literature” that Miller wishes to avoid, and thus the book she has produced for the most part doesn’t even succeed in answering the question put by Miller’s intelligent friend, on whose behalf the project was by her own account supposedly undertaken.
But of course a popular reference book such as The Salon.com Reader’s Guide would never be able to really take this question seriously in the first place. To convey what reading a work of fiction is “like”—to describe the experience of reading it—would require both more critical elbowroom in which to do the job and more confidence in the value of exerting the critical effort needed than this particular volume allows. On the one hand, The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors embodies an admirable attempt to increase awareness of at least a selection of noteworthy contemporary writers. On the other, its inherent limitations, both unavoidable and assumed, make it more significant as an exercise in publicity than literary criticism.
One would expect that the more properly academic studies of contemporary fiction would at least avoid this particular hazard, however “lofty,” “detached,” or overly “authoritative” academic literary criticism might often be. Unfortunately, most of what goes by that name at the moment is, as Laura Miller quite rightly points out, “usually [not] about literature at all” and, if two recent surveys of late twentieth century American fiction are at all representative (and I believe they unquestionably are), academic criticism is engaged in its own kind of publicity campaign. Both Contemporary American Fiction: An Introduction to American Fiction since 1970 (Oxford, 2000) by Kenneth Millard and Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists (University of Kentucky, 2001) by Robert Rebein want to publicize certain kinds of writers and certain kinds of writing, but in doing so the authors have in effect marshaled these writers and their work on behalf of a cause propagated and promoted by the critics themselves.
Millard’s book has the more directly political agenda to promote, and in this effort it typifies academic criticism at the turn of the twenty-first century. Most revealingly, Millard states outright in his introduction that,
To represent late twentieth-century fiction of the United States in a single critical survey is a difficult proposition involving issues of selection which only beg more difficult questions about cultural and ideological choices. These are matters of politics because ultimately all aesthetic issues are political issues.
That “all aesthetic issues are political issues” has indeed become a commonplace notion in mainstream academic criticism, so commonplace that no doubt many people, among both critics and their readers, actually believe it. This formulation makes two distinct but related claims: the “aesthetic’ as achieved in particular works of art and literature is also political in that its value is up for grabs and can by those who grab it be used (as it has been, so goes the charge) to exclude the concerns of the less visible and less privileged classes; the aesthetic as a critical category is inescapably political, always employed by individual critics to favor one kind of practice over others, one culturally constructed view of the world and of the role of its various representations over numerous equally plausible alternative views.
But of course one might just as well say that all political issues are aesthetic issues. If value and valuation are inherently subjective, relative to context and bound to the preferences of those who invoke them, then one’s political choices and beliefs are every bit as much the product of individual taste and judgment as one’s aesthetic views. It would seem simple enough to concede that all such absolute assertions are equally empty, useful for advocating every worthy cause except the cause of literature, and to acknowledge that both the “political” and the “aesthetic” are categories of convenience we have created as a way of identifying specific human-created values and furthering human-centered goals. That aesthetic values are relative does not mean they do not exist, nor that we are barred from speaking of them, if we wish, entirely separate from the political considerations to which they might also be attached. However, to make such an acknowledgment would give the game away, would make Millard’s book seem the exercise in critical propaganda it actually is. For the author’s interest in contemporary fiction is manifestly contingent on his ability to pick and choose among the multiple and diverse examples of “American fiction since 1970″ those texts that lend themselves most efficaciously to the more important politically-motivated critical program his book exists to serve.
The tenor of this program is revealed both in the fiction Millard has chosen for his “survey” and in the organizational strategy of the book itself. The former include works many critics and scholars would admit into a provisional canon of postwar American fiction (Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Don DeLillo’s Underworld), several more that qualify as usual suspects in the multicultural curriculum (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Gish Jen’s Typical American), a few already “classic” feminist novels (Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres), and even a few surprisingly included examples of postmodernism or “metafiction” (Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy). But even the most formally challenging or stylistically audacious of these works are examined entirely in terms of theme and content, valued for their social critique or their capacity to be politically “subversive.” (The use of this word as a term of approbation by critics who think “subversion”—a word so mauled and abused by critics such as Millard as to lie now a stripped husk—to be the highest possible measure of merit has probably done more to diminish our understanding of the genuine possibilities of serious literature and to reduce the actual accomplishments of much contemporary fiction than almost any comparable effusion of critical eyewash.) The reader thus gets a hopelessly impoverished sense of what reading many of the works discussed is really like, which, unlike the mostly unavoidable failure of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to realize this goal, can only be explained as deliberate strategy. Since the primary audience for this book is the undergraduate student, it is patently a strategy designed to indoctrinate the unwary reader in the tendentious, constricted view of the aspirations of contemporary writers the book exemplifies.
This insistently polemical approach is most explicitly revealed in Millard’s method of sorting through his sample texts. Organized into chapters emphasizing subject and theme (“Family Values,” “Gender and History,” “Consumerism, Media, Tech-nology”), the book presents contemporary American fiction as earnestly “engaged” with the immediate social and political affairs of the era in which it is produced, and as remarkably attuned to the analysis of those affairs provided by academic critical theory and the approach to the study of literature that has come to be called cultural studies. “Russell Banks’s Affliction,” we are told, is “a novel that uses family as means of cultural analysis, and . . . examines how individual family members are informed by economic conditions, by the deterioration of a particular community, and by the corruption and collapse of the role of the father.” “The gender politics of [Bobbie Ann Mason’s] In Country is dedicated to finding a way for women to make a valuable intervention in historical discourse, one by which they can find personal fulfillment but also one which is culturally underwritten and historically sanctioned.” “[E. L. Doctorow’s] Ragtime examines the social and political consequences of changes in the forms of capitalism for the lives of ordinary Americans, and shows how exploitation of ‘the storehouse of technology’ was responsible for the material conditions of Americans at that historical moment.”
Statements such as these are the rule rather than the exception throughout Con-temporary American Fiction, and while some of them may even be accurate (Doctorow seems the sort of writer who might actually have intended to examine “the social and political consequences of changes in the forms of capitalism”), they otherwise amply illustrate the kind of “introduction” to contemporary fiction readers will get from this book. They will also get, perhaps unintentionally, a representative specimen of the prevailing form of academic literary analysis. “Cultural studies” as a mode of scholarly discourse has been common among British academics for several decades (Millard himself teaches at the University of Edinburgh), but it has been only in the last ten years or so that it has emerged from the detritus of the canon and cultural wars as the more or less undisputed source of orthodoxy in the English departments of American universities. Its dreary and anhedonic method of subjecting works of literature to nonliterary standards of moral purity and political utility has almost succeeded in reducing literature to mere artless rhetoric, literary criticism to occasions for sophisticated but completely ineffectual political posturing. Should Millard’s survey of American fiction since 1970 become a favored text in college courses on contemporary fiction, students will be presented with just such a view of the nature of literature and with an all too exemplary model of such anti-literary literary criticism.
Millard’s anti-literary agenda paradoxically enough does at least provide his book with an organizational scheme that is more satisfyingly “literary” than most scholarly books on contemporary literature, allowing him to avoid the usual mechanical arrangements by decade, by artificially designated “movements,” or through the exhaustive treatment of the entire careers of individual authors or selected small groups of authors. What he has written has a shape and a clarity of purpose that justify its existence as a book, something that is not always the case with book-length studies of literature. Robert Rebein’s Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists is in its own way as single-minded in its purpose as Contemporary American Fiction, but it is a single-mindedness so thoroughly motivated by the impulse to detect changes in literary and cultural fashion—as opposed to engaging in serious criticism of works of literature according to credible critical standards—that it becomes equally a form of simple-mindedness and results in a book so ill-conceived it cannot even call on the strengths of its author’s convictions.
Which is not to say that he has none. Rebein’s agenda is indicated clearly enough in his subtitle’s claim to the subject of “American Fiction After Postmodernism,” although it takes the book’s first chapter, also called “After Postmodernism,” to make it abundantly plain that Rebein’s overriding goal is to discredit “postmodernism” as thoroughly as possible. Like Dale Peck, who in the July 1, 2002 issue of The New Republic used an excoriating attack on the writing of Rick Moody to additionally condemn the entire tradition of “high canonical postmodernism” (defined very broadly to include Joyce and Faulkner as well as Barth and Pynchon), Rebein means to bring down the house that postmodernism built, once and for all. By “postmodern” Rebein has in mind essentially the same approach to fiction as Peck’s “tradition that has turned the construction of a novel into a purely formal exercise, judged either by the inscrutable floribundity of its prose or the lifeless carpentry of its parts,” a tradition Rebein believes should be repudiated in favor of the more appropriately American tradition of “realism.” “In the pages that immediately follow,” writes Rebein, “I want to . . . clear the air for a discussion of what I take to be the most significant development in late twentieth-century American literature—namely, the revitalization of realism, the renewed importance of the concept of place, and the expansion of our traditional ideas of authorship to include those who in the past would have appeared in our literature only as characters, and stereotypes at that.”
The last item in this announcement affirms one of the familiar tenets of academic multiculturalism/cultural studies, but in Rebein’s case this gesture is merely perfunctory, a genuflection before the altar of Inclusion. Although Rebein cites the work of some of “those who in the past,” etc., he does so primarily because these authors (e.g., Dorothy Allison, Louis Erdrich) provide examples of a revitalized realism emphasizing the “importance of the concept of place.” In short, Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists is a manifesto of sorts defending the practices of “late twentieth century” American fiction writers, among whom the author discerns a commonality of approach that deliberately rejects the now moribund postmodern aesthetic, to be replaced by that which the book promotes, the “next new thing” in American letters. This kind of trendspotting has unfortunately become a staple of academic writing about contemporary literature, stretching all the way back to the establishment of “contemporary literature” as a respectable (semirespectable) subject of academic scholarship. “Postmodern” American fiction, to be sure, itself profited from just such boosterism, and it was always inevitable that it would eventually suffer a backlash from those in need of a new movement on which to fasten. Academe, as I have said, does trade in its own kind of publicity.
Since postmodernism in fiction has been declared dead or dying for at least twenty years, however, Rebein is forced into some preliminary revisionism. The first post-postmodern movement to catch the fancy of readers and critics (mostly the latter) was what came to be called “minimalism,” a designation attached most conspicuously to the work of Raymond Carver, who probably remains its most highly regarded practitioner. Although minimalism seems notable first of all as precisely a return to more conventional narrative strategies and to the assumption that realism of character and place is an indispensable element of literary fiction, Rebein considers it too obviously a reaction to postmodernism rather than an outright repudiation. Minimalism’s self-imposed “minimalist” limitations—primarily of plot and style—amount, in this view, to an adaptation of realism to what might be termed a postmodern environment while implicitly continuing to call into question the suitability of traditional realism to the needs, present and future, of an artistically credible American fiction. Rebein included even Carver in his indictment, writing that although “Carver and the minimalists provided a much needed alternative route to that traveled by the postmodernists, . . . by limiting themselves to such a meager repertoire of techniques” they “too often lack both a coherent and compelling view of the world. . . .” “Read today,” he concludes, “the work often seems shallow and dated . . . a mere step toward better work to come.”
Although the fiction Rebein goes on to highlight as ‘better work” does not exhibit sufficiently similar characteristics to allow him to coin any single jazzy term to capture it, falling back instead on tags formulated by others (“Hick Chic,” “Dirty Realism”), it is a selection not much different from that presented by Millard. Chosen for reasons of literary rather than cultural politics, these novels and writers are again invoked for their superior “insights,” their portrayal of the right groups of people, and their correctness of attitude. Never mind that a reader of both of these books could easily enough conclude that current American fiction seems strangely anemic, averse to risk, completely incurious about the possibilities of formal invention except in the service of tediously familiar thematic obsessions: for Rebein, at least, late twentieth-century fiction brings realism back to its ill-used readers, and this makes it collectively worthy of celebration. And yet. Not only does Rebein fail to explain in a satisfactory way exactly why realism is preferable as a literary mode to other more experimental approaches, simply sharing the assumption with Millard, it would seem, that literature exists as a rhetorical device for scoring political points and providing other kinds of indirect commentary and that realism is the most direct and effective means of carrying out these tasks. Finally he doesn’t really seem to have much confidence in the relevancy of a renewed realism after all.
After endeavoring in his discussions of contemporary novels to elevate as a superior quality their “topicality,” Rebein in his conclusion develops some reservations on this issue. Is it enough for fiction to evoke ‘a particular location or place” and to be “of current interest, contemporary”? Couldn’t what is topical today be ‘shallow and dated” tomorrow? Might the writers Rebein most admires meet the fate of Wright Morris, a realist featured in Marcus Klein’s After Alienation (1965), a previous era’s version of Rebein’s own book, a writer now mostly forgotten? (Rebein cites this case specifically.) Rebein thinks not, but his final plea on behalf of the artistry of post-postmodern fiction is not very convincing. The characters in this fiction “seemingly come out of nowhere, but to follow their separate lives is to learn something new about human beings and their relationships with each other and the lands they inhabit.” But “new” really only amounts to “unfamiliar” in the examples Rebein cites—e.g. Vietnamese immigrants in Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent—and the unfamiliar will eventually seem recognizable enough. Amazingly, Rebein turns instead to formal/technical innovations and a general allusiveness as his benchmarks, both of them so closely associated with postmodernism one marvels he can tolerate the incongruity. Unfortunately the only real structural experimentation Rebein can locate among the writers he’s discussed is the emphasis “on the story collection as a unified work of art,” which even Rebein concedes is not all that innovative, with well-known antecedents in the work of writers like Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.
Most astonishingly, in a search for writers “of current interest” who also challenge formal and technical conventions, Rebein includes in his brief list, among others, David Foster Wallace, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin and Don DeLillo, all writers indisputably outside the tradition of realism and all arguably postmodern. One finishes Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists actually wondering if the handful of writers Rebein (and Peck) explicitly name as postmodernists are really so baneful an influence and so overwhelmingly a presence as he would have us believe. They are surely just available bogeymen for critics acting from their own various but convergently self-interested motives.
One might have thought that the transformation of literature into a subject of university study and of criticism into almost exclusively an academic project might have taken works of literature and literary criticism outside the arena of polemical disputation and partisan advocacy. Indeed, it is generally perceived that the New Criticism, which finally secured literary study as part of the academic curriculum, was essentially an attempt to perform this service, to remove literature from the realm of subjective, ill-informed judgments and make it the focus of an objective scrutiny sympathetic to the fundamental aesthetic intentions of poets and novelists. But the New Critics had a partisan agenda of their own—at the very least to discredit all conceptions of the nature of literature and the role of criticism other than their own, but even more significantly to endow their quasi-religious conception of Literature with the kind of enhanced status afforded by the then more exclusive academy. Further, their most destructive legacy has been, unfortunately, to have set into motion the very process of establishing/overturning a critical orthodoxy that has come to overshadow the actual study of literature in any really objective sense and that has resulted in books like those written by Millard and Rebein.
One might also assume that of all the books devoted to the informed consideration of contemporary fiction it would be the historical anthology that would provide the most accurate, impartial, and trustworthy guide to the overall practice of contemporary writers. However, given the self-perpetuating system of critical ax-grinding that is the natural outcome of a discipline-based professionalization of literary study, even the classroom anthology has to be approached with suspicion. For example, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction clearly shares the pro-realism/anti-postmodern bias of the Millard-Rebein school of criticism. The book presents itself as a selection of “North American stories since 1970″ (only two of the authors included are Canadian, however), but the vast majority of the stories are by writers who came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, only two by writers who could be considered postmodern (John Barth and Donald Barthelme), despite the fact that a case could be made that the high tide of American literary postmodernism occurred during the 1970s, a period the book claims to represent. Thus no one who wishes to know about the full range of American fiction over the past thirty years will be able to accomplish the task by consulting The Scribner Anthology. More importantly, students will be given a distorted if not entirely false picture both of American writing during this period and of the more general character of serious fiction over the whole span of the twentieth century.
Can anyone who bothers to honestly examine the direction twentieth-century fiction has taken maintain at all credibly that it has been toward a greater realism—at least the kind of earnest and attenuated realism Millard and Rebein seem to prefer? What writers from the earlier parts of the century who were committed to the kind of political contestation Millard wants to celebrate are now still widely esteemed, indeed, are even still read except by politicized academics? Students who took the thematically repetitive and formally reductive stories in The Scribner Anthology as indicative of the tendency to which English language fiction (but also continental European and Latin American fiction) reached a culmination in the last decades of the century would be making a lamentable error; apprentice writers who made this mistake would surely doom their own work to the same kind of obsolescence ultimately suffered by the Marxist writers of the 1930s, most of the political and protest writing emerging from the 1960s, and that will undoubtedly await most of the writers featured in this anthology. To the extent that it does represent the strongest current in post-60s American fiction (and I think it finally does not), The Scribner Anthology may be of interest to future scholars as an artifact of an artistically impoverished stretch of American literary history.
Such students would be better served should they encounter the Oxford University Press anthology American Short Stories Since 1945 (edited by John G. Parker), but unfortunately even this book, which makes some effort at being historically representative, still leaves the impression that American fiction has advanced toward its consummation in politically correct neorealism. Arranged into three chronologically sequenced sections, the book does include important postwar writers not to be found in Scribner—e.g. James Purdy, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, William H. Gass, T. C. Boyle—but nevertheless devotes more space to the third section (“1980s and 1990s: Centers and Margins”) than to the other two sections combined, and the section’s contents are virtually indistinguishable from those of The Scribner Anthology. It is certainly not the case that all of the selections in either of these anthologies are of dubious literary merit. Each include writers, even neorealist writers, whose work is well worth reading for perfectly good reasons, including aesthetic reasons: writers such as Mary Robison, Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Louise Erdrich, and John Edgar Wideman. But no one looking over the contents of these two books could convincingly deny that the criteria for inclusion have more to do with multicultural “coverage” and political acceptability than with manifest literary distinction.
A plausible argument could be made that an anthology of “contemporary” fiction—or even a fiction anthology in general—ought to highlight very recent work, both because such work often stands in particular need of the attention anthologies provide and because it has a fair claim to make as the currently appropriate measure of what is to be counted as “literature” in the first place. Indeed, I believe a compelling case could be made on Deweyan pragmatist grounds that only present work should be considered when determining what we mean in using the word “literature.” Regardless of what writers of the past believed themselves to be doing, and certainly regardless of what university professors want the term to designate, for works of literature to resonate with their readers they must do so according to currently understood standards and assumptions. (That these standards would be influenced by those passed down by previous readers and writers is of course both true and unavoidable.) Should these assumptions change, perhaps in response to changing practices among writers themselves, I can see no reason to object that “literature,” or that “serious” literature is really something else, something fixed in place by “tradition.”
Consequently, should the editors of classroom anthologies choose to reflect, or at least attempt to reflect, the current understanding of what gives works of fiction appropriate “literary” qualities, I can see no reason to deplore the effort per se. However, there is every reason to dispute these editors’ (as well as Millard’s and Rebein’s) perception of the most representative qualities shared by the best of recent American fiction. Certainly it is possible to dispute that the stories they have chosen represent the best this fiction has to offer. Despite the hostility to “postmodernism” that can be found in all of the books surveyed here, many notable writers have continued to explore the formal possibilities of fiction, to expand rather than contract its thematic concerns, to extend the efforts made by modernists and postmodernists alike to create works of fiction that are inventive, surprising, calling for and capable of eliciting an aesthetically complex response from readers unwilling to settle for the facile and the artless. There is neither the time nor the space to discuss specific writers or specific works in detail, but those who fit this description include Richard Powers, Steven Millhauser, A.M. Homes, Gilbert Sorrentino, Curtis White, Steve Stern, Kathryn Davis, Walter Abish, David Foster Wallace, Max Apple, and David Markson, all of whom have published most of their significant work since 1970 and all of whom receive little or no attention in the books I have here examined.
Why is the fiction of such writers ignored in these books? To include them would, of course, disrupt the agenda the authors and editors want to follow. But the impatience with the work of these writers, as well as that of Barth and Barthelme, Elkin, Gass, Gaddis, Hawkes, and Coover, goes much further and can only be explained as a symptom of the broader crisis in literary study and literary criticism each of the books under consideration only confirms. What is disparaged as “postmodern” is, in fact, fiction that seeks to build on the past, not return to it, that is engaged and forward-looking, but whose engagement is with the qualities of fiction that transform it into art and that looks forward to renewing and reaffirming the potential for writers so engaged to produce fresh forms of literary art in fiction’s future. One is led to believe by reading their work that writers of this fiction love literature and wish to discover all of its unexplored possibilities—the possibilities of writing itself—while one can only sadly conclude that Millard, Rebein, and company do not. The novels and stories they value serve their purposes, but those purposes have little to do with understanding, interpreting, or creating works of literature.
The various forms of a diminished and myopic realism featured in books like Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists and The Scribner Anthology have established themselves as neoorthodox techniques, I believe, because literary criticism, especially in its academic variety, has itself become diminished and myopic. The more adventurous practices of the writers I have named require a style of criticism sympathetic to the conception of literature at stake and attentive to the formal and stylistic exertions these practices involve, much like the way in which the New Criticism was alive to the aspirations of modernism. Such a criticism would encompass a reinvigorated commitment to the underlying principles of formalism, especially to the belief that the critic’s job is to take stock of what the text at hand actually does, without the accompanying disposition to allow these principles to harden into dogma. Above all, it would reject the notion that the most beneficial objective of this kind of critical attention is to enlist works of literature in one’s own political crusades. Neither of these developments is likely to occur within the disciplinary boundaries of academic criticism, sad to say. But perhaps literature—understood as the ongoing work of actually existing writers as well as those works of the past that still engage our interest—would itself benefit most if it were to be relinquished altogether by its academic schoolmasters, who now only serve to inflict their miseries behind the thick walls of their suffocating scholastic prisons.