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A Period of Transition
Since courses in "contemporary literature" became respectable additions to the university curriculum, the corresponding scholarly books on the subject have assumed a few recognizable forms, each of which have inevitable limitations for such books' survival as the kind of long-term contribution to "knowledge" academic scholarship is expected to provide. In this respect, the turn to theory in academic criticism has perhaps been beneficial to the study of contemporary literature, at least within the confines of academe itself, as it brings a stability and an established context to the study of writers who in most cases are still developing careers and whose work is thus subject to at best incomplete examination. For better or worse, academic criticism of contemporary fiction and poetry that endeavors primarily to survey or illuminate this work for its immediate literary value, or even for its broader cultural relevance, has provided only partial insights while risking the possibility of its own ultimate obsolescence.
A staple of all academic criticism is the single-author study, and such scholarly works on still-active writers have played a significant role in the "field" of contemporary literature. (Among other ways in which this field struggles against an unstable object of study is implicit in its very designation: Many of the writers on whom much of the early academic work on contemporary literature was focused are no longer contemporary, of course, and any subsequent criticism of their fiction (the book ultimately under scrutiny here examines fiction) will need to assign it to some other category, while newer writers become "contemporary.") The publication of a critical book surveying an author's extant body of work or exploring the author's habitual themes and methods generally signaled that the author in question had earned a place in the still-evolving canon of writers included on the syllabi of courses in contemporary fiction and thus deserved the extended treatment of a single-author volume. By now, such series as the Twayne U.S. Authors books and the "Understanding. . ." studies published by the University of South Carolina Press have made this sort of book much more commonplace, but in the development of academic criticism considering contemporary fiction it fulfilled an important function establishing an at least informal roster of writers worthy of academic attention.
Eventually the single-author monograph took on ambitions beyond providing an introduction or broad overview of its subject's work and began offering more "sophisticated" analyses of theme and aesthetic strategy and, with the rise of Theory, using the author's fiction as tests of a sort for the elaboration of theoretical perspectives or other external systems of thought. While this approach arguably does perhaps extend its own shelf-life for a somewhat longer time--until the theory in question begins losing its academic luster or otherwise no longer seems salient--its long-term value in illuminating the author's work becomes questionable, even if the theory itself retains some interest. Many of the books written about, for example, Thomas Pynchon, Don De Lillo, and Toni Morrison are so heavily inflected by theory, by extra-literary agendas in general, that it is difficult to imagine that future readers interested in deepening their understanding of these writers--as opposed to tracking the influence of such figures as Lyotard, Lacan, Baudrillard, or Gayatri Spivak on American academic criticism--will really have much use for them.
If single-author studies of contemporary writers threaten to become historical curiosities or episodes in the history of literary theory, another genre of critical book, the multi-text survey, aims for a more enduring utility it can only partially provide. Multi-text surveys actually come in several different sizes and varieties, ranging from the most all-inclusive historical surveys such as Frederick Karl's American Fictions 1940-1980to more focused surveys such as Steven Weisenburger's Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel 1930-1980 or Robert Rebein's Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. What they have in common is a kind of topographical ambition to lay out the land occupied by contemporary fiction, to create and preserve a map of the practices and accomplishments of "current" writers in such a way that something like "knowledge" results, although it is a knowledge of trends and movements more than of individual writers and their bodies of work. Whether the trends and movements deemed significant upon the publication of these books will still be perceived as such when the currency of the analysis no longer obtains is of course uncertain, even if the more ambitious of such books seek to influence, even fix, future perceptions of what counts as important in this era of literary history. Certainly the more perspicacious of the multi-text surveys may still retain value for readers interested in a synoptic view of that era, to which all critical and historical accounts would contribute, but only the passage of time is going to allow some degree of settled judgment about the relative importance of the various practices that for now remain unavoidably contingent.
Some of these surveys take an approach that perhaps potentially reduces such contingency, but in assuming the form they do they risk becoming less studies of fiction per se and more examinations of social forces or cultural expressions. Coming with such titles as Insanity and Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction, Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction, and Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk, these books treat a selection of contemporary fiction thematically, through the application of a framing concept, generally of the author's own devising. The framing concept is advanced as offering a special insight into the nature of the subject texts, both individually and when considered in relation to one another. In most cases, such books avoid making overarching claims to capturing the essence of these texts, what makes them individually unique. At their best, they offer a perspective on the selected texts that can be considered alongside others and in that way help to demonstrate that those so considered are works that reward sustained attention.
Joseph M. Conte's Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fictionbelongs within this line of conceptual criticism. It is one of the numerous studies of American postmodern fiction that attempts to account for the postmodern in fiction by focusing on a particular formal quality or philosophical orientation that further specifies what makes a "postmodern" text distinctive beyond the vaguely radical connotation generally associated with the term. In this book Conte proposes a dual impulse in certain postmodern texts, toward on the one hand the disintegration of presumed order, both in the world and as the world is represented in fiction, and on the other toward the cultivation of an emergent order out of the disorder these texts faithfully render. "Design" is thus as much a defining feature of postmodern fiction as the "debris" of contemporary life this fiction must also acknowledge.
Postmodernism has proven to be probably the most examined phenomenon in postwar American fiction. Not only were postmodern authors and practices ("postmodern" as we now retrospectively apply the term, at least) more or less at the center of scholarly interest in contemporary fiction for the first decade or so after its acceptance as an academic field of study, but even now, more than four decades after its emergence as literature's contribution to the "radical" cultural movements of the 1960s, postmodernism continues to engage the interest of academic critics. While some such critics are more interested in postmodernism as a cultural orientation than specifically as an approach to the writing of fiction, Comte belongs among those who have attempted to delineate the radicalism of postmodern fiction in its departure from conventional modes of representation and its concomitant intensification of modernist formal experiment by examining the radical literary strategies at work in postmodern texts.
Comte focuses on both what must now be called canonical postmodernist novels such as De Lillo's White Noise, Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, as well as less-discussed works such as John Hawkes's Travesty, Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless, and Gilbert Sorrentino's Pack of Lies. Travesty is Comte's first and most compelling example in fleshing out his claim ("design and debris," in fact, is a phrase taken from this novel), and it is one of his book's chief virtues that it brings this welcome attention to Hawkes, whose work may represent, in such books as The Beetle Leg, The Goose on the Grave, and The Lime Twig, the earliest appearance of what would later be characterized as postmodernism and whose body of work as a whole stands as one of the greatest achievements in postwar American fiction. He has become an unduly neglected figure in the consideration of literary postmodernism, and Comte's discussion of Travesty demonstrates Hawkes's centrality to this phenomenon.
According to Comte, "As a postmodern novelist, Hawkes does not shrink before the proposition of 'unmaking' or decreative force; he extols the complementarity of the two terms; and finally, he proposes the existence of an orderly disorder." Travesty "illustrates the tenuousness of authoritarian control as it slips into madness, the fragility of pattern as it dissolves into irregularity; and it proposes the revelation of some hidden order in the scatter of random occurrences, some more profound design within the welter of chaos" (42). This seems an accurate description of the thematic burden of Travesty, although the extent to which the "design and debris" strategy informs the novel's own formal design is not really explored very fully. One could argue that Hawkes's dictum that he began to write fiction "on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme" committed him to a design and debris aesthetic by which Hawkes reconstituted fiction from the shards of convention through what he called "totality of vision or structure." Unfortunately, Comte confines his discussion of design and debris to the thematic exposition of its salience as revealed in the "design" of its main character, who is driving a car hurtling at high speed toward an inevitable crash, and who discusses his intentions with his captive passengers. From Comte's analysis, one might conclude that Travesty's narrative manifests "design and debris" allegorically, but not that Hawkes has fundamentally altered the formal assumptions of fiction in a way that is distinctively "postmodern."
If critical examination of postmodern fiction has in general exhibited a bias that distorts our perception of postmodern, experimental fiction and prevents full appreciation of its expressed qualities, it would be a bias toward the thematic, broadly philosophical implications that can be drawn from it. Most academic critics of postmodern fiction celebrate its antifoundational or "subversive" qualities, its capacity to incorporate cutting-edge critical theories and new ideas in science or epistemology, but rarely do they attend predominantly to the purely aesthetic consequences of postmodernism's various dismantlings of narrative convention. While the debris of inherited form lies in the wake of postmodern strategies, "design" is also an ultimate product of those strategies. Form is not discarded--putting aside the question of whether any work of fiction could be truly formless--but instead made more elastic, often through highlighting "form" as a specific issue of concern within the text itself. The real legacy of American postmodern fiction will be a demonstrable expansion of the the range of possible formal variations of which fiction is capable beyond even the initial expansion of those possibilities achieved by the modernists, and more analyses of how a writer such as John Hawkes contributed to this legacy are needed.
The fiction of Kathy Acker also seems especially illustrative of a postmodern strategy of design and debris, and Comte does examine Empire of the Senselessin the context of its radical formal iconoclasm. As Comte notes, "Acker can be expected to disregard the traditional rules of fiction" (56). Her work employs discontinuity, collage and parody in a way that makes it an exemplar of Hawkes's dismissal of "the true enemies of fiction" almost as provocative as Hawkes's own; in some instances it is even more thoroughgoing in its rejection of narrative coherence. Unfortunately, Comte chooses to put most of his emphasis on the way Acker's iconoclasm serves an ulterior political purpose, insisting that "the scumbling of levels of discourse in the novel reflects Acker's anarchistic methodology, undermining the reader's presuppositions of dominant-intellectual and subordinate-proletarian cultural positions" (59). It is hard to deny that Kathy Acker included among her ambitions the desire to upend the "patriarchal order," but to whatever extent her fiction attracts future readers it will be because of its "anarchistic" formal energies, not its analysis of "cultural positions."
That Acker may have been motivated to create her unconventional texts at least in part by the belief they might implicitly undermine class and gender constructions does not ultimately determine how their formal/aesthetic effects will be perceived. As in his discussion of Hawkes, Comte is ultimately more interested in Acker's thematic treatment of "design and debris," concluding that "Acker finds that even in thew domain of anarchy--in nomadic space, after the disruption of the state apparatus, where women ride motorcycles--there must be discipline present" (74). But the real "discipline" Acker brings to her fiction is in the alternate "order" she provides despite the apparent anarchy of her means. Only if, in fact, readers catch on to the design of a work like Empire of the Senseless--unorthodox but nevertheless present--will such a work continue to find its readers. Comte identifies this design as rising from a conceptualism by which "methodology is directly supportive of the concept" animating it, but it is the way in which the reader can discern the relationship between methodology and concept that ultimately gives Acker's fiction its literary interest. Acker's particular application of conceptualism to fiction is what future readers are likely to find compelling about it, while the concept itself will likely come to seem rather reduced in its power to provoke.
Comte does a much more adequate job of accounting for the formally challenging postmodernism of Gilbert Sorrentino, Harry Mathews, and John Barth, writers Comte identifies as "proceduralists" who "invent forms without knowing the precise manner of text that will be generated" (76). Such works embody design and debris by revealing "an immanent design within their apparently chaotic distribution of materials." The designation "proceduralist" seems most immediately and most accurately applicable to Mathews's fiction, since his association with the Oulipo is well-known and since the Oulipian credo specifically calls for the use of rules and formal constraints in creating literary texts. "Procedural" seems less obviously descriptive of the fiction of Barth and Sorrentino, and Comte usefully examines the way Barth uses "arabesque" in his novel The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor(and implicitly in other of his books) to create "nested frames" which provide a "recursive symmetry" that organizes the narrative, as well as the way Sorrentino in his Pack of Liestrilogy employs a complex patterning of constraints, some perhaps fully apparent only to Sorrentino, to give the novels a unity that is not conventionally serial. Comte's concluding remarks about Sorrentino aptly capture an essential element of this writer's work:
Sorrentino's conviction that structure can generate content in his fiction relies upon the reciprocal influence between author and text. The author invents the structure of the work, but that structure compels his performance in ways that he had not anticipated. (110-111)
If Comte's discussions of Barth and Sorrentino illuminate qualities of their work that have not previously been as clearly identified, his chapters on White Noise, The Universal Baseball Association and Gravity's Rainbow to some extent retrack old ground in the critical consideration of these novels. Comte uses information theory, systems theory, complexity theory, and the ideas of the mathematician Benoir Mandelbrot to map the design and debris strategy at work in these iconic postmodern texts, and while the readings that result seem perfectly cogent in elucidating that strategy, nothing very fresh is really added to the commentary on the novels themselves beyond what has already been offered in the voluminous existing criticism of them. At best they demonstrate that such works readily lend themselves to a critical approach that is itself "postmodern" in its assumptions and its resources, although in my view their complexity is less a consequence of their concordance with the more abstruse levels of postmodern theory than their capacity to stand up to critical and interpretive scrutiny from a multitude of perspectives and still seem not exhausted in their potential to reveal meaning and provide for a bracing reading experience.
A final chapter attempts to bring the study of postmodern fiction into the digital era, announcing that "The paradigm shift from print to digital culture should be acknowledged as a defining aspect of postmodernism" (193). Containing relatively brief analyses of the work of William Gibson, Richard Powers, and De Lillo's Underworld as examples of fiction that "though bound to the present order. . .is provocatively enhanced by an engagement with the terms and conditions of the information age," (199), it essentially reaffirms the accomplishments of the "print order," at least in the form of postmodern fiction, which "offers certain palliatives for. . .symptoms of technological neurasthenia." For Comte
Finally, postmodern fiction offers relief for the "pixelated," those viewers stunned into anomie by the bombardment of pixels--the smallest image-forming units of the video display. It turns out that print on paper still has the capacity to evoke images and ideas as compelling as any we might encounter in the flicker of a screen.
It seems to me that here Comte has stretched the "postmodern" to the limits of its utility as a critical concept. If the "paradigm shift" ushering in digital culture is a "defining aspect of postmodernism," why should it not require the postmodern critic's unhesitating embrace? If Comte is right that what he calls "electronic composition" has not yet produced its "masterly" author, then doesn't this shift mark a break, a period of transition between postmodernism and a new dispensation that will embrace the dominance of the digital? Surely "postmodern" cannot continue to be the designation of choice for describing all literary or philosophical projects that show the world to be more complex, beliefs about it more necessarily relative, than we once imagined. Nor can it indefinitely remain essentially a synonym for "unconventional" or "experimental." Unconventional writers might be motivated simply by the desire to try out alternative strategies, not to seek out those that are already acceptably postmodern as critics and theorists have defined the strategy.
It may be that academic criticism will turn to electronic forms as the subject of "advanced" analysis. This would certainly be more in keeping with the direction academic criticism has taken in the last twenty-five years: away from the consideration of works of literature as a self-sufficient task and toward approaches that enhance the role of academic criticism itself. In the study of contemporary fiction this would mean less emphasis on identifying and examining the most significant writers and works and more or on the cultural and cognitive implications of the electronic medium itself. Literary study, or at least that branch of it devoted to the contemporary, could merge with media study. If present and future writers are to be provided with the same sort of critical attention that has been accorded to the postmodernists, it will probably be necessary that literary criticism be rejuvenated in a form free of institutional requirements. It will require critics once again interested first of all in literature and not in the status of their own critical projects or the interrogation of trends in culture as a whole.
In his memoir Keeping Literary Company, Jerome Klinkowitz, who became not long after the events described one of the best-known advocates of “contemporary” fiction, describes his graduate school experience:
At school [Marquette University] I was making my way dutifully through seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, with other courses on Victorian prose writers, modern British poets, and the like. Not until my last semester did I add a couple classes [sic] in American literature, and then turned back to British poetry. . .The twentieth-century novel course I took ended with Hemingway from the 1920s and works by Faulkner and Fitzgerald from the 1930s. (6)
Having at the same time acquired an enthusiasm for the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Klinkowitz further recalls
[that] I stayed with Vonnegut through all this showed both that I could read out of class and that novels like Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, which I bought as they came back into print, were a world apart from what Marquette taught us was the tradition” (6).
The year in which Klinkowitz is “at school” and engaged in such earnest study of the tradition is 1966, and although it is not exactly surprising to learn that the curriculum to which he was exposed at that time was still so very conservative, for those of us who now think of “contemporary literature” as a flourishing and more or less respectable field of academic study, to be reminded that even in the period most associated with cultural upheaval and literary innovation current writing could not be considered “literature” at all nevertheless might make us pause. At a time when cultural studies, an approach that welcomes not only contemporary literature but all forms of popular culture as well, has become the dominant mode of scholarly analysis in literary study, it might seem especially difficult to countenance a graduate program so hopelessly hidebound as to regard otherwise serious works of fiction or poetry beyond the pale because not sufficiently aged. But Klinkowitz’s account of his subsequent attempts as a professor himself to bring contemporary American fiction—or at least his favored contemporary writers—into the college classroom implicitly reveals how Klinkowitz’s efforts, like those of other “radical young Ph.Ds” who also sought to open up the literature curriculum in the 1960s and 1970s (13), was in its way as conservative a project as that undertaken by Klinkowitz’s professors in creating that curriculum in the first place.
Perhaps the most curious comment in the passages I’ve quoted is Klinkowitz’s affirmation that in maintaining his interest in Vonnegut he “showed. . .that I could read out of class.” Most likely this is simply a loose way of emphasizing the reading demands in class of a graduate literary education, but nevertheless Klinkowitz also draws attention to the fact that in 1966 a graduate student in English would be unable to read novels such as those he lists while “at school.” And, more than anything else, this initial chapter of Keeping Literary Company is a chronicle of Klinkowitz’s success in securing the literature course, as well as literary scholarship, as a suitable dwelling-place for contemporary fiction—to make it acceptable in “school.” By 1969 he has taken a position at Northern Illinois University, where, he writes, “the department was alive with dialogue and debate, especially among the younger crowd who felt so excluded and estranged from the fat-cat professoriate that by virtue of their seniority ran the place. As opposed to these elders, whose taste was settled and whose curriculum was virtually petrified, we assistant professors and instructors were not only reading new works but were struggling to incorporate them in both our value system and our teaching” (13). One would not unfairly conclude from Klinkowitz’s framing of the scene in which his memoir will unfold that the “literary company” he wants to keep is that of the canon of writers deemed worthy of study in the academic curricula of universities.
Klinkowitz is exemplary in describing the process by which many other like-minded critics and scholars helped to make “contemporary literature” a respectable area of academic literary study. What I hope to show in an analysis of some of the more significant works of academic criticism that emerged from and helped to direct and determine this process is that what was presented as a critical advocacy of contemporary writers and an argument for the superior and distinctive qualities of contemporary literature—especially fiction—would be more accurately described as an effort to enhance the status of current writing by calling on the prestige and authority of the academy. These are decidedly distinct endeavors, and the predominance of the second has had, I will also maintain, several important and related effects. It has, most significantly, aggrandized the academy rather than contemporary writing itself, expanding its prerogatives to include becoming de facto arbiter of critical opinion about the merits and the direction of contemporary literature, a development the further unfortunate consequence of which has been that literary criticism outside the purview of academe has virtually ceased to exist. It has distorted criticism of all kinds, but especially criticism of recent fiction and poetry, by erasing distinctions between criticism per se and the historical, theoretical, and political projects to which it has increasingly and inevitably become subordinate. And, along with the parallel burgeoning of university-based creative writing programs, the successful establishment of contemporary literature as an academic field of study has in turn failed both to cultivate a more informed audience for contemporary writing and to foster in any credible or consistent way a more fertile critical environment in which such writing could take place. It could be argued, in fact, that the increasingly close association between the academy and contemporary literature has turned out for the latter to be more detrimental than not.
Klinkowitz’s own professed enthusiasms point to an implicit conflict of priorities that, upon reflection, would seem likely to make this association an uneasy one, if not unavoidably to produce the kind of results I have just described. Not all “new” and “experimental” writers were equally welcome on Klinkowitz’s pathbreaking syllabus. John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, for example, are dismissed—along with modernism in general—for their “philosophic intricacies and intellectual pyrotechnics,” their “obfuscation and soul-killing technicalism” (7). Clearly Klinkowitz finds these writers too “academic” in comparison with Vonnegut, Terry Southern, and Ken Kesey, whose books he is most eager to bring to his students’ attention. It is, then, at the very least unclear why he found it necessary to engage in such a struggle to bring the study of these writers into the academic curriculum, where almost unavoidably even the more technically transparent satirical and Beat-oriented fiction he wanted to champion would be subject to a kind of critical scrutiny that would itself be hard-pressed to avoid “philosophic intricacies” and “intellectual pyrotechnics.” (Klinkowitz’s own account of how he came to understand what Vonnegut was really up to in Mother Night is, in fact, impressively intricate.) One might even conclude that there is a palpable incoherence built into the project of securing the approval of the institution of academic literary study for fiction that advertises itself as unconventional and “disruptive.”
To some extent, of course, contemporary fiction (understood as fiction published since World War II by writers not already known from the prewar period) was, even during Klinkowitz’s time as a graduate student, not altogether absent from the university curriculum or from academic discussion. Klinkowitz received his own Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin, where the English department was known for its receptivity to the study of contemporary writing, including its publication of the journal Contemporary Literature (Klinkowitz 6). Tony Tanner points out in a prefatory note to City of Words, published in 1971, that this book’s origins lay in a number of seminars on contemporary literature held in several different American universities. But if one is to judge from the first few important academic studies of contemporary fiction (including City of Words), most such consideration of contemporary writers was done within the disciplinary domain of existing fields of academic study, most often as a further development in “modern’ literature broadly conceived or, especially, as part of the relatively new fields of American Literature and its close cousin, American Studies.
The influence of all of these scholarly “areas” can be seen in the first two widely-cited scholarly studies of postwar American fiction, Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence (1961) and Marcus Klein’s After Alienation (1965). More so than the sedate and airless seminars on “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. . .and the like,” the kind of high-minded but intellectually less inhibited critical study represented by these two books was the earliest prevailing model of the scholarly analysis of postwar American fiction by which, and against which, contemporary literature would become the object of serious academic examination, and ultimately not just an acceptable if isolated course offered by the English department but itself an area of duly organized literary study in which one could ultimately become a certified “specialist.” By no means musty and pedantic, bound to no obvious critical orthodoxy, both books enthusiastically embrace contemporary writing and attempt to explicate then-recent fiction, as well as enliven their own examination of this fiction, by placing it very much within the main currents of the literary, historical, and intellectual developments of the mid-twentieth century.
Which is not to say they are not thoroughly “academic” in both intent and effect. Considering that if there was a reigning critical orthodoxy at the time these books were written it was New Critical formalism, one might expect them to show the influence of this method, but their origin in academic discourse and assumptions is to be seen in other ways. Both books are interested not in the close reading of text, nor even really in describing the specifically aesthetic qualities of the fiction they survey at all, but in classifying and categorizing, in isolating the thematic and structural features of these works that help Hassan and Klein compose a broader treatise on American literature as a whole, on modern intellectual history, on postwar American culture. Both are thesis-driven books—in each case, the thesis encapsulated in the book’s title—that seek to capture their cultural moment or identify a “certain tendency” in current practice, in effect to stay ahead of the literary curve, able to take the comprehensive view unavailable even to the writers whose practices are at issue. In so doing, these books proved to be the scholarly model for many academic studies of contemporary fiction to follow, which together could be taken as a kind of serial attempt to find the highest ground from which to scan the literary horizon. Indeed, this sort of well-positioned survey of current fiction would become arguably the most ambitious kind of scholarly book produced by the academic critics duly charged with the professional scrutiny of contemporary literature.
Considering that if there was a reigning critical orthodoxy at the time [Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence and Marcus Klein’s After Alienation] were written it was New Critical formalism, one might expect them to show the influence of this method, but their origin in academic discourse and assumptions is to be seen in other ways. Both books are interested not in the close reading of text, nor even really in describing the specifically aesthetic qualities of the fiction they survey at all, but in classifying and categorizing, in isolating the thematic and structural features of these works that help Hassan and Klein compose a broader treatise on American literature as a whole, on modern intellectual history, on postwar American culture. Both are thesis-driven books—in each case, the thesis encapsulated in the book’s title—that seek to capture their cultural moment or identify a “certain tendency” in current practice, in effect to stay ahead of the literary curve, able to take the comprehensive view unavailable even to the writers whose practices are at issue. In so doing, these books proved to be the scholarly model for many academic studies of contemporary fiction to follow, which together could be taken as a kind of serial attempt to find the highest ground from which to scan the literary horizon. Indeed, this sort of well-positioned survey of current fiction would become arguably the most ambitious kind of scholarly book produced by the academic critics duly charged with the professional scrutiny of contemporary literature.
In Hassan’s case, the abstracted conceptual marker is that of radical innocence, a characteristic of the “new hero” of postwar fiction, who “brings the brilliant extremities of the American conscience and imagination to bear on the equable tenor of our present culture” (6). Using this encompassing idea, Hassan makes his way through selected postwar novels, showing how in all of them “the disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation” (7). That Hassan has much bigger game than present-day novels and novelists in his sights is further evidenced just in the titles of some of his chapters: “The Modern Self in Recoil”; “The Dialectic of Initiation in America.” Although Hassan’s readings (generally brief) of particular novels and stories can certainly be insightful, and in some cases remain useful critical references for readers interested in writers Hassan discusses (the reading of Salinger, for example, which benefits in an unforeseen way from the truncated nature of his career), as a whole the book is necessarily constrained by the author’s need to fit notable postwar fiction inside the critical framework he has erected. The notion that the protagonists of the various fictions he surveys are to one degree or another marked by a “radical innocence” remains a cogent enough formulation, applicable to a significant number of American novels—not only postwar novels—but it seems unlikely that Hassan was persuaded by its cogency only after a disinterested sampling of all of the diverse kinds of fiction produced by American writers after World War II. Such a sampling would be less dramatic in its pronouncements than Radical Innocence, to be sure, and would perhaps at best result in a rambling style of discussion such as that to be found in Frederick Karl’s encyclopedic American Fictions 1940-1980. The more learned analysis of Radical Innocence certainly allows for the kind of elevated commentary that might be thought appropriate for the critic who is also a professional academic.
Many of the writers on whom Hassan focuses his attention have continued to be regarded as important postwar American writers (many of their books, at any rate, continue to be read, or least continue to be in print). A few of them, such as Jean Stafford and Frederick Buechner, are no longer very frequently discussed, a few others, such as Robie Macauley and Harvey Swados, have almost entirely faded from critical view. By and large, however, one could construct a credible syllabus for a course on American fiction of the 1950s and 1960s using those writers whose works Hassan gives the most extensive consideration: William Styron, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Salinger, Saul Bellow. Indeed, any truly comprehensive survey of American fiction in the second half of the twentieth century would readily include any or all of these writers. Radical Innocence was a considerably influential book, for many years after credited as the first general study of contemporary fiction, which inevitably leads to the question of the book’s own role in producing a consensus view of what writers really matter, in helping to determine what might be called a provisional canon of academically sanctioned contemporary writing. Was it simply obvious in 1961 that these would be the important writers of the immediate postwar period? Was Ihab Hassan especially discerning in being able to point them out? To what extent were succeeding scholars, instructors, and students persuaded by Hassan’s analysis, perhaps reinforced by other, subsequent, scholarly books and articles, enough to invest it with the authority to establish appropriate standards for this provisional canon?
Moreover, to what extent can it be said that the touchstone provided by Hassan’s book (Klein’s as well) served to initiate a process whereby “criticism” as an ongoing activity of weighing the merits of current work was brought completely within the confines of the literary academy? During the 1950s and at least partly through the 1960s there were still literary critics who worked independently of university English departments, producing intellectually respectable, albeit by today’s standards excessively “belletristic” literary criticism. With the advent of academic criticism of the sort Radical Innocence portends, such “popular” criticism begins its decline into the superficial book reviewing and book chat it essentially, with exceptions, has become. With the further transformation of text-based academic criticism into theory and cultural studies, an unforeseen consequence of the triumph of “contemporary literature” in the academy is now that very little of what previously counted as literary criticism is even published at all. Certainly Ihab Hassan could not have fully anticipated such a development, but one could argue that implicit in the project of shifting literary criticism to the academy is the possibility that it will be subject to variations in the prevailing academic paradigm.
Reading Radical Innocence today, however, one can’t help but be struck by how inexactly it appears to fit any single academic paradigm. Influenced by American studies, incorporating elements of existential philosophy, myth criticism, and cultural anthropology, but not identical with any of these, it is, as I have already stressed, still a notable book in part because it helped to create a place for the study of contemporary literature, in effect to build a new paradigm suitable for academic discussion of current writing. Yet if it does not conform to any particular version of the then sanctioned scholarly methodology, it might not either be regarded by today’s academic readers as altogether “scholarly” in its presentation, at least according to presently preferred procedures and standards of decorum. Chapter 4, “The Victim with a Thousand Faces,” begins:
History in the West seems to be consumed before it is made. The modern age belongs already to the past, the contemporary period yields to the immediate present, and the present in America fades in pursuit of an uncreated future. Obsolescence is the tribute we pay to our faith in perfectibility. And yet we continue to wonder about the internal logic, the unheard voice and the impalpable fatality, of the moment in which we live. (61)
The degree here of undocumented assertion, of outright, naked pronouncement, would probably not easily be accepted in the now prevailing cooler climate of scholarly discourse (however heated the underlying issues). But ultimately such prose, characteristic of the book, although not exclusively so, is not so much insufficiently academic—judged by complexity of thought rather than an established orientation to subject or style—as it is only the most obvious indication that Hassan’s overriding purpose in Radical Innocence is to express his own vision of the “modern condition,” contemporary fiction offering him the most immediately salient representations of this condition.
That much postwar American fiction does conveniently illustrate Hassan’s thesis is undeniably true, but it is also true that something like “radical innocence” is a character trait deeply rooted in American literary history and that it many ways it is not surprising this trait would reemerge with particular color and urgency in the years not simply following on World War II but also marking the beginnings of the Cold War. This is not so much a criticism of Hassan for a lack of originality or a willingness to rely on critical conventional wisdom as a more general point about the kind of stock-taking, multi-author study Radical Innocence represents. Any genuinely penetrating analysis of works of literature requires attention to particulars, if not exhaustive treatment of a particular work then careful consideration of any given work in the context of its author’s other works, at the least an assessment of the concrete effects of such tangible matters as, say, genre, or unmistakable anxieties of influence. Books that, following Radical Innocence, seek to in effect disclose the essence of contemporary writing or identify the truly significant contemporary writers, however much they may capture some relevant feature of recent literary fiction inevitably miss the many other more immediately “existential” features one actually encounters in reading individual works of fiction in favor of academic abstraction.
No more than Hassan is Marcus Klein in After Alienation much concerned with the aesthetic particulars of the works he examines, although he does discuss his five authors in more detail and across the full range of their at the time published fiction. He asserts quite explicitly, in fact, that “[t[he something new in these writers. . .is to be defined historically. . .in terms of the relevance of these writers [Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Wright Morris, Bernard Malamud] to the age.” Their importance “does not reside in any formal inventions or in any preferences of technique.” Rather, their fiction, “for all that it tends away from explicitly social subjects, is shaped by the social and political pressures of an age that is the most desperate in all history” (294). The hyperbole here is especially striking, since Klein’s enunciated thesis is that what makes his chosen writers “relevant to the age” is, presumably in response to the “social and political pressures” that under the circumstances could only be overwhelming, their work represents an “accommodation” to the realities of modern life, an “adjustment to the social fact” (29) in contrast to the typically modernist attitude of “alienation.” To adjust to the social facts of “an age that is the most desperate in all history” would seem a literary feat of remarkable rhetorical skill indeed.
Nevertheless, it is just such a determination to avoid the moral evasions of alienation that Klein locates in the work of Bellow et. al. For if Hassan draws on more eclectic sources of critical analysis, Klein seems a more straightforward moral critic of the kind perhaps most prominently represented in the postwar era by the New York intellectuals. These critics, associated in particular with the publications Commentary and Partisan Review, were indeed notable for the serious attention they gave to the work of current writers, and, initially at least, were mostly unaffiliated with university literary study. But by the mid 1960s not only were a number of the more prominent New York intellectuals (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) increasingly moving into university-sponsored positions, but younger critics in part inspired by them were also entering the university as bona fide academics. Klein, who received his Ph.D from the Columbia University English department of Lionel Trilling and Richard Chase, seems clearly to be writing from within the ambit of the New York critics and their focus on the social and cultural efficacy of literature, and his book represents both the exhaustion of Partisan Review-style criticism as an independent critical movement and its assimilation into the broader authority of academic literary study, as well as a kind of final capitulation to that authority about which even someone as thoroughly ensconced in academe as Trilling had expressed reservations (Leitch 109-14).
It is also a material example of the rightward political drift of the New York school as whole by the mid 60s, in this case manifested not so much in the neoconservative political views to which many of the original New York intellectuals became increasingly inclined but in Klein’s outright disdain for the legacy of modernism, or at least the American version of this legacy, which he reduces to the assumed attitude of “alienation.” The New York critics are remembered largely as the expositors of modernism, champions of modernist complexity, although their enthusiasm for modernist writing was allied with a belief in its political potential. Klein continues this preoccupation with “social engagement”—“Social engagement,” he writes at one point, “is the meaning of accommodation” (26)—but the social/cultural significance Klein discerns in the fiction he singles out in his book is of a decidedly moderate if not utterly conformist character. In isolating those qualities of this fiction that allow him to argue it shows an accommodation to the social realities of postwar America one could also say that Klein robs it of its capacity to do anything other than affirm, and in so doing take its orderly place in Klein’s own accommodationist Cold War sociology.
That Klein would prove to be wildly wrong about, at the very least, the endurance of this move toward accommodation among American writers—even as Klein was publishing his book an intensely iconoclastic and unaccommodating strain of comic and experimental fiction was beginning to appear and would eventually come to seem the most significant development in postwar American fiction—and even arguably exaggerated the degree of accommodation expressed in, especially, Ellison, Baldwin, and Malamud is not the most important point to be made about After Alienation, however, although it does insure that few people would want to read it now aside from its historical interest. But it does have historical interest as the prototype for the academic survey in which contemporary literature provides a useful tool for sounding out fluctuations in the cultural atmosphere, however much the writing itself stands in as notional subject. The book further offers a compelling illustration that an interest in literature as political instrument or as the means for “cultural criticism,” no matter how “radical” its origins or “engaged” with the social and moral issues to which literature affords a point of access, is ultimately fully consonant with an academic criticism that likewise exploits the cultural standing of literature as a way of elevating its own discursively distinct project. In both cases, moreover, the aesthetic import of work not yet fully assimilated into even the most expansively defined literary “canon” is not merely ignored but implicitly judged not to be the concern of criticism at all.
If anything, After Alienation is even less interested in aesthetic analysis than Radical Innocence. Klein’s chapters consist mainly of a series of plot synopses and cursory explications that keep the writer focused on the book’s thesis that the important American writers after World War II move toward accommodation, which Klein at least manages to stress with some efficiency. It is noteworthy that, at a time when the prevailing academic critical method was –or is now broadly perceived to have been—New Criticism, these two books that first bring extended scholarly attention to postwar American fiction so resolutely resist formalism altogether, much less the specific presuppositions now attached to the New Critics. This approach to contemporary fiction—as a source of ideas or examples or cultural generalizations but not really as the object of detailed formal or aesthetic critique—has been prevalent enough in subsequent years that one could wonder whether there doesn’t after all lurk beneath the expanding scrutiny of contemporary fiction a residual uncertainty about its artistic value in the long run. How far beyond the disdain for contemporary writing embodied in the curriculum against which Klinkowitz rebelled is it really to allow certain writers and their work a kind of utility for advancing a brand of academic cultural commentary but implicitly regarding it as otherwise ill-suited to the ends of aesthetic inquiry? (To the extent, of course, that aesthetic inquiry is itself regarded as relevant to the business of academic criticism.)
Together Radical Innocence and After Alienation did help to establish for American fiction of mid-century an identity separate from the “modern” fiction of the era following on World War I and clearly placed in the context of post-World War II American culture. One could even argue that although the concepts of “radical innocence” and “accommodation” seem to be at some variance as critical terms for apprehending this identity, they are actually two sides of the same critical coin, a retreat from “alienation” that, given the conditions of the immediate postwar period, assuredly requires the most radical kind of innocence. But by 1971, when Tony Tanner’s City of Words was published, the stability of that identity delineated by Hassan and Klein is plainly in question, and the critical effort needed to keep track of the direction in which fiction is heading has greatly expanded.
The most immediately noticeable sign of that expanded effort in City of Words is the very breadth of its coverage of “American Fiction 1950-1970.” Well over twenty American fiction writers are given extended treatment in Tanner’s book, many others are discussed more briefly, and Tanner apologizes in his preface for being unable to get to at least a dozen more. This encyclopedic approach is accompanied by a surprising variety in selection, despite the more specific emphasis on what might be called “experimental” fiction that emerges from the book; certainly it is more interested in the formally and stylistically bolder fiction that was appearing in the 1960s than either Radical Innocence or After Alienation. While Tanner examines the work of such now notoriously postmodern writers as John Barth, John Hawkes, and Thomas Pynchon, he also includes chapters on Malamud, Ellison, John Updike, and Norman Mailer, none of them plain stylists to be sure, but certainly all considered “mainstream” postwar novelists. The diversity of subjects and approach represented by these writers would seem to cast doubt on the enterprise of establishing a commonality among their novels and stories based on a shared cultural outlook or any single imputed theme.
Another significant difference between City of Words and its two predecessors (both of which Tanner himself cites as forerunners in the preface to his book) is the method by which Tanner claims to have come to the critical insight about postwar fiction that serves as the book’s thesis, embodied in its title. “When I started thinking about writing this book,” Tanner writes, “I had no preconceived notions about recurrent themes by which I could group writers, or neat categories in which I could place their work. If anything, I embarked on my readings and re-readings motivated mainly by a sense of admiration for the wide range of individual talent which has emerged in American fiction during the last two decades.” Instead, “with continued intensive reading, certain recurring preoccupations, concerns, even obsessions, began to emerge from what at first appeared to be very dissimilar novels” (15). Thus, while one senses that Hassan and Klein approached their projects with preconceived philosophical and political ideas they hoped to illustrate through their selection of writers and texts, Tanner is more genuinely presenting a reading of the fiction he cites, a consideration of its manifest features as they make themselves apparent to the critic interested in identifying them. This is arguably, in fact, the most revealing and impressive feature of City of Words itself, one that finally distinguishes it most clearly from books like Radical Innocence and After Alienation, and one that regrettably few later studies of contemporary fiction really shared. Tanner gives the impression, at least, of giving his attention to the immediately experiential qualities of his texts, of taking from them what they have to give—of being concerned first and foremost with what these texts have to offer as literary creations.
Tanner’s interest in the literary character of current fiction is expressed most directly in his book’s focus on language, on the tendencies of style he finds at work in much of this fiction. Although the specific styles of the disparate group of writers are distinctive enough (a fact of which Tanner takes due account in his individual analyses of their fiction), Tanner does delineate a common impulse among these writers to accentuate style to the point of making language itself implicitly one of the subjects their fiction pursues. So insistent is this impulse that Tanner introduces the term “foregrounding” to describe “the use of language in such a way that it draws attention to itself—often by its originality.” Even more pointedly, Tanner suggests that in some cases of especially self-referential styles “within the same book words can be both referential and part of a verbal display” (20). Although Tanner is attentive as well to other formal and thematic elements of this fiction that takes its readers to the “city of words” (of plot he writes: “narrative lines are full of hidden persuaders, hidden dimensions, plots, secret organizations, evil systems, all kinds of conspiracies against spontaneity of consciousness, even cosmic take-over” (16)), it is this thesis about the self-reflexivity of postwar fiction and Tanner’s thorough exegesis of his selected texts in illustration of it that continues to make City of Words an intriguing and rewarding work of historically informed literary criticism.
Along with Robert Scholes’s The Fabulators (1967) (discussed below in its later republished version, Fabulation and Metafiction), City of Words is the first critical study to take note of this new self-reflexive fiction. While the word “postmodern” does not appear in Tanner’s book, what would soon routinely be called by that name is, retrospectively at least, clearly the real subject with which Tanner is engaged. In many ways Tanner’s analysis of this fiction captures its most essential characteristics and identifies its most important practitioners; other, later, books would concentrate more intensively on “metafiction,” on black humor, on the “art of excess,” but few of them would really advance that much beyond the insights into the foregrounding of style, the creation of “verbal space,” the American writer’s antipathy to “conditioning forces,” afforded by City of Words. For that matter, no later elucidation of the artistic motives or conceptual designs behind the practice of literary postmodernism quite explains the whole phenomenon as well as Tanner’s observation that “American writers seem from the first to have felt how tenuous, arbitrary, and even illusory, are the verbal constructs which men call descriptions of reality” (27).
Nevertheless, throughout the two decades following the publication of City of Words—the period during which “contemporary literature” was accepted in the academic curriculum as an intellectually respectable subject of study—the perceived cutting edge in academic criticism of contemporary fiction was unquestionably criticism about or related to the innovative writers who could plausibly be associated with the postmodern. Indeed, a serious scrutiny of academic scholarship in general during these years would just as unquestionably reveal that the burgeoning critical and scholarly discourse on “postmodernism” more generally was derived more or less directly from this original discourse on the postmodern in American fiction. To the extent that City of Words stands as the precursor to these later books and scholarly articles, it must be said to have initiated what has been to date the most influential line of academic critical fashion in the study of contemporary literature. Unfortunately, so prominent, in fact did this line become that the very word “postmodern” would eventually be understood by many as almost synonymous with “academic” in its most imposing and ponderous mode, and in turn postmodern fiction would be classified as academic in an equally derogatory sense of the term.