Reviewing Ann Beattie's Follies, Donna Rifkind asserts that "once the pioneers of a directionless generation," Beattie's characters "are now at best supporting players in a drama whose mood has changed. The trademark passivity of Beattie's characters has given way to a new generation's urgency, passion, religious and political conviction, determination and certitude. Serving as a generation's voice has its limits: One day the action moves on."
This is the literature-as-fashion view of fiction. According to this view, a writer reflects the "drama" ongoing in the social theater the writer is presumably attending. This drama is judged to be particularly intense when the writer is young and can be claimed as an especially astute critic of the theatrical trappings considered most illustrative of the advanced trends of the day. Once these trends have been exchanged for a new set, as inevitably they will be, the writer formerly thought to provide keen "insights" into the way we live now is dismissed as thoroughly retro. This has clearly happened to Beattie, at least as far as Donna Rifkind is concerned. "One day the action moves on."
Rifkind can't be urging Beattie to adjust her focus, to start chronicling "a new generation's urgency" et al, since if she did she would surely be accused of horning in on the new generation's territory, her fiction judged to be hopelessly unconvincing. Beattie does anomie, not "determination and certitude." She is instead announcing both to Ann Beattie and to the readers of the Washington Post Book World that Beattie's work is now passe, not worth the attention of readers hoping to keep their fingers fastened to the social pulse. And clearly it is the sociological information that can be gleaned from fiction that interests Rifkind, since elsewhere in her review she allows that Beattie's style "remains distinctive and surprisingly fresh." Her characters, alas, just aren't with it: Where they "used to seem thoroughly familiar and fashionable, both they and the bland world they inhabited have now been kicked to the curb." How awful to be middle-aged and to be stuck writing about such "supporting players."
I myself have never been that enamored of Ann Beattie's fiction. But my problem has always been precisely with its literary qualities, which Rifkind accepts as not yet "out of style." I find Beattie's writing itself to be bland and mostly unengaging. I don't object to the plotlessness of her stories, or even the repetitivenes of her themes and situations. I just think her affectless prose style strains too much to mimic the impassivity of her characters and becomes merely numbing. And I thought this about her work when I first read it in the 1970s, when Beattie could still be called "a generation's voice." What continues to bother me about her fiction is that her "method" remains dull and unimaginative, not that she writes about the same sorts of characters she's always depicted, as they now struggle through middle age. Why would such characters necessarily be less interesting than younger characters and their own ephemeral "trademarks"?
I don't believe Ann Beattie ever claimed to be "a generation's voice." This was a label slapped onto her by critics who, like Donna Rifkind, thought of fiction-writing as a generational contest in which the new always triumphs over the old, simply because it is new. Beattie is now being held responsible for an insipid practice among reviewers she herself never endorsed. This is no way to perpetuate a literary tradition, one in which past or aging writers still have something to offer and are not disparaged simply because "the action moves on" among the literary trendsetters. Rifkind's review not only fails to assess Beattie's book by any kind of legitimate literary criteria, but it assumes that readers, both young and old, are as shallow in their judgments as the reviewer seems to be.