- Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium
At the end of the twentieth century the proximity of the millennium seemed to be on the minds of many American writers. As the 1990s approached, Don DeLillo evidently read Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, while in the late nineties Richard Powers filled his novel Gain with portents of millennial change: describing Adventists, setting a character to work at a company called Next Millennium Realty, and dating a narrative's action "just this side of millennium's [End Page 231] end." Jeremy Green has much to say about writers such as DeLillo and Powers, but despite its subtitle, his study Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium is not strictly speaking an account of such examples of the millennium molding the American literary imagination but is rather an exploration of how writers in this period reacted to larger social changes at the end of the century.
The background to Green's study is derived from Pierre Bourdieu's account of the literary field, leading to an approach that, Green explains, contextualizes a work amid "that ensemble of interlocking practices and institutions, including the publishing industry, the media, and the university, that constitutes, often in unexamined or unconscious ways, the environment for the practice and understanding of literature" (3). The major disruptions within the literary field that preoccupy Green include the diminished audience for literary fiction in a "culture of distraction" (vii), anxieties about what constitutes literary value, and the potential threat to print culture presented by the rise of the new media. Over the course of five chapters Green examines how John Barth, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, Kathryn Davis, David Markson, Don DeLillo, and Evan Dara have attempted to respond to these changes.
Green begins his study with a chapter that takes recent announcements of the end of postmodernism as an opportunity to look back at the movement, examining the development of literary postmodernism in the US, the importance of formal developments to the period, and closing with an account of "a profound shift in the relations between capital and culture" that "underlies the changes in the literary field" (34). The economic developments (the move from Fordism toward new informational economies) that underpin this shift alter the nature of publishing and bookselling, as well the role of academia. In particular, Green describes how bookselling has changed, with large national book chains pressing "smaller, often better-informed and committed independent stores" out of business (38). Since large stores are inevitably geared toward stocking works with the largest sales potential, this shift, he contends, limits the market for challenging work. It is curious, however, that Green neglects to mention, here, the place that the rise of the internet bookstore over the last ten years has in this equation.
Moving from this background material toward his chosen novelists, Green has Barth and Roth step forward. The attitudes of both these writers, Green argues, have been shaped by changes in the literary field to the extent that they can now be seen as cultural pessimists who see "the cultural environment in the last years of the century" as "in various ways inimical to their literary endeavors" (46). Their apparently gloomy outlook allows Green to situate their work alongside the conservative responses to cultural and technological [End Page 232] developments essayed by Sven Birkerts, Harold Bloom, and Alvin Kernan. Green's approach depends upon reading both the stock-taking manifestoes of writers as well as their novels, so he gives a detailed explication of Barth's essays before he engages with his millennial novel, Coming Soon!!! An examination of the novel's uneasy relation to electronic media leads to the conclusion that the "novel must, Barth implies, embrace its irrelevance if it is to retain its essential connection to tradition" (63). Roth, Green argues, is also preoccupied with tradition, and through a reading of The Human Stain he explores Roth's account of how the academy has discarded the literary tradition in spite of the role that history can play in shaping...