"Reminding readers that fictions are provisional realities and not bedrock truth is the essence of self-apparent writing," declares Jerome Klinkowitz, who, as the prolific seismologist of disruptions in contemporary, and what he calls postcontemporary, culture, is otherwise chary of essences. He presents The Self-Apparent Word as the culminating triptych to a series of meditations that includes Literary Disruptions (1975, revised 1980) and The American 1960s (1980). But much of the rest of Klinkowitz's vast output is likewise a description and celebration of a radical shift in American sensibilities during the past two decades.
Klinkowitz has been the Harold Rosenberg to a literary movement he likens to abstract expressionism, the foremost apologist for "innovative fiction," by which he means writing that rejects realist conventions of representationalism. Refusing to treat the signifier as a mere means toward apprehending some extratextual signified, such literature is deliberately foregrounded. In Klinkowitz's vitreous metaphor, its medium is opaque and not transparent; its words are self-apparent, not invisible windows on a stable, external universe. The SelfApparent Word studies and champions novels that never indulge in the puerile game of trompe l'oeil, that never allow us to forget that they are sequences of words. Klinkowitz invokes a kind of truth-in-packaging criterion to determine whether a story by Ronald Sukenick merits inclusion in his new canon: "If the memory deals in language rather than in signs, if it is the word itself which is recalled rather than its cumbersome worldly object or event, then 'Momentum' is self-apparent fiction."
Klinkowitz's valorization of fictions that are their own dramas leads him to reconceive literary history in terms of lustrous advancement toward the kind of nonmimetic stories that began to be published within the past decade. Though he admires the self-consciousness of Rabelais, Diderot, and Sterne (and might have added Apuleius, Chaucer, and Cervantes), these authors still ask us to suspend disbelief in their referential games. For all their canny reflexivity, Proust, Joyce, and the other modernist masters have still not, according to Klinkowitz, created self-apparent words. In Literary Disruptions, he proclaims the preeminence of Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Jerzy Kosinski, Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and Gilbert Sorrentino in creating texts that, like action painting, are no longer about anything but are instead arenas in which to act. Yet now, less than a decade later, he hails a second wave of innovators to whom these others play John the Baptist. Of his three new bearers of the selfapparent word, one, Clarence Major, was mentioned only en passant in the earlier book, and the others, Walter Abish and Stephen Dixon, were not mentioned at all. [End Page 449]
Unlike numerous recent studies of self-begetting novels and metafictions, The Self-Apparent Word finds reflexivity in itself an "alienating approach" leading to "sterile abstractions." But the innovative subversion of illusionism by Abish, Dixon, and Major, claims Klinkowitz, is a more authentic realism than the nineteenth-century conventions of social verisimilitude that regressively persist in the works of Bellow, Roth, and Updike. "By cultivating the properties of hardness, flatness, and opacity, self-apparent texts act toward restoring the full sense of which writing is meant to impart."
Lucid and learned, The Self-Apparent Word is nevertheless stronger as polemic than as explication. Its cultural cosmology ("The history of twentieth-century literature has been one of steady progress toward self-apparency") is either selfserving or naive or both. It performs an important service in defamiliarizing a sclerotic great tradition by announcing the advent of three heresiarchs. Yet surely Dickens, Flaubert, and Tolstoy have not lost their power to make customary perceptions strange, and Abish, Dixon, and Major, still in midcareer, seem a frail foundation on which to erect a movement, an aesthetic, and an eschatology. One of the qualities Klinkowitz admires in their fiction is a sense...