- Reviewed by
In his Preface to Contemporary American Fiction, Malcolm Bradbury speaks quite rightly of "an extraordinary new variety and heterogeneity in American fiction" in the years since 1945. This diversity, as Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory observe, is particularly noticeable in the work of writers "whose careers have been established in the aftermath of . . . mid-60's disruptions," writers who "no longer feel obliged to develop their work in response to a prior, dominant set of conventions," whether realistic or experimental, moral or amoral, self-reflexive or mimetic. This variousness, coming as it does in such abundance, has provoked an equal quantity and diversity of critical response, as readers of MFS know only too well. The critics too are alive and writing—and writing and writing. Of the results, much is useful and necessary; much, in Peter Rabinowitz's phrase, is "willfully eccentric." Both types are represented here.
For instance, Contemporary American Fiction. Although the back cover claims that the book's nine essays chart "the main currents in fiction writing in the United States since 1960: the major ethnic writing, women's fiction, the so-called 'postmodern' revolution, as well as persisting, though evolving, realistic strains," the book cannot possibly accomplish so large a project, nor does it attempt to even in terms of the agenda it announces. There is, for instance, no real effort made to discuss women's fiction or minority or ethnic writers who are not black or Jewish. Nor, as a third example, are the minimalists considered at length. And although the subjects addressed are worthwhile, their development is not uniformly successful. Thus, in his essay "Fiction vs. Film 1960-1985," Warren French writes first about pre-1960 films from fiction before turning to John Fowles on fiction and film, the film and text versions of Alan Sillitoe's Loneliness of the [End Page 649] Long-Distance Runner, and (with E. T. his unlikely example) the recent phenomenon of publishing novelizations of popular movies—and so much for contemporary American fiction into film.
All of which is not to say Contemporary American Fiction is a failure, only that it is as idiosyncratic as any such effort is likely to be. Presumably intended primarily for a British audience, the collection suggests much (perhaps erroneously) about this audience. Thus, as noted, British readers apparently are fully informed (or do not care) about American women writers: the only women discussed in this volume are those black writers included in Robert Stepto's survey of post-Sixties black fiction and Cynthia Ozick, who receives a few pages of attention in the course of Paul Levine's introduction to recent Jewish-American novelists.
Both Stepto and Levine assume introductory stances as though what is most needed are basic lists of principal authors and some general comments on the nature of their work. On the other hand, three rather specialized essays address recent innovative fiction (principally of the Sukenick-Abish-Sorrentino-Federman-Gass variety), indicating both a British interest in this "current" and prior knowledge. Jerome Klinkowitz examines how "innovationists of the 1960s" first identified "the extra-literary concerns which had determined establishment fiction before them; then . . . used these formerly inhibiting factors to liberate fiction in their time." Allan Lloyd Smith seeks to collapse the distinction between writerly and readerly texts, claiming that "most contemporary writers work in both forms" as they "reckon with the fissure between words and things. . . ." And Peter Currie explores "anti-characterization and the problem of the subject" to offer a "conspectus of recent 'experimental' fiction, focusing primarily on the marginalization of character. . . ." Two other essays...