The Realist Fantasy follows that fashionable Continental drift into uncertainty and tired sophistication. The key influences on the book seem to be T. W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. In reviewing Gabriel Josipovici's The World and the Book (1971) for MFS, I remarked at the time that the book should be read but not believed. Paul Coates has read Josipovici's book, and he must believe it. But whereas Josipovici is clear and incisive (one doesn't need to know anything to read a novel), Coates is wandering in his argument (if he may be said to have one) and strangely selective in the texts he employs. Besides Richardson, to whom a chapter is given, Coates may be said to consider about thirty male prose writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: no Russians are included; no Sterne or Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf; Fielding, Balzac, Joyce, and Faulkner are briefly mentioned, as are the Brontës and Katherine Mansfield. Clarissa, The Man without Qualities, Remembrance of Things Past, The Castle, The Crying of Lot 49 are his exemplary texts; they all pursue, so he declares, the theme of endlessness.
The titles of the six parts proclaim the nature of the book: "Notes on the Novel"; "Clarissa, Dialectic and Unreadability"; "The Nineteenth Century"; "The Text Against Itself; "Fictions of Identity: Modernism in Germany"; "Post-Modernism." With mixed success Coates discusses writers in pairs: Goethe and Lawrence; Butler and Morris; Kafka and Proust; Coover and Doctorow. Coates is more concerned with writers and the theme of identity (he has a section on "Doubles") than he is with works of art. He seems sure that the novel is a provisional thing. He refuses, I should say, to respect works of art as authentic entities: criticism usurps interpretation. But in today's critical climate his position and his emphasis must be admitted to have some merit and must be allowed to be expressed.
But The Realist Fantasy is a very hard book to read, let alone believe. It is ambitious and dense; too much of it is notes or remarks or thoughts. And the project is presented in an uncertain style. As he says of Ellison, he is both square and hip: he prefers the old-fashioned or British whilst to while; he dotes on metaphors in which things melt or freeze. His style is at once slapdash and affected: it wobbles and dazzles. One of his best tricks is to begin a unit with an aphoristic eye-opener. Here are some of the grabbers: "Wuthering Heights is a tragedy of cultural history"; "Writing is the cipher of an absence, a buoy floating above a hidden reality"; "Riddles are concrete contraditions"; "When a character in a novel lies, he ceases to be a character"; "The novel arises in a society in isolation."
On every page I found myself quibbling with Coates or questioning him or disagreeing with him. His assertions throw my beliefs off stride. He says that prose is something that one reads once; poetry is "the Beautiful upon which one [End Page 846] is fixated." Hawthorne, James, and Conrad are faulted as writers; Poe's William Wilson is an unqualified success. The three most important postwar English novels are Under the Volcano, Jill, and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Pynchon is "the greatest living English novelist." Doctorow "has the committed exactitude of a poet." I don't believe Coates: Pynchon is a sloppy writer; Doctorow is a hack journalist. Coates has, however, managed to reinforce my disbelief in what passes for criticism today.
Robert Alter, on the other hand, has written a comfortable book, journalism of a high, familiar kind. A collection of sixteen essays or chapters published over the last fifteen years, Motives for Fiction seems meant for traditional academics or consumers of conventional literary taste. Although I find his style a little fat and stilted ("There was a time when what passed for critical discourse could be confidently subsumed under two...