John W. Aldridge is perhaps best known for his 1951 critical study of postwar writers, After the Lost Generation. Now, forty years later, Aldridge is back with a scathing evaluation of the newest generation of American writers.
Aldridge's subtitle for the book, Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction, accurately sums up his overall criticism of the past decade or so of American fiction. The successful new writers, he argues, are accomplished stylists, with "only moderate intellectual culture . . . and apparently no sense that they belong to a literary tradition that might prove nourishing if they were able and willing to learn from it." Aldridge is particularly critical of the exclusive new "fraternity" of university-trained writers, MFA students who belong to their own, rather limiting culture, "[f]or what finally counts in the fraternity system of values is not the quality of the work produced but the continued existence and promotion of writers."
Aldridge then moves on to deal individually with some of our best known writers of recent years, beginning with a favorite target: the minimalists. In the stories of these writers who make it "a virtue for a writer not to know what he means," writers such as Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme, and Amy Hempel, "nothing of significance happens," and "contingency" becomes "an impotent substitute for motive." Aldridge's commentary is frank, caustic, and quite often humorous. He is at his sardonic best, for example, when lampooning the new literary brat pack of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, the golden boys of media hype. McInerney, according to Aldridge, "possesses no morally evaluative or critical attitude toward his materials," while Ellis produces material that is "much less than zero in dramatic content and thematic meaning."
Aldridge, in fact, finds very little that is positive about any of our current writers, and by the end of the book his curmudgeonly attitude becomes somewhat tiresome. Only in novelist Don DeLillo does he find sufficient intellectual culture and thematic significance to merit approval. Aldridge's criticism of Bobbie Ann Mason's "lack of clear cut thematic statement" seems particularly unfair, considering Mason's strong focus on formerly naïve and powerless female protagonists who gain self-awareness and self-worth, and come to gain a sense of control over their destinies after having drifted aimlessly through life because of their social circumstances. It is also interesting that Aldridge, while harshly criticizing [End Page 949] the complete lack of significant social and political issues addressed in current fiction, fails to deal even briefly with such important contemporary authors as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
Overall, however, Aldridge effectively and provocatively raises several crucial issues involving our current trends in fiction. His book is a valuable and much needed wake-up call for today's American writing scene.