- Fiction:The 1960s to the Present
Though no individual study mentions it, the end of the millennium coincides with several important long looks at fiction's development within the contemporary period. How odd it is that something called "contemporary" can have a history, but many critics now wish to settle issues that have been contentious. In terms of organizing an appraisal, this intent is admirable; but when it comes to settling scores, no small disservice is done.
i General Studies
Volume 7 of The Cambridge History of American Literature (Cambridge) is devoted to "Prose Writing, 1940–1990." Editor Sacvan Bercovitch has assembled a credible roster of fiction scholars, with John Burt covering the South, Morris Dickstein studying fiction and society to 1970, Wendy Steiner addressing the multiform concerns of postmodern fiction, and Cyrus R. K. Patell surveying the emergence of new literatures by racial, national, and sexual minorities. The divisions are instructive: the American South remains a region apart, as does the intellectualization of the American North—each of them as distinctive as the multicultural fiction that Patell is asked to treat by itself. Only Steiner's section looks beyond region and race to discern the formation of a new canonical mainstream, which most scholars now concede the postmodern to be. Burt sees the aftermath of the Southern Renascence to be as problematic as was the Renascence itself, where social scapegoating substituted for problems with race; the new contexts and refreshing freedoms evident in Southern fiction of the past 20 years, he believes, have been created only in the [End Page 337] sense of experiment. Dickstein finds the novels and short stories of his decades dominated by World War II and Vietnam, conflicts that bracket a later 20th-century culture struggling to redefine itself; the vehicle for such an act is the road novel, which Dickstein sees broadly enough to include the full sweep of John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy. Among most new writers of the period, Dickstein perceives an "inward turn of the postwar novel, its feminization, so to speak," as an attempt to escape confines of the masculine, social, and sophisticated impulses toward conformity. Steiner's approach has much to recommend it, especially her perception of how some supposed innovation was in fact a replay of modernist obscurantism while more genuine work strove to produce "a revitalized novel . . . written and received not as a neurotic fetish à la Freud or a commodified fetish à la Marx but as an opening, a doorway to communication." However, she accuses critics in this movement of "unselfconsciously producing a strikingly gender- and race-restricted canon," evidence for which she can only amass by adding several white males to the list (John Barth, John Hawkes, and William H. Gass) while removing Ishmael Reed, Grace Paley, Clarence Major, Gerald Vizenor, and others. More balanced is Patell's approach, which contrasts minority resistances to the mainstream with attempts to escape a sense of marginality.
Looking for new terms of inclusion, rather than manufacturing claims of sexism and racism, emerges as the preferred style of criticism in two important books. Naomi R. Rand's Silko, Morrison, and Roth: Studies in Survival (Peter Lang) chooses three major figures to show how Native American, African American, and Jewish American identities have helped form a new American mainstream. The narratives of each author seek inclusion, but maintain a healthy sense of anger with exclusionary forces. The protagonists in their works succeed as survivors, but not in the terms of typical survivor stories. Instead, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth all admit that full cultural integration is impossible. Not that this means failure; indeed, their peculiar success lies in showing how life in the gap between two cultures is immensely more profitable than exclusive inclusion on either side. Gilbert H. Muller looks to history early in his New Strangers in Paradise: The Immigrant Experience and Contemporary American Fiction (Kentucky), citing the Immigration Act of 1965, a piece of legislation that in tandem with new societal patterns helped rewrite "the epic of America" in ways that emphasized the "polyglot, multicultural, and transnational." Not surprisingly, [End Page 338] Bakhtin's notion of the dialogic expresses this new cultural reality; the...