- 16 Fiction:The 1960s to the Present
The innovative fiction wars of the 1960s and 1970s, long put to rest as a subsequent generation addressed issues of realism and representation, have now reawakened as younger authors and critics discover the form and reinitiate arguments about it. In popular magazines novelists such as Jonathan Franzen and R. M. Berry argue that innovation's cause is still a meaningful one, while scholars—some veterans of the period, others newcomers—review not just the era's fiction but also the critical debate over it, seeking a deeper significance for the matters of concern. With the retrospect now possible, the landscape is better organized, with some presences looming like Mount Rushmore, others like infamous massacre sites. This year's work, therefore, is interesting not just for what happened with innovative fiction but also for how it will be remembered.
i General Studies
Gerhard Hoffmann's massive (750 pp.) From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction (Rodopi) sees innovative fiction as a form in transition. For such a long and detailed work, which could have been encyclopedic, Hoffmann shows analytical insight by choosing his subjects carefully, "the American authors who by common consent are seen to occupy the center of American postmodern fiction, i.e., in alphabetical order, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Raymond [End Page 351] Federman, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Jerzy Kosinski, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Ronald Sukenick, and Kurt Vonnegut." The contexts in which they worked and the state of literature in their time is especially important to Hoffmann, who respects these contexts and states by studying most closely critical works from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, "when the process of evaluation was in full flux" (later utterances are included only where they clarify matters first raised in these earlier decades). Hoffmann's parallel restrictions make his study an uncommonly well-focused one, akin to work readers are more likely to find in much older periods. He has, in other words, established a canon, doing so on the basis of the consensus he cites.
What guides this consensus? Principally a belief that "the postmodernism of the Sixties is the result of the liberation from the restraints from the Fifties." And what were those restraints? "Materialism, moralism, individualism, self-consciousness, domesticity, and privacy, de-politicization, anxiety, the Cold War and the Bomb"—restraints readers see broken free of in typical novels by Barthelme, Sukenick, and Vonnegut. "Above all," Hoffmann emphasizes, these fiction writers broke free from "the pervading spirit of hypocrisy"; in this act was located the fundamentally deconstructive spirit of the new age hoping to be born. Such hopes are variously serious, desperate, and playful. They are satisfied by "creating a montaged confusion of discourses and realms, of presence and absence, by producing fields of intersections where expiring and evolving ideas and strategies meet, and by seeking in the remaking of the world and the fusion of design and debris the liberating source of the imaginary." Barth and Pynchon pursue these strategies for what Hoffmann calls a "maximalist intent," their "creative excesses" calling to mind the methods of Melville, Wolfe, and Faulkner. Barthelme's "minimalist effect" both continues and radicalizes the aesthetic minimalism of Stein and Hemingway. As far as narrative, its totalizing factors are deconstructed, making "the narrated situation . . . the basis of the fictional argument" in which imagination is the driving force. Why the debate over innovative fiction was so heated and why it has been resumed today is understandable, given that "to match the complexity of postmodern fiction with a complexity of analytic or descriptive tools is the greatest challenge for the critic."
Such a matching is achieved by Christian Moraru in Memorious Discourse: Reprise and Representation in Postmodernism (Fairleigh Dickinson). Here the critic finds that when postmodern fiction seeks to represent, it [End Page 352] does so digressively through other representations. Because only other pictures can bring its pictures to life, this style of fiction is more honest than others in professing its cultural and intertextual debt. Memory and reprise are prominent in this approach, and by operating critically deflate the claim that such doings are simply an...