- On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary
1989, the year of American Literary History's founding, held out a tantalizing moment for periodizers of whatever comes after modernism. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War seemed to tell us that we had arrived at a moment of genuine historical transformation. Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history shortly after, in 1992, and it would seem to follow naturally that the post-45 era was coming to a close. But if this was true in the realm of global politics, it was less apparent in literature and the arts more generally. Political watersheds are one thing, but cultural or aesthetic ones quite another, and it was not immediately clear—nor is it clear now—that, to borrow a turn of phrase from Virginia Woolf, literature changed, even if the world did, on or about 9 November 1989. One could argue that 1989 launched us into the age of multiculturalism, or, more negatively, sectarianism. The culture wars were already warming up in the US: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know were published in 1987; Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, one of the more lasting documents to come out of the culture wars, was published in 1992. 1992 also saw the start of the Bosnian War, the most dramatic example of resurgent sectarian strife in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. On the American literary scene, pluralism defined the moment; in the international scene, sectarianism; in both cases, identities seemed to be at stake. But if, in Bosnia, your identity could get you killed, in America, it seemed, your identity could get you published.
In keeping with the largely happy outcomes of multiculturalism in literature and in the classroom, by the end of the century [End Page 410] scholars of the period since 1945 had the pleasure of a vastly expanded canon, a wealth of well-crafted novels from relatively unknown writers to consider, a few major careers to account for, and the task of defining the second half of the twentieth century ahead of them. Wendy Steiner, in her section of The Cambridge History of American Literature, volume 7 (1999) ("Postmodern Fictions, 1970 to 1990"), quite elegantly represents the position in which the next generation of scholars of this literature found themselves as they defended their dissertations in the closing years of the twentieth century. She showed how a reading of experimentalist novels can be—and, indeed, must be—integrated with a discussion of realist writing. She thus set herself the task of undoing the reigning bifurcation of contemporary fiction into the "postmodern" avant-garde and the writing of women and people of color that was so often dismissed, in the academy, as naively realist or concerned more with social issues than with the development of literary aesthetics.
In this sense, Steiner was informed by the culture wars of the 1990s, but not shackled by them. Her account of what would then have been labeled as contemporary fiction crystallized an emerging critical consensus that the categories produced both by the literary press and by the academic disputes over the canon produced, at best, a misleading opposition between these two kinds of writing. At worst, that opposition suggested a hierarchy of value in which the writing of mainly white male authors such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo was deemed "literary" whereas the work of writers such as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Alice Walker, and Joan Didion was thought to be mainly concerned with the sociological aspects of fiction. This bifurcation of value, a legacy of New Criticism's investment in modernist difficulty, was one of the primary ways that modernist understandings of the literary stretched beyond the moment of high modernist aesthetic production. The way Steiner mixes up the categories—by pointing out, for example, the literary self-consciousness on display in Erdrich's Love Medicine (1993), the significance of Oedipa...