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THE CHANGING AMERICAN NOVEL / Bruce Allen An Omnibus Review of First Novels THE BEST FIVE or six American novels I've read this year are all first novels. What's remarkable about this is not just their individual qualities, but the fact that they managed to get published at all. Not so very long ago the first novel was the classic drag on the market, virtually shunned by most commercial publishers except as a token concession to the idea that books are, ideally, art and not business—an idea increasingly unsuited to the ways the industry itself has changed: fewer surviving small houses committed to quality publishing, less power in the hands of idealistic souls willing to risk losing money with "uncommercial" projects, and the increased conglomeration resulting in book production affiliated with the marketing, of computer chips or steakburger franchises, demanding that books turn over quick, secure profits. Things are beginning to change in a way that seems beneficial for both writers and readers of serious fiction. The recent success and celebrity enjoyed by younger "serious" writers—Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Jayne Anne Phillips leap immediately to mind—has presumably encouraged publishers to try to develop their own new talent. Furthermore, some university presses have plunged into publishing original fiction, risking their assets in ways the larger publishers have recently seemed less inclined to explore. The most spectacular example is Louisiana State University Press' publication of A Confederacy of Dunces, an ambitious satirical farce by the late John Kennedy Toole, urged on publisher after publisher by Toole's mother, following his suicide. Aided by the enthusiastic recommendation of novelist Walker Percy, whose opinion Mrs. Toole had solicited, and published in 1980 to extraordinary (and, in my view, unmerited) acclaim, Toole's novel won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. LSU's success with the book seems to have sent encouraging shock waves up the spines of publishers looking for reasons to bring forth first novels. Of course there have always been "major" publishers particularly sensitive to the appeal of quality fiction and determined to back it. Reviewers seeking promising new material are sure to pay special attention to catalogues announcing what's forthcoming from Knopf, Viking, Harper and Row, and Random House, among others. And now we're growing accustomed to receiving exciting new things from such fledgling houses as North Point Press and David Godine, as well as the The Missouri Review -221 previously mentioned university presses. People in publishing undoubtedly have a need to balance their diet/workout books and computer software products with brave new literary efforts about which they can feel both protective and proud. In many cases, this is indeed only tokenism, but with Jane Fonda and Michael Jackson and Garfield the Cat grinning variously at us from publicity posters, even tokenism becomes an achievement of some significance. I think there's another reason for this new tolerance for first novels, related to a discernible overall change in the novels themselves. It isn't that today's beginning writers are consciously wooing the audiences of Irving Wallace and V.C. Andrews and James Herriott; it's that they appear to have turned away from the trend that dominated American fiction for approximately a quarter-century—and, in my opinion, during its heyday, turned large numbers of potential readers away from new fiction (and probably toward television). Through the early and middle 1950s, American novels began to express a kind of concentrated defiance and revolt, breaking away from conventional narrative forms typically employed to contain "well-made stories" possessing clearly identifiable beginnings, middles, and ends. This move was, in part, a reaction to the two world wars combined with the disillusioning understanding of the human psyche we'd inherited from Freud and the burden of various scientific demonstrations that randomness and uncertainty were part of our physical heritage no less than of our responsive emotional natures. Then, of course, came the knowledge that we had developed the ability to blow up the planet. Given this profusion of intimations that life might not have a purpose and we probably weren't masters of all we surveyed, it became natural for our art forms to reflect the consequences...


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pp. 221-231
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