- The ’60s at 50
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As a conceit, the graying of a decade makes a certain whimsical sense when speaking of the 1960s, for it was a decade dominated by the very young, now not so young, and our perceptions of the decade have probably aged along with them. Authors who began to flourish at that time, however, were not for the most part themselves baby boomers, as that relatively affluent postwar generation got named and marketed. Rather, they were people who had known the Great Depression and a testing World War, only at the end of which were most of the young people of the ’60s born. These writers had grown up intellectually in the era of relativity, the uncertainty principle, civilization & its insoluble discontents, ever-expanding knowledge about inner and outer space, theological skepticism, existentialism and other forms of philosophical pessimism, but they had also seen the rise of religious fanaticism and the violent clash of ideologies; the banalization of American life; continued racial, class, and gender oppression and conflict; the invention and dismaying use of nuclear weapons; gangster ethics; and—right on into and through the glorious globalizing ’60s—ceaseless human horror stories.
The dominant narrative forms promulgated by the knowledge and entertainment industry and their academic champions seemed to many of us inadequate for the task of confronting this new, often baffling and disconcertingly irrational world. They were forms that tended, even in opposition, to defend the status quo simply by prolonging it structurally. They were profitable to the industry and were called mainstream literature, but they were not mainstream.
Literature’s mainstream is not a river that flows between fixed banks, but one that must be cut. It changes course and moves in different directions from decade to decade, century to century. It follows gravity for the most part, but sometimes needs individual inventiveness, not to back up and stagnate. When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (1605), it was avant-garde, but he was actually, as it turned out, carving the mainstream’s new directions. Which is the true meaning of avant-garde. When I think of that generation of innovative writers who emerged in the 1960s, I think of them as momentarily disruptive and multi-voiced benders of the mainstream’s course, while those who stayed in the traditional flow are now seen to have been paddling about in the backwaters, no matter how gracefully or urgently.
Thus, when I launched forth in the late ’50s, early ’60s, I felt that if I wanted to do something meaningful in literature, I had to help cut the mainstream, not live in the backwaters of convention. But I did not set out to be “experimental;” I set out to find the inner essence of narrative art, and discover if I could be the next bend in the river. I thought of myself as a realist, as taught by the likes of Beckett and Kafka. At first I supposed that, except for a few ancient models, I was a lone explorer, but I quickly discovered other contemporaries in many different countries and cultures engaged in similar quests, as well as a few from the past I hadn’t noticed before. The often self-conscious redirecting of the mainstream naturally meant a certain amount of “metafiction,” which is to say, fiction thinking about what it is doing as it does it, taking all of the world’s previous fictions into itself and playing with them self-reflectively. It is not a term that fully describes the ’60’s new fiction, but it is part of it, just as it was long ago part of the birth of the novel (Cervantes was a classic metafictionist).
In the previous decade, I had become engaged with the many tribal myths—religious, patriotic, literary, erotic, popular, etc.—that environed us. These were stories dreamt up by others and in whose dreams—often infantile and savage—we were living out our spellbound lives, in the same way that as writers we were laboring inside establishment forms designed by others. The lingering tribal myths and the stifling literary dogmas seemed to be part of...