- Fiction:The 1960s to the Present
Authority, aggression, dialogue, and media intrusion: these and several other factors prove helpful for scholars who explain how contemporary fiction takes shape. Because master narratives are viewed with suspicion, traditional literary history (of the chronicle sort) has yielded to informing metaphors. Yet those metaphors almost always speak for a manner of control, to the point that writing ends up being even more focused than before. The virtue of such critical work is that a wider range of novels and short stories is presented for what still qualifies as explication.
i General Studies
A telling analysis of the frustration of literary innovation by traditionalist interests is presented by Andrew N. Rubin in Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture, and the Cold War (Princeton). Rubin is inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s complaint that Central Intelligence Agency involvement in literary programs “nourished the careers of too many square intellectuals, providing sustenance to thinkers in the Academy who influenced the intellectual tone of the West.” Uncovering this “archive of relations places new kinds of critical demands on the practice of literary historiography,” Rubin asserts, “particularly in the framework of the present.” He finds that government sponsorship of writers’ conferences, scholarly meetings, performances, and publications—usually overt, but [End Page 315] sometimes covert—has “brought about a tectonic shift in the intellectual culture” that aids (and in some cases inhibits) the production of literature. In Britain, a secret section of the British Council known as the Informational Research Department silently used imprimaturs of the Oxford University Press and others to disseminate anticommunist propaganda under the guise of intellectual debate, while in the United States a CIA-financed entity known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom promoted critic Lionel Trilling’s essay “Contemporary American Literature in Its Relation to Ideas” as a way of championing liberal democracy. The result was an uninterrogated humanism that retarded appreciation of a more radical style of fiction that was struggling to emerge in these turbulent times.
Using economic analysis rather than Freedom of Information Act research, Jeffrey T. Nealon reaches much the same conclusion about contemporary literary culture in Post-Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford). His view is that the “fragmentation” that characterized postmodernism has been replaced by an “intensification” of economic saturation affecting all aspects of life, including fiction. This higher level of commodification was perceived as early as the mid-1960s, when Amiri Baraka, then writing as LeRoi Jones, noted in Blues People that jazz became less of an art and more of an object for merchandising when the word swing turned from a verb into a noun. Subsequently, Don DeLillo’s character Bill Gray, portrayed as a novelist in Mao II, regrets that the “hermeneutic identity-shaping power of literature” has been taken over by media saturation of terrorism. In DeLillo’s canon, writers still write, but like the nuns he describes in White Noise they do not believe in what they profess. Instead, fiction writers face a world such as Las Vegas, where in Hunter S. Thompson’s work the city produces “intensities” rather than goods or services.
Writers react by becoming “unfriendly to readers,” Kathryn Hume suggests in Aggressive Fictions: Reading the Contemporary American Novel (Cornell). Yet these works, meant to discomfort, are read with great pleasure, a situation Hume explores with an eye to how Ishmael Reed and Mark Leyner make the sensation of narrative speed attractive, how Mark Danielewski multiplies levels of narrative beyond plausibility yet still with an ability to fascinate, and how Cormac McCarthy and Chuck Palahniuk add despair about the future to our current sense of doom, all of them doing so while maintaining the reader’s interest. This last quality distinguishes the novelists treated in Aggressive Fictions from [End Page 316] those studied in Hume’s American Dream, American Nightmare (see AmLS 2000, pp. 336–37), who despite their impatience with convention and anger at present social conditions “believed that something better might be achieved.” The virtue of Hume’s new book is that it covers a wide range of writers and integrates several not commonly associated, such as Philip Roth with Kathy Acker, Alice Walker...