- Fiction: The 1960s to the Present
The more than half century covered by this chapter, and the 40 years during which it has been written, have witnessed a great number of cultural, social, and political transformations. Their impact on literature has been to change the nature of what scholars study. The term canon reformation identified this process early on, but after five decades of sometimes rambunctious activity commentators have settled into a more comfortable mode of appraisal. Cosmopolitanism now reflects the more winsome attitudes that have replaced the harsher tonalities of rebellion and reformation. As a mind-set it indicates the ultimate disposition of all this transformative activity, and as a foundation for critical work it promises a more inclusive and yet discerning perspective. Positive examples of this method abound in this year’s scholarship, providing useful accounts of what is happening to fiction in our time.
i General Studies
In Emergent U.S. Literatures: From Multiculturalism to Cosmopolitanism in the Late Twentieth Century (NYU) Cyrus R. K. Patell makes a key distinction between the previously preferred term multicultural and newly favored word cosmopolitan when describing what he calls “emergent literatures.” Attractive as a range of cultures is, such an orientation implies the exclusivity of one from another. The cosmopolitan instead strives [End Page 309] toward change and mixing, initiating “a conversation across boundaries.” Emergent literatures are best understood not as ethnically pure entities but rather as opportunities in which we experience difference, much as the protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey tracks the experience of being caught between contrasting worlds; his challenge is to form an identity that accepts the new without letting the old “be transformed into a safely exotic form of cultural residue.” In a similar manner the characters in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters struggle with a damaged culture that risks becoming an empty simulacrum because of the power of degenerate social forces. When Native American novels such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony celebrate the communal, they do so in the face of “the American national culture’s celebration of individualism.” When individuality mandates all, emergent literatures respond by assessing how assimilation can be another way of being individualized, publicly rather than just privately. Gay and lesbian writers have been especially adept at showing how gay eroticism has been assimilated into the mainstream canon for over 100 years. Other writers have used figures that embody the ideas of subversion and resistance, or in some cases have remythologized beliefs, such as the Chicana/o reimagining of Aztlán as a homeland. At the center of all such literary activity is the determination to “break through the stereotypical assumptions of Eurocentric readers.”
Patell’s cosmopolitanism recalls the success of Christian Moraru’s Cosmodernism (see AmLS 2011, pp. 332–33), in which America’s self-perception in literature is seen to have been modified in post-Cold War years to accommodate such previous canonical rivals as Chang-rae Lee, Raymond Federman, Jhumpa Lahiri, and John Updike. Here the “ethics of difference” encourage an even stronger sense of community made possible by such an epistemological shift as Patell now exploits for his scholarship. “Americanness,” “normality,” “kinship,” and other notions are given new grounds for foundation by cosmopolitan perceptions. In similar fashion the writers studied by Caren Irr in Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia) devise new literary forms to express fresh ways of understanding what may or may not be actual in the world and how to move from actualities to the ideal. Michael Chabon, Gish Jen, and Rosa Shand (a cosmopolitan group indeed) balance individualist motives with symbolic action; novelists as individual as Junot Díaz and Gary Shteyngart share the cause of defining a unified single world; collective action characterizes the fiction [End Page 310] of Russell Banks, Madison Smartt Bell, and Philip Caputo; and Dave Eggers shows that even mainstream liberalism can be sustained in an expatriate narrative with international and activist concerns.
Postulations about reality have long been central to what fiction considers its proper subject. But changing terminology from “real” to “material” lets Christopher Breu show how the world refuses to “regularly conform to...