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CriticalParadigmsof Contemporary AmericanLiterature CharlesCaramella. Silver/ess Mirrors: Book,Self & Postmodern American Fiction. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1983. 250 pp. PeterL. Cooper. Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Prnchon and the Contemporary World. Berkeley: Universityof California Press, 1983. 238 pp. CharlesB. Harris. Passionate Virtuosity: TheFiction of John Barth. Urbana and Chicago: Universityof Illinois Press, 1983. 217 pp. Robert F.Kiernan. American Writing Since 1945: A C11t1cal Survey. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983. 178 pp. Sherrill E. Grace Reading books, like the ones under review here, individually is one thing; writing about them as a group is another. Perhaps it would be wisest to abandon any attempt to discuss these four critical studies of contemporary American literature together and to concentrate upon their individual contributions to scholarship. This I shall certainly do; however, these four books, and the attempt to reflect upon their common endeavor, raise a number of interrelated questions, questions which are important to anyone interested in modern literature, contemporary culture, or literary history and critical theory. What does a reading of these four books suggest about the relationship between contemporary American literature and the society that shapes the author and the work? Do these critics provide helpful commentary on the violence, alienation and fragmentation that each sees in this literature? What steps, if any, have been taken to acknowledge or redress the imbalance in American criticism which has consistently privileged male authors and patriarchal determinations of myth and reality? (And those who maintain that such categories are not the responsibility of the modern historian and critic should compare Hugh Kenner's definition of a modern tradition with the recent feminist scholarship of critics like Annette Kolodny.) Lastly, to what uses has current critical theory been put by these critics? There is no more salutary test of structuralist and deconstructionist methodologies and Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 1985,483-489 484 Sherrill E. Grace terminology than to place them side by side with more conventional or traditional methods. Although there is extensive overlap in the subject matter of these studies, there is a wide variance in their approaches to contemporary American writing. Robert Kiernan offers what he frankly calls "A Critical Survey" and in the process provides some useful literary history. Charles Caramella gives an elaborate description and analysis of what is, at bottom, an age-old theme in literature-the problematic relationship between teller and tale, book and self-as it is re-worked in post-modern fiction and critical theory. In contrast with these more general studies of authors, trends and fictional mode, Charles Harris and Peter Cooper provide detailed analyses of Barth and Pynchon. While drawing from a wide range of critical tools, both use contemporary theory sparingly and well. Kiernan beginsAmerican Writing Since 1945with an important statement of principle: "I am convinced that we impoverish ourselves by focussing narrowly on 'great' authors rather than on the full, rich flow of literature." What he then goes on to do in this "modest introduction to the wealth of American literature written since World War II" (p. vii) is to write a type of literary history that gives due place to fiction, drama and poetry, to ethnic and regional literature, to modes or "schools" of writing, and to period distinctions. Sensibly, he does not have token entries on "Women Poets" or "Feminist Novels." Female American writers are considered side by side with their male contemporaries, and feminist issues per se are considered in the context of an individuars work. This much said, however, there are many problems with the book, for Kiernan is trying to write simply and speak modestly of what is, in fact, an enormous undertaking. The problems range from relatively minor, and perhaps inevitable, ones of repetitive phrases and cliche summaries of complex issues to more crucial questions about the basis for selection of his authors and the comparative importance of their work. I prefer to pass quickly over Kiernan's style because it is unfair to quote at length out of context, but to describe Tennessee Williams as bringing ยท'a distinctly Southern sensibility" to the stage is no more illuminating than the disparaging description of Plath's poetry as "feverish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 483-489
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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