At the beginning of the 1960s, most American novelists took the greats of previous generations--particularly Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald--as their models. Writers pursuing more idiosyncratic paths in the manner of William Faulkner, writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor, were active and even celebrated, but at the center stood the ideal of a big, bestselling, realist novel of social reportage, a form whose obsolescence the young novelist Jonathan Franzen bemoaned in an essay he wrote for Harper's magazine in 1996. Franzen maintains that the last "challenging" novel to find a mass audience and to "infiltrate" the national imagination was Joseph Heller's Catch-22, published in 1961. Catch-22 is a satirical war novel about the yawning gap between officially sanctioned reality and the experiences of its characters, and its success indicated that American culture had begun to entertain doubts about all authoritative pronouncements, including, perhaps, the Great American Novel.
As the decade closed, authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Richard Brautigan, and Ken Kesey were sharing young readers' shelf space with such icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, and Carlos Castaneda, whose writings were more likely to blow the mind than define the age. Books by literary lions like John Updike, Saul Bellow, and William Styron still made it to the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list, but women and blacks were already protesting the way they had been portrayed by such writers. The audience for literary fiction had begun to splinter, and the very notion that one novelist could speak for an entire nation or generation seemed worse than improbable; it was outright and inexcusable hubris. By the 1980s, the bestseller lists belonged to authors of fat volumes of commercial fiction, books whose visceral, rather than social or psychological, concerns could be counted on to appeal to the largest number of readers: thrillers, sagas, horror stories, and the women's genre sometimes known as "shopping and fucking" novels.
In the 1970s, members of various groups who had once compliantly read the designated Big Book of the moment by authors like Mailer and his designated "Talent in the Room," increasingly demanded fiction by and about people like themselves. Women, in particular, defected, leading to a boomlet in novels of middle-class female discontent, a trend that helped launch the career of Margaret Atwood, among many other women writers. Because women continue to buy and read more fiction than men, this development profoundly changed not only the publishing market but the way authors see their place in the world. Franzen wrote, "Writers like Jane Smiley and Amy Tan today seem conscious and confident of an attentive audience. Whereas all the male novelists I know, including myself, are clueless as to who could possibly be buying our books."
This interest in fresh perspectives also fostered a literary blossoming among racial and sexual minorities. Although multicultural idealism would eventually become problematic, it provided early support for major talents--Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman in the United States, Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri in England--who otherwise might never have been read, or perhaps even published. At its best, multiculturalism expanded the horizons of the literary audience and immeasurably enriched the variety of fiction available in the average bookstore. Later, at its worst, it led to the glorification of second-rate writers, the establishment of a subtle climate of bad faith, and the exasperation of successful authors of color who chafed at multiculturalist demands that they properly represent their races.
In the meantime, during the 1970s, a coterie of white male novelists retreated to American universities to pursue a variety of experimental writing sometimes called metafiction (because it was often about the nature of fiction itself) or, more generally, postmodernism. Writers like John Barth, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass were still enshrined in the reading lists of college-level English classes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they increasingly fell by the wayside as fiction writers and editors outside the academy embraced realism. In a sometimes bafflingly abstract 1977 diatribe entitled On Moral Fiction, the novelist John Gardner attacked the postmodernists for what he considered a solipsistic obsession with form over the concerns of "true art," which "seeks to improve life, not debase it." (This salvo, notorious for its disdainful naming of names, further confused readers who had thought that Gardner was himself a postmodernist.) On Moral Fiction, like the feminist and multicultural critiques of its time, is a classic example of the American penchant for denouncing perceived schools of writing on grounds that fuse aesthetics and ideology--in other words, bad writing isn't just bad, it's evil. (British writers prefer simply to attack one another's character, a tactic that makes their quarrels much more entertaining.)
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Viking Penguin. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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