Excerpt of The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors by Laura Miller
(Page 4 of 12)
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Of course, the version of history that I've just presented--of a unified
literary establishment that fractured into a array of niche interests--is only
one way to interpret the changes in English language fiction in the past forty
years. Some observers see the various permutations of the novel and short story
as a response to the movies. Film can use straightforward storytelling to
reflect the way we live now as well as or better than the traditional realist
novel. As a result, writers increasingly turned to techniques that can't be
accomplished on-screen, or at least not easily, such as formal experimentation,
fabulism, and, above all, the artful deployment of voice. Few, in 1960, would
have predicted that Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita would, by the end of the
century, be cited more frequently and more fervently by young American writers
naming their influences than books by Hemingway or Fitzgerald. The
quintessential novel of unreliable narration, written by a novelist who prized
an elegant, imagistic style and an elusive authorial stance while despising
philosophy and moralizing in fiction, Lolita didn't conform to mid-century
notions of an era-defining work. The wizardry of Nabokov's masterpiece, however,
was irrevocably literary: no movie could convey such a shimmering suspension of
Narrative nonfiction has also become a competitor for readers' attention.
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), which he described as a "nonfiction
novel," and Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) are among those writers'
finest books and have the advantage of applying the artistry of the novelist to
stories made all the more compelling for being true. Tom Wolfe, a founder of the
New Journalism of the '60s, wrote a much-discussed essay, "Stalking the
Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," for
Harper's magazine in 1989 in which he reviled minimalism and called on novelists
to bring the research skills of journalists to bear on their work and to paint
panoramic portraits of our times. Wolfe had the wild success of his own 1987
novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, to back up his claim that the public craved
this kind of social novel, but his call-to-notepads inspired more critical
debates than fiction. In 1996, as autobiographies like Mary Karr's The Liars'
Club extravagantly outsold literary fiction, James Atlas heralded the "Age
of the Literary Memoir" in The New York Times magazine. "Fiction isn't
delivering the news," he wrote. "Memoir is."
The critic Sven Birkerts, on the other hand, blames the evaporation of
"the Great American Novel, that elusive, totalizing entity that would
register like a faithful mirror the hopes, energies, contradictions, and
failings of postwar America," on the triumph of a culture of ceaseless,
vapid electronic babble in which literature just isn't taken seriously anymore.
Although Birkerts belongs firmly in the tradition of those cultural Cassandras
and doomsday scenarists who have been depicting society's imminent slide into
darkness since the age of Aristotle, he has a point. Authors often seem to be
returning the slight by excluding pop culture and the media from their fictional
worlds; such ephemera are often thought to trivialize or date the work.
However, a handful of literary novelists have been intent on conveying the
media-saturated texture of contemporary life, most notably Thomas Pynchon and
Don DeLillo, perhaps the most critically revered writers of fiction working
today. These authors depict a world of disorienting complexity and outlandish,
even absurd events often directed by unseen, sinister forces. They pack their
hefty novels with science, history, philosophical ruminations, and dozens of
characters, techniques that earned them the epithet "encyclopedic."
The encyclopedic novelists borrowed material and themes from all corners of high
and popular culture, but particularly from the intellectual vein of science
fiction, a genre with a tradition of speculation about the nature of humanity
and about the more monstrous aspects of complex technologies and the societies
that create them. (Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for a Nebula,
science fiction's most prestigious award, in 1974.) The visions of writers whose
work resides solidly within the science fiction genre--William Gibson and Philip
K. Dick in particular--gained wider audiences as readers found startlingly
prophetic reflections of contemporary life in their fantastic and often outright
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