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 multiple realities.
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 paranoid scenarios.
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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