A new fiction seems to be emerging from America, and it is a fiction of a peculiar and haunting kind. It is not only unlike anything currently written in Britain, but it is also remarkably unlike what American fiction is usually understood to be. It is not heroic or grand: the epic ambitions of Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow seem, in contrast, inflated, strange, even false. It is not self-consciously experimental like so much of the writing – variously described as ‘postmodern’, ‘postcontemporary’ or ‘deconstructionist’ – that was published in the sixties and seventies. The work of John Bart, William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon seem pretentious in comparison. It is not a fiction devoted to making the large historical statement.
It is instead a fiction of a different scope – devoted to the local details, the nuances, the little disturbances in language and gesture – and it is entirely appropriate that its primary form is the short story and that it is so conspicuously part of the American short story revival. But these are strange stories: unadorned, unfurnished, low-rent tragedies about people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances or listen to country and western music. They are waitresses in roadside cafés, cashiers in supermarkets, construction workers, secretaries and unemployed cowboys. They play bingo, eat cheeseburgers, hunt deer and stay in cheap hotels. They drink a lot and are often in trouble: for stealing a car, breaking a window, pickpocketing a wallet. They are from Kentucky or Alabama or Oregon, but, mainly, they could just about be from anywhere: drifters in a world cluttered with junk food and the oppressive details of modern consumerism.
This is a curious, dirty realism about the belly-side of contemporary life, but it is realism so stylized and particularized – so insistently informed by a discomforting and sometimes elusive irony – that it makes the more traditional realistic novels of, say, Updike or Styron seem ornate, even baroque in comparison. Many, like Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, or Frederick Barthelme, write in a flat, ‘unsurprised’ language, pared down to the plainest of plain styles. The sentences are stripped of adornment, and maintain complete control on the simple objects and events that they ask us to witness; it is what’s not being said – the silences, the elisions, the omissions – that seems to speak most. It is, as Frank Kermode has observed of Raymond Carver in particular, a ‘fiction so spare in manner that it takes time before one realized how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition are being represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.’
Jayne Anne Phillips describes the same work in a slightly different fashion – as being about ‘how things fall apart and what is left when they do’ – and her description could easily serve for her own work and for that of the other writers included here. These authors are, from one perspective, the youth of the sixties grown, a generation suspicious of heroes, crusades and easy idealism. It is possible to see many of these stories as quietly political, at least in their details, but it is a politics considered from an arm’s length: they are stories not of protest but of the occasion for it.
This issue of Granta selects seven authors – a more comprehensive collection might include Mary Robinson, Ann Beattie, Richard Yates, Jean Thompson and Stephen Dixon – who share many of the same assumptions about language, character and narrative. It begins with Jayne Anne Phillips’s memoir of the seventies as a kind of historical starting point and ends with Tobias Wolff’s novella depicting the relationship between men and the military in the sixties – itself a work worthy of a cover.
The last issue of Granta was an extremely special issue devoted to new work from each of the twenty authors selected by the Book Marketing Council for its campaign to promote the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. It was, like this one, co-published with Penguin Books, but as this issue is our first proper issue under our new collaboration it is perhaps the most appropriate issue to give thanks to Penguin Books for being prepared to help in Granta’s development and to undertake and to undertake to get Granta to an audience much larger than what it has ever enjoyed before.