It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today’s British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting. Current fiction does not startle, does not surprise, is not the source of controversy or contention: what is written today, what has been written since the time of the Second World War, can hardly rival what was written in the time immediately before it. And so the complaint: British fiction of the fifties, sixties and even most of the seventies variously appears as a monotonously protracted, realistically rendered monologue. It lacks excitement, wants drive, provides comforts not challenges. ‘Reviewing the history of the English novel in the twentieth century’, David Lodge has pointed out, ‘it is difficult to avoid associating the restoration of traditional realism with a perceptible decline in artistic achievement’. And Robin Rabinovitz, in a book portentously called The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960, observes that ‘the greatest fear of the English contemporary novelist is to commit a faux pas; every step is taken within prescribed limits, and the result is intelligent, technically competent, but ultimately mediocre’. Current British fiction seems to be characterized by a succession of efforts the accomplishments of which are insistently, critically and aesthetically negligible.
The charge, as a few apologists have tried to demonstrate, is not entirely true. Writers stand out from the rest – David Storey, for instance, B. S. Johnson, Roald Dahl and John Berger; John Fowles or Malcolm Bradbury could not be described as adverse to innovation; and J. G. Ballard and Alan Sillitoe come to mind as do Ian McEwan and several other young writers. But there is as well something to the critics’ complaint which simply can’t be dismissed. Contemporary literature is unsatisfying and not simply because social realism predominates or a prejudice against experiment persists – contrary to what so many American critics seem to suggest, an experimental work is no more an inevitable indication of an accomplished imagination than a realistically rendered one is a failed imaginative accomplishment. Current literature is unsatisfying simply for the sense it suggests of a steady, uninspired sameness, a predictable, even if articulate prattling of predictable predicaments. There are few new voices in British writing today, mostly just echoes: the nineteenth century persists nowhere as it does in the contemporary English novel.
Insulated. Enclosed. Consider the resistance to other influences, foreign influences. In 1961 Borges shared the International Publishers’ Prize with Beckett – his importance recognized at last, internationally. In 1962, Borges published Labyrinths, easily his most influential book. Translated it appeared in the United States and in France two years later. It was eight years before a British publisher printed it – ten years after the International Publishers’ Prize. The time it took a writer of the stature of Borges to reach England seems preposterous to consider; in the context of the apparent British attitude toward most new fiction on the other side of the Atlantic, and especially fiction from America, it is not preposterous but perfectly consistent.
Since the Second World War, American fiction has emerged as some of the most challenging, diversified and adventurous writing today. To describe what is happening now in the States as a literary renaissance does not seem inappropriate. A new voice has developed, a new kind of dialogue in fiction. But has England even recognized that it exists?
Who are the current American writers current in England today? Bellow, Updike, Pynchon or Mailer? Pop stars like Jong, Robbins, or Brautigan? The less conventional authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Grace Paley? Less conventional and less known, Barthleme, probably the most influential American author? A name. ‘The critical mood in England,’ Rabinovitz observed eleven years ago, ‘has produced a climate in which novels can flourish but anything out of the ordinary is given the denigratory label ”experiment” and neglected’. And the neglect persists. John Barth has barely survived the British press. Stanley Elkin’s last novel, already three years old, still does not have a British publisher; and the same applies to the last work of Leonard Michaels or Barry Hannah or Walter Abish, Tillie Olsen, or Ronald Sukenick. William Gass has only one book in print in England; Coover has only two; Gaddis, one; Percy, one; McMurty, one; Purdy, one. I think the point is clear. Despite the exemplary efforts of a few literary critics, Tony Tanner, Christopher Ricks, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, American fiction is still not recognized in England; or if recognized, that recognition is not acknowledged.
Much of what is written in the States today has clear, even if only casual affinities to what is written elsewhere – in France, Germany and recently Italy. It also has its international antecedents: some of contemporary American fiction was vaguely anticipated by the French nouveau roman in the early fifties, or, a little later, by the literary developments in Argentina and Mexico. The importance of Joyce is, of course, obvious; it is an importance, however, which can be exaggerated: the most noticeable feature of today’s writing is its newness, its independence from not only realistically rendered expression but also the expression of the Modernists as well, Lawrence, Proust, Woolf, Stein, and even Joyce himself. And it is this feature of independence which ultimately distinguishes American literature from even the nouveau roman, the aesthetic for which, as asserted by Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, is a fairly obvious, commonplace creed to anyone familiar with the Modernist tradition. In ‘An Essay on New Fiction’, Philip Stevick makes the observation that ‘something very basic has changed in the primacy and centrality of the narrative motive and the narrative appeal in the last ten years’ and that this change rests upon two assumptions, first
that the difference between Barthleme and Katherine Mansfield, between Pynchon and Hemingway, is not [simply] a difference of historical setting, or style, or technique, or subject, or tone, or mode . . . The difference between the two goes to the roots of the narrative act itself, is a difference in what it means to tell.
And, second, that
a perfectly amazing number of writers of considerable skill and utterly varied convictions about the nature of their art are flourishing at the present time, that along with some remarkably innovative fiction there are also some true and moving books being written with the technical resources of Balzac and Trollope, and that anything we say about any segment of the enormous body of contemporary fiction is bound to look partial and unjustifiably exclusive to anyone with a modest breadth of response.
This fiction arrives, of course, with its critical baggage, its terms, called variously at various times ‘surfiction’, ‘metafiction’ or generally ‘postmodernism’. ‘Postmodernism’ is easily the most popular and the most inadequate, but is useful if only because it directs us to the awareness that this fiction is different, is, as Stevick points out, discontinous ‘with the dominant figures of modernism’, which discontinuity is perhaps ‘one of the few qualities that unites new fiction’.
Stevick’s suggestion that it is impossible or premature to isolate many of the qualities that ‘unite new fiction’ is fair and fairly instructive, for what we perceive in American writing is an insistent diversity of the ways in which experience can be organized in prose. Diversity, of course, might easily stand as a comforting euphemism for unmanageable chaos – perhaps a just description of some of today’s writing – but for the most part we see what could be characterized as a debate, conducted through fiction, about fiction. On the one side, we have writers working out of a realist tradition, John Cheever or (but not consistently) John Updike; or an autobiographically informed realist tradition, Saul Bellow; or a naturalist one – with antecedents in Faulkner and Dreiser – as is sometimes evident in the work of Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty, or Robert Penn Warren; and on the other side, well, the other side is probably the most complex, the most difficult to define, united perhaps only by its opposition to the realistic or exclusively historical aesthetic. And its most articulate manifesto was provided twelve years ago by John Barth in ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, which refers to the exhausted possibilities or ‘the used-upness’ of forms and fiction possibilities, and which celebrates Borges as the artist who can ‘paradoxically turn the felt ultimacies of our time into material and means for his work – paradoxically because by doing so he transcends what had appeared to be his refutation’. The danger of a kind of writing which begins with the assumption that there is nothing to write about is immediately evident: it is vulnerable to the possibility of obliterating itself in its determination to demonstrate its own inadequacies. And a casual survey of what has been published in the sixties and is, but to a lesser extent, published today gives an idea of how close American writing has approached its own self-annihilation. As Theodore Solotaroff, former editor of the now defunct American Review, observes in his Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1978,
I have watched the definition of what makes a piece of writing a short story, or even fiction, pretty much collapse before my eyes and within my own mind . . . I have published a narrative monologue in which the speaker is a story that is trying to find its identity and to say alive . . . another which is based on an imaginary story by Borges . . . and another whose narrative line is a recipe for baking bread. American Review also published short fiction in the form of meditations and memoirs and vice versa, as well as chronicles in which the real and the imaginary freely mingle, an interview, an unsigned letter, or the liner notes to an album of songs by a country blues singer.
Much of the new fiction of the last ten or fifteen years is as incomplete as Solotaroff’s remarks suggest, or is at least as frustrating to read as the state of mind expressed is frustrated, cribbed, contained; but equally much of it is emancipating, achieving a quality of exhilarating freedom by having kept possibilities of writing open merely by announcing that the old ones are closed. And the search for new forms, new possibilities, new ways of expression is as varied as language itself.
One possibility which has emerged is what Robert Scholes calls ‘Fabulation’, which, he believes, signifies the contemporary writer’s
return to a more verbal kind of fiction. It also means a return to a more fictional kind. By this I mean less realistic more artistic . . . more shapely, more evocative; more concerned with ideas and ideals, less concerned with images.
Scholes definition is only a little less vague, but infinitely more inadequate, than the phenomenon he describes, but the quality he manages to isolate – the propensity to develop the fantastic, the extraordinary, the mythic – is a quality easily characteristic of today’s writing, organizing, almost as a principle, much of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Leonard Michaels, John Barth, or even John Updike. And it is here that Stevick’s point is evident, that the whole narrative act, the task of what it means to tell, has radically changed. The novel is seen no longer as strictly a representation of life – no simile is more out of place than the familiar mirror and the supposed nature it reflects – but rather as a making of life, merely an imagined configuration, a product of the mind, a verbal fiction, analogous to all the other fictions we inevitably construct when we explain experience, organize it, define it as reality. Language is the agency by which all definition is achieved, and thus language – the ways it can be shaped, developed, applied – assumes a new importance for the American writer, and assumes an importance to such an extent that Tony Tanner can advance the argument in City of Words that the relation of the recent American hero to his environment is virtually indistinguishable from the relation of the recent American writer to his language. The interest in language is manifest not simply as a new self-consciousness about style or as an insistently stylistic management and manipulation of idiom – tendencies certainly evident in today’s writing – but also as a fascination with the ways words structure perception, cognition, existence. Language, the stuff out of which fiction is shaped, becomes the stuff of fiction itself: the form of fiction is what fiction forms. ‘There are metatheorems in mathematics and logic’, William Gass says in ‘Philosophy and the Form of Fiction’,
Ethics has its linguistic oversoul, everywhere lingos to converse about lingos are being contrived, and the case is no different in the novel. I don’t mean those drearily predictable pieces about writers who are writing about what they are writing, but those, like some of the work of Borges, Barth and Flann O’Brien, for example, in which the forms of fiction serve as the material upon which further forms can be imposed. Indeed, many of the so-called anti-novels are really metafictions.
Analogues are appropriate. We see here, as Tanner points out, a vague suggestion of the Romantic impulse ‘to project the shape of one’s consciousness against the imprisoning shapes of the external world’; we see also a relation to the basic Structuralist recognition that all explanatory models for the fundamental states of affairs are myths or fictions: language, then, is just the means, the primary means, by which we make fictions for ourselves: to what extent, then, does the fiction that an author creates differ from the ones engendered voluntarily or involuntarily by the mind? Many writers today cease to pretend that their business is to render the world; they know that their business is to make fictions in a world of fictions. The work of Nabokov comes to mind – as does the work of William Gass, John Hawkes, Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin.
To consider all explanatory models myths point to a paradox central to many American writers, the paradox of being unable to believe in the objective validity of meanings but unable to do without them; or as aptly phrased by Leonard Michaels: ‘it is impossible to live with or without fictions’. To consider the paradox seriously is to consider implications which obliterate logic and invite a tame anarchy of the mind, in which all meaning collapses like melting plastics before the eye which tries to perceive it. The celebration of the ‘a-logical’ informs another kind of writing, the foremost representative of which is easily Donald Barthelme, whose fictions playfully demonstrate the fallacy that a relationship of value exists between the mind and the objects which surround it. The Barthelme story is a comic container for urban trash, arbitrarily collected, arbitrarily preserved, ‘We like books’, says one of the seven dwarfs in Barthelme’s Snow White,
that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or, indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of ‘sense’ of what is going on. This ‘sense’ is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves – looking at them and so arriving at a feeling not of satisfaction exactly, that is too much to expect, but of having read them, of having ‘completed’ them.
Barthelme points us to a disintegration of distinctions and leaves us, as William Gass says, with ‘a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value – a flatland junkyard – since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten pork chop mislaid in the garbage’.
Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Coover – their work represents one kind of writing which presupposes the inadequacies of linear logic, linear relationships, linear reality: and Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Coover can project a kind of art that exists almost as pure possibility, no longer enthralled by an empirical or normative order or even necessity itself. But Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth and Coover represent only one kind and their narrative only one kind of rejection of the conventional. We can also look to the non-fiction novel in which fact and fiction are deftly conflated, or in which the narrative potential available in the factual event is seen as more moving, more valuable than what is available to the imagination. The term non-fiction novel was, of course, first used to describe Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a retelling of an actual crime but retold with all the command and authority of a suspenseful thriller or the engaging realistic work, but the term applies itself to the work of Mailer, to that of many of today’s German writers (Böll, Grass and Andersch), and even to New Journalism. A distrust of conventional forms, the suspicion that conventional forms are dishonest, manipulative, deceiving, also appears as the impulse for the strictly, exclusively autobiographical novel, and autobiographical here is not to suggest a work autobiographically informed as, for instance, the novels of Bellow or Roth or Sylvia Plath, but merely a work of autobiography, the author’s, told in a form that suggests fiction. Frederic Exley’s A Fan Notes is an example; Frank Conroy’s Stop Time is another, in which Conroy, at a young age, just as he is about to re-enter the university, sits down and writes his own autobiography, without any apparent or overt structuring of any of the details he depicts. In all of this work, the non-fiction and the autobiographical novel, there is the determination to provide what the conventional narrative no longer seems to be capable of containing – existence as it appears to us now; and the source of the determination was probably best expressed as early as 1961 by Philip Roth in his ‘Writing Fiction Today’:
The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and, finally, it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of the novelist.
Roth’s article was important, when it appeared, articulating the concerns evident, either casually or urgently, in most American writing at that time. Roth’s article, however, is somewhat dated by now: more than eighteen years have passed since it was published. Indeed, much of the work discussed here – the non-fiction, the autobiographical, and the insistently self-referential novel – represents past discoveries more than they do immediate developments; many of these efforts, although still unfamiliar to most British readers, are emblematic of past struggles and past achievements. In Cold Blood was published in 1961, A Fan Notes a year later and Stop Time in the year after that. Even Barth’s ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ was written twelve years ago. As past ambitions and achievements, however, these works are collectively noteworthy, manifesting the first recognition of the particular difficulties, the particular indeterminancies which exist not in just the twentieth century, but in time since the Second World War. But even as an important manifestation of an important recognition, much of this writing inevitably appears incomplete, vaguely inadequate: it hasn’t gone far enough. There is a sense, suggested by much of the fiction of the sixties and early seventies, of cold, passionless study – gleeful and gratuitous experimentation as regularly insensitive as the America depicted.
Something else is demanded, and the demand is obvious as an increasing dissatisfaction elicited by fiction which demonstrates its ultimacies and nothing more; an irritation with the non-linear story that gets nowhere and takes forever not getting there. To rush into the senselessness and then to refuse to go further, to locate the incoherent and the mutable and the predominance of its impersonal media only to refuse to rise above it, is simply not enough. The power of so much of this fiction depends upon the conventions it violates. But there comes a point when the disruption of conventional expectations becomes its own convention, when the standards against which we perceive its deviations are no longer operative. And a new recognition is necessary.
Again, it is useful to return to Theodore Solotaroff. As editor of the American Review through the latter part of the sixties and the first part of the seventies, Solotaroff published again and again experimental and innovative fiction. There are few people more receptive to new ideas, new forms of expression: he has seated himself squarely in the centre of the literary scene. He no longer edits the American Review – it no longer exists – but this year, with the death of Martha Foley, he collected the fiction for the Best American Short Stories 1978. The criterion he now uses is instructive. ‘From a simple faith in the use of the story,’ Solotaroff says,
derives most of the standpoint from which I have selected the following stories. Though I try to remain open to innovation, I am more likely to respond to it as content – the opening up of fresh areas of common experience or the reclamation of banal ones through a strongly felt and rendered point of view – than as new ways of telling a story. The non-linear anti-narrative generally leaves me cold and impatient, since for all of its air of defiance it is usually playing society’s game, re-fragmenting the delicate membranes that join body, mind, heart, spirit – and dining out, as it were, on the incoherent.
Solotaroff’s impatience with the ‘anti-narrative’ is hardly a call to return to traditional fiction, as the very stories he selects bears out: works by authors like Stanley Elkin, Harold Brodkey, Jonathan Baumbach are hardly conventional. It is more a recognition that fiction having reached its ultimacy is now going beyond it; that writers having recognized the unsurpassable are now determined to surpass it. Even in the context of the impossible, new possibilities emerge like dreams.
The kind of development obliquely claimed by Solotaroff is, we hope, evident in what we have collected for this issue. But the kind of development Solotaroff claims is only one. There are others, other patterns: far too many patterns to be traced satisfactorily by an introduction of this sort. The work of new women writers, for instance, has not even been touched upon here. Another is the work emblematic of a new emerging regionalism – a variety of fictions expressing the concerns of not just the established literary regions, the South and the East, but the West Coast and the Mid-West as well. And there is more, but to continue listing is hardly valuable. As Stevick has indicated, it is impossible to place all that is being written today in comforting categories to comfort the mind. The generalizations made here are evidence of Stevick’s assertion: push them a little and they will fold over and collapse.
There are many voices expressing American fiction and that expression is hardly harmonious. But it is the discord that is the source of the literary development, the energy, the achievement. What exists in the States, what does not exist in England, is a dialogue, which to ignore is to be irresponsible. And it is this dialogue which provides the occasion for debate and definition, the possibility of the polemic, the presence to be resisted or affirmed. A place for the imagination to practise.
No one issue of any one magazine can convey an adequate impression of all that is written in the States. What we present here is hardly comprehensive; it is a kind of energetic failure, if representative, suggestively representative. The issue we have organized has developed less from a specific principle of selection than a more general one of general collection: to provide, as much as possible, a broad sense of some of today’s writers whose work has been neglected or even unknown in England.
It is unlikely that all of the fiction presented here will present itself as wholly attractive to any one mind, which, of course, bears out the central assertion of this issue’s occasion: that discourse, even if that discourse appears as oppositions, is not just productive but necessary to the making of literature. And we believe that the elements of that discourse are evident in this collection. No one story could ever represent the whole.
The editors wish to express a special and especially grateful thanks to the authors who have contributed to this issue or helped in its development. The response of all authors to our solicitings has always been enthusiastic and generous. In fact, the response has been so generous and so encouraging that we have deferred much of the American fiction promised us until the next issue, which, we hope, should include, among many other pieces, stories from Robert Coover and John Updike, a selection from John Barth’s forthcoming novel, and an article on current fiction by James Snead.
This issue, aside from introducing new fiction, also introduces a new policy for Granta, for which this issue itself is perhaps emblematic. We are now dedicated to encouraging an exchange of fiction and discussions about it, now devoted to the idea of the dialogue in prose about prose. And while we intend to publish poetry as well – and invite contributions – it will be prose that will be our primary concern. All manuscripts are welcome.