11 March 2006

The Unreal "Real World"

James Wood muses in Prospect on realism in contemporary fiction.

The major struggle in American fiction today is over the question of realism. Anywhere fiction is discussed with partisan heat, a faultline emerges, with "realists" and traditionalists on one side and postmodernists and experimentalists on the other. No comparable struggle exists in British fiction because experimental fiction has never been substantial enough to mount a decent campaign against the dominant discourse. But the 1960s avant-garde in America was full of talent and vigour. In addition to writers like John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino, who never really reached popular audiences, many of the avant-gardists of that period became mainstream, notably Thomas Pynchon and the delightful story-writer Donald Barthelme and William Gass, and the unclassifiable Kurt Vonnegut. The heirs of this era of experiment might include Don DeLillo, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis and Ben Marcus, all very different from each other and of different ages, but all committed in one way or another to going beyond realism. A testament to the success of avant-gardism in America was offered, in 1986, by Philip Roth's The Counterlife, which took just what it needed from postmodern narrative games in order to make a fundamentally metaphysical argument about the different ways of living, and narrating, a life. In a younger generation, Jonathan Franzen's writings about whether he is a highbrow artist or a popular entertainer, and his tortured negotiations with the legacies of DeLillo and William Gaddis, are difficult to imagine without the challenge of American experimentalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are at least two other large reasons for the vitality of this struggle in American fiction. One has to do with the anti-intellectualism of a good deal of American writing, and the other with the perceived traditionalism of creative writing programmes, always suspected of exerting a grey monopoly over American writing. The two complaints may be linked. The "hardboiled-dom" that Saul Bellow named as an obstacle to mental life on the first page of his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944, has tended to combine male reticence with an artisanal commitment to "craft"—the latter being, necessarily so, generally a matter of mastering a set of realist techniques. The separation of creative writing programmes and English departments is generally profound in most colleges; one does technique, the other does ideas. It's dismaying to find the richly talented novelist and short story writer Richard Yates, in Blake Bailey's biography, installed at Iowa in the 1970s, almost dead from booze and cigarettes, and dismissing not only Bellow and Roth but even poetry for being too airy-fairy. Yates's marvellous stories have, accordingly, been promoted by male traditionalists like Richard Ford, André Dubus and Richard Russo, though they rightly belong to everyone.

"Realism Rules (Still)" (Mar 2006) (typography corrected).

What I find interesting is Wood's failure to recognize that a substantial proportion of what he calls "experimental" fiction is just speculative fiction that somehow sneaked into the "high literature" portion of the bookstore. Auster, Barth, and Donald Barthelme1 have all written works that would be very comfortable among the dragons, unicorns, robots, and rocketships in the disreputable "science fiction" section of any reasonably large bookstore. Pynchon and Vonnegut, and probably Wallace, belong there by default;2 they have occasionally trespassed outside of speculative fiction, rather than occasionally adventured inside it. And I'm just not familiar enough with Lydia Davis and Ben Marcus to venture an opinion.

Comparison to that elves-and-mad-scientists stuff is enough to explain the hostility in major parts of the academy. What that forgets is that the fictional mode is in service of the story (and its themes, characters, plot, and prose)—not the other way around. This is an unfortunate side effect of bookstores (and too many libraries) choosing to organize themselves around marketing categories. It's not like the Canon's literary lions didn't spend a little time on the veldt (two points to anyone who recognizes that allusion); a random sampling finds multiple works from Atwood, Dante, Dickens, Eliot, Marlowe, Orwell, Powers, Shakespeare, Swift, Twain, and Voltaire that belong in That Part of the Store but for academic insistance, and more singletons than I can name conveniently.3

Thus, I think there is both more and less than Wood sees. He wants to see these works side by side, and studies for their own merit. So do I; I just don't think studying twentieth-century American fiction without Bradbury, Dick, Ellison, Le Guin, and Wolfe (to name a random few) is a good idea—or even possible.

  1. But not Frederic, or at least not that I've encountered.
  2. Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow—the works that made his reputation—definitely belong with the science fiction books, and there are elements of alternate reality in most of his other book-length works. Do I really need to point out the threads of the fantastic in Vonnegut's or Wallace's works.