Tuesday, October 10, 2006
A World Apart: “Contemporary Literature” and the Academy--Part III
Together Radical Innocence and After Alienation did help to establish for American fiction of mid-century an identity separate from the “modern” fiction of the era following on World War I and clearly placed in the context of post-World War II American culture. One could even argue that although the concepts of “radical innocence” and “accommodation” seem to be at some variance as critical terms for apprehending this identity, they are actually two sides of the same critical coin, a retreat from “alienation” that, given the conditions of the immediate postwar period, assuredly requires the most radical kind of innocence. But by 1971, when Tony Tanner’s City of Words was published, the stability of that identity delineated by Hassan and Klein is plainly in question, and the critical effort needed to keep track of the direction in which fiction is heading has greatly expanded.
The most immediately noticeable sign of that expanded effort in City of Words is the very breadth of its coverage of “American Fiction 1950-1970.” Well over twenty American fiction writers are given extended treatment in Tanner’s book, many others are discussed more briefly, and Tanner apologizes in his preface for being unable to get to at least a dozen more. This encyclopedic approach is accompanied by a surprising variety in selection, despite the more specific emphasis on what might be called “experimental” fiction that emerges from the book; certainly it is more interested in the formally and stylistically bolder fiction that was appearing in the 1960s than either Radical Innocence or After Alienation. While Tanner examines the work of such now notoriously postmodern writers as John Barth, John Hawkes, and Thomas Pynchon, he also includes chapters on Malamud, Ellison, John Updike, and Norman Mailer, none of them plain stylists to be sure, but certainly all considered “mainstream” postwar novelists. The diversity of subjects and approach represented by these writers would seem to cast doubt on the enterprise of establishing a commonality among their novels and stories based on a shared cultural outlook or any single imputed theme.
Another significant difference between City of Words and its two predecessors (both of which Tanner himself cites as forerunners in the preface to his book) is the method by which Tanner claims to have come to the critical insight about postwar fiction that serves as the book’s thesis, embodied in its title. “When I started thinking about writing this book,” Tanner writes, “I had no preconceived notions about recurrent themes by which I could group writers, or neat categories in which I could place their work. If anything, I embarked on my readings and re-readings motivated mainly by a sense of admiration for the wide range of individual talent which has emerged in American fiction during the last two decades.” Instead, “with continued intensive reading, certain recurring preoccupations, concerns, even obsessions, began to emerge from what at first appeared to be very dissimilar novels” (15). Thus, while one senses that Hassan and Klein approached their projects with preconceived philosophical and political ideas they hoped to illustrate through their selection of writers and texts, Tanner is more genuinely presenting a reading of the fiction he cites, a consideration of its manifest features as they make themselves apparent to the critic interested in identifying them. This is arguably, in fact, the most revealing and impressive feature of City of Words itself, one that finally distinguishes it most clearly from books like Radical Innocence and After Alienation, and one that regrettably few later studies of contemporary fiction really shared. Tanner gives the impression, at least, of giving his attention to the immediately experiential qualities of his texts, of taking from them what they have to give—of being concerned first and foremost with what these texts have to offer as literary creations.
Tanner’s interest in the literary character of current fiction is expressed most directly in his book’s focus on language, on the tendencies of style he finds at work in much of this fiction. Although the specific styles of the disparate group of writers are distinctive enough (a fact of which Tanner takes due account in his individual analyses of their fiction), Tanner does delineate a common impulse among these writers to accentuate style to the point of making language itself implicitly one of the subjects their fiction pursues. So insistent is this impulse that Tanner introduces the term “foregrounding” to describe “the use of language in such a way that it draws attention to itself—often by its originality.” Even more pointedly, Tanner suggests that in some cases of especially self-referential styles “within the same book words can be both referential and part of a verbal display” (20). Although Tanner is attentive as well to other formal and thematic elements of this fiction that takes its readers to the “city of words” (of plot he writes: “narrative lines are full of hidden persuaders, hidden dimensions, plots, secret organizations, evil systems, all kinds of conspiracies against spontaneity of consciousness, even cosmic take-over” (16)), it is this thesis about the self-reflexivity of postwar fiction and Tanner’s thorough exegesis of his selected texts in illustration of it that continues to make City of Words an intriguing and rewarding work of historically informed literary criticism.
Along with Robert Scholes’s The Fabulators (1967) (discussed below in its later republished version, Fabulation and Metafiction), City of Words is the first critical study to take note of this new self-reflexive fiction. While the word “postmodern” does not appear in Tanner’s book, what would soon routinely be called by that name is, retrospectively at least, clearly the real subject with which Tanner is engaged. In many ways Tanner’s analysis of this fiction captures its most essential characteristics and identifies its most important practitioners; other, later, books would concentrate more intensively on “metafiction,” on black humor, on the “art of excess,” but few of them would really advance that much beyond the insights into the foregrounding of style, the creation of “verbal space,” the American writer’s antipathy to “conditioning forces,” afforded by City of Words. For that matter, no later elucidation of the artistic motives or conceptual designs behind the practice of literary postmodernism quite explains the whole phenomenon as well as Tanner’s observation that “American writers seem from the first to have felt how tenuous, arbitrary, and even illusory, are the verbal constructs which men call descriptions of reality” (27).
Nevertheless, throughout the two decades following the publication of City of Words—the period during which “contemporary literature” was accepted in the academic curriculum as an intellectually respectable subject of study—the perceived cutting edge in academic criticism of contemporary fiction was unquestionably criticism about or related to the innovative writers who could plausibly be associated with the postmodern. Indeed, a serious scrutiny of academic scholarship in general during these years would just as unquestionably reveal that the burgeoning critical and scholarly discourse on “postmodernism” more generally was derived more or less directly from this original discourse on the postmodern in American fiction. To the extent that City of Words stands as the precursor to these later books and scholarly articles, it must be said to have initiated what has been to date the most influential line of academic critical fashion in the study of contemporary literature. Unfortunately, so prominent, in fact did this line become that the very word “postmodern” would eventually be understood by many as almost synonymous with “academic” in its most imposing and ponderous mode, and in turn postmodern fiction would be classified as academic in an equally derogatory sense of the term.