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The Next Generation In Fiction

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

Recently I came across an issue of a slick mischievous New York magazine, Spy, which featured a satire entitled “Post-Postmodern.” In it appeared various checklists to help you tell what is PoMo, as it is now called, and what is not. If a painting contains naked figures and broken china arranged in a mysterious and arbitrary manner, it is PoMo. If a building has pilasters and the same color scheme as the 1984 Summer Olympics, it is PoMo. If a novel or short story contains shopping lists, menus, and reminds one of Céline if Céline had watched a lot of television, it is PoMo. There is even a “Do-It-Yourself Postmodern Retrofit Kit” in the article which provides you with little pastel cubes, cones, and pyramids you may cut out, fold, and attach to your toaster, tackle box, or whatnot to make it PoMo. My stapler is now comme il faut.

In 1980 21 articles appeared in major American newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times that used the word “postmodern.” In 1984 there were 116. In 1987 there were 247. The frequency of the term increases each year, but the intelligence of its use does not. “Postmodern” is now applied to parkas, Senator Paul Simon’s political style, and baseball. Elle’s November, 1986, issue carried this approximation of a sentence: “Fad hatting for fall by the Postmodern milliner [Sherry] Vigdot.” In a word, “postmodern” is now applied willy-nilly to objects, ideas, and situations by people who do not know what it means to make those people, who are not smart, sound smart. “It’s evolved,” concludes the piece in Spy, “into the sort of buzzword that people tack onto sentences when they’re trying to sound more educated than they fear they really are, not unlike the way gestalt was used in the 1970’s, or science in the Dark Ages.”

Margot Asquith, the second wife of the British prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, did not like the sportsman Lord Lonsdale. Once someone praised his prowess as a horseman within earshot of her. “Jump?” Margot Asquith said. “Anyone can jump. Look at fleas.” It is the same with PoMo. At the moment our culture acknowledged and endorsed the concept of postmodernity with abandon (and I would place that moment near the outset of this decade), the concept effectively died, suffocated by the flabby weight of its own trendiness. To bring the new avant-garde into the establishment, no matter in what mangled form, is to begin to traditionalize the avant-garde, to stabilize a way of thinking whose essence was supposed to be destabilization. As soon as we as a culture begin to develop a menu of conventional anticonventions for postmodernism, petrifaction has set in and my stapler has become passé, simply one more stapler with an angular pastel bonnet in a sea of them. Something has, as Samuel Beckett’s Clov pointed out in 1957, run its course. And it is only a matter of time before our incredibly self-conscious culture in its frenzied pursuit of the New at any cost once again attempts to define itself, and define itself once again differently.

PoMo petrifaction has entered into contemporary fiction in an interesting way. Those American writers associated with the postmodern—John Earth, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, William Gaddis, and so on—are all well over 40 years old now. Several of them are well over 50. They have all, that is, become part of the older generation of writers. The young rebels are not young any more. They are the literary establishment, the status quo. The rising generation of writers perceives them as father figures. For a time in the mid-to late 70’s, Donald Barthelme had more imitators in college creative writing programs than Hemingway. But ultimately there is only one thing for a younger generation of writers to do with an older generation of writers—for children to do with their parents—and that is to revolt. The urge of the young is always to create their own unique space in language and experience, and this is just what many of the new generation of fiction writers have done by turning away from what they sense are wornout “experimental” techniques. After all, they say, the same experiment repeated a dozen times is no longer an experiment. It is a convention. And it is a convention that needs to be overturned.

Moreover, even several writers of the older generation have begun abandoning the very postmodern strategies they helped pioneer. In Latin American fiction, for instance, Gabriel García Márquez, while still maintaining a certain mythological resonance in his work, has moved away from the magical realism which such writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar spawned, and which García Márquez himself made famous in One Hundred years of Solitude (1970), where a description of ice becomes all mystery and bedazzlement and where a trickle of blood from the wounds of a man who just committed suicide matter-of-factly winds its way across town, down steps and over curbs, around corners and under closed doors, hugging walls so as not to damage the rugs, all the way to a woman making bread in her kitchen. He has begun moving toward a more realistic vein in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1982) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1988), and even toward something approaching journalism in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1986). He has begun to be innovative through his lack of innovation.


It is extremely difficult to speak of those who appear to be among the rising generation of American fiction writers as a coherent group, just as it is difficult to speak of any generation of fiction writers as a coherent group. Our age is pluralistic, if nothing else. This is particularly true when seen from close up—which is, alas, the only way we shall be allowed to see it. Nonetheless, certain common traits do seem to cluster around these novelists and short story writers, or at least around a certain subset of them. If postmodern fiction as practiced by such different creators as Ronald Sukenick, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Peter Handke suggests a mode of radical skepticism that refuses univocality, total intelligibility, closure, and absolute significance, then the new fiction as practiced by such different creators as Ellen Gilchrist, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Frederick Barthelme suggests the obvious pragmatic point that none of us can bear the literary analogue of insanity for very long. It is as though suddenly one afternoon in the mid-70’s almost everyone then a student in creative writing programs across the country decided PoMo was boring and untenable. And almost everyone decided to move along to something else. The new fiction they produced became a reaction against postmodern formal experimentation which eventually led to a philosophical decomposition of self and world. It became a reaction against postmodern elitist obfuscation which tried to pass itself off as democratization in art and which tended to transform fiction into an exquisitely cerebral puzzle to be solved rather than an emotionally rich world to be experienced. And it became a reaction against postmodern apolitical self-reflexivity which tried to pass itself off as political subversion while at the same time disclaiming any relationship between language and life, thereby leaving behind the social dimension of fiction.

The pastiche, the linguistic play, the intrusion of fantasy into ostensibly realistic settings, and the clever gymnastics fell into dormancy. In their place awoke a new form and a new set of concerns which many have begun to call “neorealism.” Although the father of this sort of writing, the late Raymond Carver, published two books of poetry in the late sixties and early seventies, it was his pared-down 1976 book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, nominated for the National Book Award, that brought his voice the recognition it deserved. His stark and intense 1981 collection, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, began to work its magic on the new generation. His aesthetic is the antimatter of PoMo. “I’m against tricks that call attention to themselves in an effort to be clever or merely devious,” he said to one interviewer. “I’m not interested in works that are all texture and no flesh and blood. I guess I’m old fashioned enough to feel that the reader must somehow be involved at the human level.”

If Carver is the father of neorealism, then Ann Beattie is the mother. She also gained recognition in 1976 with her novel Chilly Scenes of Winter, which was later made into a movie, and her short story collection Distortions. Her second collection, Secrets and Surprises, dazzled the publishing world when it quickly sold 7,000 copies in hardcover when it appeared in 1978. Her work chronicles the aimless post-60’s generation via a dispassionate and polished prose as they wander through a middle-class America of rock’n’roll songs, shopping malls, and glazed suburban streets. Influenced by the photorealists in painting, she concentrates on what she calls “small moments,” tiny disturbances in the environment where, according to her, “something introduce[s] itself into th[e] scene that is far more interesting than the essential composition of the scene, or the reality of it, or anything else I might imagine about it. It forces you not to imagine.”

Other writers soon followed Carver’s and Beattie’s lead. Jayne Anne Phillips’s first full-scale collection, Black Tickets (1979) was given a prominent review by her teacher, John Irving, in The New York Times. Although Thomas McGuane published his first and fairly experimental novel, The Sporting Club, in 1969, he did not gain wide attention until the publication of the more realistic Nobody’s Angel in 1983, the same year Bobbie Ann Mason flashed into sight with her first collection, Shiloh and Other Stories, which quietly probes the psychology of young divorcees and bewildered parents living for the most part in rural western Kentucky, and which sold more than 15,000 copies in hardcover and then went immediately into paper. A year later Jay Mclnerney’s first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, about the amoral highspeed drug culture of Manhattan, was published and became so popular that it was made into a movie in 1988. Ellen Gilchrist won a National Book Award in 1985 for her neorealist collection, Victory over Japan.

During the last few years, less well-known American writers such as Percival Everett, Rachel Salazar, David Shields, Susan Engberg, and Michael Chabon have appropriated many neorealist techniques in their work. The same phenomenon has also apparently crossed the Atlantic. Recently neorealism has begun turning up in Britain with the fiction of such young writers as Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, and A.N. Wilson. But perhaps the most widely recognized author of the younger generation there is Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis’s son. His fifth novel, Money, gained him the epithet Bad Boy of London when it appeared in 1984. It centers on the near demise of a film director named John Self who lives in the alcoholic fastlanes of New York and London amid a universe of power, sex, and film, and who soon comes to realize a very contemporary fact: “If you lose your rug, you can get a false one. If you lose your laugh, you can get a false one. If you lose your mind, you can get a false one.”

Bret Easton Ellis’s nihilistic first novel, Less Than Zero, is an emblem of neorealism. It was published in 1985, when the author was only 20 years old. It tracks the coming-of-age of a teenager, Clay, who wanders through affluent Los Angeles in a perpetual narcosis. His sister and her friends casually watch porno films in the living room. His male friends become prostitutes to pay back their drug debts. Clay off-handedly notes that he has begun sneezing blood because his sinuses have been chewed up by cocaine. One reviewer wrote that Ellis “tells us a tale of collegiate Christmas in LA that makes Jack Kerouac and his Beat Generation seem like pussies,” and another claimed that “this is the novel your mother warned you about. Jim Morrison would be proud.” The following passage is typical:

After I leave the party, I head for The Roxy, where X is playing. It’s almost midnight and The Roxy is crowded and I find Trent standing near the entrance and he asks me where I’ve been and I don’t say anything and then he hands me a drink. It’s hot in the club and I hold the drink up to my forehead, my face. Trent mentions that Rip’s here and I walk with Trent over to where Rip is, and Trent tells me that they’re going to be singing “Sex and Dying in High Society” any minute now and I say “That’s great.” Rip’s wearing black 501’s and a white X T-shirt and Spin’s wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Gumby. Pokey. The Blockheads” and black 501’s also.

Here is a fiction that has returned us to the world and to the notion of character with a vengeance. Often it is the narrative of the middle-class. It taps into contemporary fashion, into our culture’s obsession with looking good and being hip, into the trendiness of dance clubs and jeans and alcohol and drugs and sex. It taps into our consumer society packed with brand names and the details of our ruined culture’s detritus. We find for the first time in decades a generation of writers who believe in the universe out there, a nitty-gritty empirical universe that the reader can smell, see, and touch. Moreover, we find a narrative that believes in its own logic: in chronology, in plot, in psychology, in selfhood. This is the universe of communal reality, a realm where content is privileged over form, where language is transparent, where stylistic pyrotechnics are secondary, and where it is assumed that the word mirrors the world. 

Frequently the characters in this fiction are deprived of illusions and light, exhausted with life by the time they are out of puberty. Commonly they are less immoral than simply morally numb as they float entropically through a wasted cityscape which for them possesses no inherent value or meaning. They thoughtlessly inhabit the necrotic universe of a flashy downtown social scene, fast cars, and chic suburbia. Their dialogue is spare, undifferentiable, and elliptical. It is usually cynical and ironic, concerned with what is below the surface, with the disjunction between what is said (or, more precisely, routinely what is not said) and what is meant. Their stories are short on plot, short on action, short on explication, sometimes as fractured and dislocated with jumpcuts as an hour of MTV. They are stories told in a minimal style of absence which at times seems like an absence of style. Their language is restrained, filled with suppressed emotion, with the announcement of void in a structure without complexity or individuality, where syntax bespeaks a vacuum and gives the lie to the idea that one can express anything important.

With some minor modifications, of course, I have just described the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, a writer whom both Carver and Beattie cite as a major influence upon their work. This is not an accident. Certainly Ellis’s clipped flat subject-verb-object sentences composed of a series of clauses joined by simple conjunctions echo Hemingway’s style, and his disconnected characters who compose a new lost generation echo Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley, and Nick Adams. In fact, it seems to me that if Carver and Beattie may be viewed as the parents of neorealism, then Hemingway may be viewed as its grandparent, and Flaubert (“Prose is architecture,” Carver says, quoting the Frenchman) as its great-grandfather. From a certain perspective, then, neorealism becomes a gentle longing for an old realism. Surely at the formal and perhaps even at the thematic level it becomes in a very real sense a conservative vision of reality—a vision that wishes to conserve a way of writing, a way of seeing, an optic through which one looks backwards rather than ahead. Neorealism is a product of the American settlement, not of the American frontier.It also manifests a world view whose philosophical equivalent tracks back through the British tradition of Mill, Hume, and Locke to the classical launch site of Aristotle, Protagoras, and Socrates. It is a perspective highly suspicious of intellectualist academic philosophy, and it seeks meaning in action, in the concrete, in jagged facts, believing along with Proust that things are gods. According to it, ideas and narrative techniques are not just airy playtoys to fool with freely as the postmoderns of a generation ago believed. Neorealism hence has much in common with pragmatism in general, Jamesian pragmatism in particular, the antithesis of postmodern Platonic idealism which relishes the gratuitous examination of its own linguistic and metaphysical navel for fragmented chapters on end. And, like the fiction of Hemingway and Fitzgerald during another decade that felt a little smug with its accomplishments, it often reintroduces the social dimension into fiction by presenting the morally blasted society of late capitalism for its readers to evaluate.

At the same time, however, I should not want to go so far as to say that neorealism is simply a gentle longing for an old realism. It is not only a tiresome recapitulation of previous forms and themes. To repeat, after all, is to change. As Borges well knew, Don Quixote composed in the second half of the 20th century would be a very different text indeed from Don Quixote composed in the first half of the 17th. Neorealism does not solely represent an attempt at rediscovering the wheel and watching it spin in circles. Rather, it marks a realism that, unlike any other, has moved through the furnace of postmodernity and come out the other side never able to be quite the same again. Unlike the realists of the 19th century such as Balzac and Howells, and unlike the realists of the early 20th century such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the practitioners of neorealism seem to sense that certain battles fought during the 60’s and 70’s about issues such as mimesis versus experimentalism, moral versus immoral fiction, self-reflexive versus so-called realistic forms have lost their kick, have lost their interest. Neorealism seems to accept that realism is not by definition necessarily nonexperimental or nonsubversive, that realism is not necessarily one thing. A paradox arises on the heels of this realization, though. Neorealism asserts that the aesthetic revolution of the 60’s and 70’s opened up new avenues for fiction while at the same time it asserts that the new options opened up are in fact variations on the old options.


George Bernard Shaw, an indomitable vegetarian, once refused to attend a huge testimonial whose menu was vegetarian. When asked why he did so, Shaw answered: “The thought of two thousand people crunching celery at the same time horrified me.” The thought of two thousand writers chomping neorealism at the same time horrifies me. So I should hasten to add that these writers are not as identical as my shorthand might at first indicate. While it is clear that a rising generation of writers has turned from PoMo to a revamped realism, and while it is clear that those writers share many concerns and many techniques, it is also clear that they vary widely and wonderfully from each other. Ellis may nihilistically focus on the affluent in L.A. and Beattie on the East Coast in general, but both Amis and McInerney insert a small if steady moral charge into their work. Frederick Barthelme and Percival Everett may not seem to care much for their characters, but both Mason and Carver clearly love theirs. Jayne Anne Phillips and Thomas McGuane may often strip their work of humor, but laughter lies at the heart of both Martin Amis’s and David Shield’s prose.

Nor should I want to suggest that neorealism is the only direction the new generation of fiction writers is travelling. A young group of late postmoderns has recently cartwheeled onto the scene. T.C. Boyle, who has dubbed the new movement in fiction Catatonic Realism, writes high-energy fiction about women eloping with lab monkeys, men on the moon, and a rain of blood in his first collection, Descent of Man (1979). Kathy Acker outpomos the PoMos in neoexpressionistic pastiches of prose and drawings such as Blood and Guts in High School (1984), the pornographic and violent tale of a Persian slave trader who kidnaps a young woman and teaches her how to be a prostitute. The antihumanist cyberpunks such as William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Tom Maddox—all literary offspring of Thomas Pynchon—are revolutionizing science fiction by their new adoration of the technological.

All in all, young writers charged with the anxiety of influence take no greater delight than in undermining their fictional forefathers. This is nothing out of the ordinary. Literary history tends to work that way. Romantic experimentation storms the pristine sanctuaries of neoclassicism. Victorian conservatism tames the radicalism of romantic experimentation. Modern formal fireworks explode the bulwarks of Victorian conservatism. Writers coming into prominence in the last decades of this century subvert the writers who came into prominence in the next to last decades of this century— successfully, I might add. A register of this is that R.V. Cassill recently dropped stories by John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Mark Costello and other postmoderns that appeared in earlier editions of his Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, only to replace them with pieces by Raymond Carver, James Allen McPherson, and Bobbie Ann Mason in his latest edition. If postmodernism implies that all limits must be abandoned, that all voices must be heard, that all meanings are possible, then neorealism implies that we must find limits again, that the author must reassert him or herself upon his or her project, that meaning must be more or less fixed. If postmodernism delights in pastiche, a narrative formlessness that suggests multiplicity, then neorealism delights in seamless story-telling, a narrative form that suggests unification. If postmodernism gained dominance as a narrative mode at the moment our culture felt itself in extremis, then neorealism gained dominance as a narrative mode at the moment our culture began to feel smug about itself again, at the moment neoconservatism found a new, comfortable, and congenial home in our collective psyche.


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