Reclaiming Literature? (On Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History)
Postmodern Fiction and Academic Criticism

At School: Contemporary Fiction and the University Curriculum

In his memoir Keeping Literary Company, Jerome Klinkowitz, who became not long after the events described one of the best-known advocates of “contemporary” fiction, describes his graduate school experience:

            At school [Marquette University] I was making my way dutifully through seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, with other courses on Victorian prose writers, modern British poets, and the like. Not until my last semester did I add a couple classes [sic] in American literature, and then turned back to British poetry. . .The twentieth-century novel course I took ended with Hemingway from the 1920s and works by Faulkner and Fitzgerald from the 1930s. (6)

Having at the same time acquired an enthusiasm for the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Klinkowitz further recalls

[that] I stayed with Vonnegut through all this showed both that I could read out of class and that novels like Player PianoThe Sirens of Titan, and Cat’s Cradle, which I bought as they came back into print, were a world apart from what Marquette taught us was the tradition” (6).

The year in which Klinkowitz is “at school” and engaged in such earnest study of the tradition is 1966, and although it is not exactly surprising to learn that the curriculum to which he was exposed at that time was still so very conservative, for those of us who now think of “contemporary literature” as a flourishing and more or less respectable field of academic study, to be reminded that even in the period most associated with cultural upheaval and literary innovation current writing could not be considered “literature” at all nevertheless might make us pause. At a time when cultural studies, an approach that welcomes not only contemporary literature but all forms of popular culture as well, has become the dominant mode of scholarly analysis in literary study, it might seem especially difficult to countenance a graduate program so hopelessly hidebound as to regard otherwise serious works of fiction or poetry beyond the pale because not sufficiently aged. But Klinkowitz’s account of his subsequent attempts as a professor himself to bring contemporary American fiction—or at least his favored contemporary writers—into the college classroom implicitly reveals how Klinkowitz’s efforts, like those of other “radical young PhDs” who also sought to open up the literature curriculum in the 1960s and 1970s (13), was in its way as conservative a project as that undertaken by Klinkowitz’s professors in creating that curriculum in the first place.

Perhaps the most curious comment in the passages I’ve quoted is Klinkowitz’s affirmation that in maintaining his interest in Vonnegut he “showed. . .that I could read out of class.” Most likely this is simply a loose way of emphasizing the reading demands in class of a graduate literary education, but nevertheless Klinkowitz also draws attention to the fact that in 1966 a graduate student in English would be unable to read novels such as those he lists while “at school.” And, more than anything else, this initial chapter of Keeping Literary Company is a chronicle of Klinkowitz’s success in securing the literature course, as well as literary scholarship, as a suitable dwelling-place for contemporary fiction—to make it acceptable in “school.” By 1969 he has taken a position at Northern Illinois University, where, he writes, “the department was alive with dialogue and debate, especially among the younger crowd who felt so excluded and estranged from the fat-cat professoriate that by virtue of their seniority ran the place. As opposed to these elders, whose taste was settled and whose curriculum was virtually petrified, we assistant professors and instructors were not only reading new works but were struggling to incorporate them in both our value system and our teaching” (13). One would not unfairly conclude from Klinkowitz’s framing of the scene in which his memoir will unfold that the “literary company” he wants to keep is that of the canon of writers deemed worthy of study in the academic curricula of universities.

Thus what was presented as a critical advocacy of contemporary writers and an argument for the superior and distinctive qualities of contemporary literature—especially fiction—would be more accurately described as an effort to enhance the status of current writing by calling on the prestige and authority of the academy. These are decidedly distinct endeavors, and the predominance of the second has had several important and related effects. It has, most significantly, aggrandized the academy rather than contemporary writing itself, expanding its prerogatives to include becoming de facto arbiter of critical opinion about the merits and the direction of contemporary literature, a development the further unfortunate consequence of which has been that literary criticism outside the purview of academe has virtually ceased to exist. It has distorted criticism of all kinds, but especially criticism of recent fiction and poetry, by erasing distinctions between criticism per se and the historical, theoretical, and political projects to which it has increasingly and inevitably become subordinate. And, along with the parallel burgeoning of university-based creative writing programs, the successful establishment of contemporary literature as an academic field of study has in turn failed both to cultivate a more informed audience for contemporary writing and to foster in any credible or consistent way a more fertile critical environment in which such writing could take place. It could be argued, in fact, that the increasingly close association between the academy and contemporary literature has turned out for the latter to be more detrimental than not.

Klinkowitz’s own professed enthusiasms point to an implicit conflict of priorities that, upon reflection, would seem likely to make this association an uneasy one, if not unavoidably to produce the kind of results I have just described. Not all “new” and “experimental” writers were equally welcome on Klinkowitz’s pathbreaking syllabus. John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, for example, are dismissed—along with modernism in general—for their “philosophic intricacies and intellectual pyrotechnics,” their “obfuscation and soul-killing technicalism” (7). Clearly Klinkowitz finds these writers too “academic” in comparison with Vonnegut, Terry Southern, and Ken Kesey, whose books he is most eager to bring to his students’ attention. It is, then, at the very least unclear why he found it necessary to engage in such a struggle to bring the study of these writers into the academic curriculum, where almost unavoidably even the more technically transparent satirical and Beat-oriented fiction he wanted to champion would be subject to a kind of critical scrutiny that would itself be hard-pressed to avoid “philosophic intricacies” and “intellectual pyrotechnics.” (Klinkowitz’s own account of how he came to understand what Vonnegut was really up to in Mother Night is, in fact, impressively intricate.) One might even conclude that there is a palpable incoherence built into the project of securing the approval of the institution of academic literary study for fiction that advertises itself as unconventional and “disruptive.”

To some extent, of course, contemporary fiction (understood as fiction published since World War II by writers not already known from the prewar period) was, even during Klinkowitz’s time as a graduate student, not altogether absent from the university curriculum or from academic discussion. Klinkowitz received his own Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin, where the English department was known for its receptivity to the study of contemporary writing, including its publication of the journal Contemporary Literature (Klinkowitz 6). Tony Tanner points out in a prefatory note to City of Words, published in 1971, that this book’s origins lay in a number of seminars on contemporary literature held in several different American universities. But if one is to judge from the first few important academic studies of contemporary fiction (including City of Words), most such consideration of contemporary writers was done within the disciplinary domain of existing fields of academic study, most often as a further development in “modern’ literature broadly conceived or, especially, as part of the relatively new fields of American Literature and its close cousin, American Studies.

The influence of all of these scholarly “areas” can be seen in the first two widely-cited scholarly studies of postwar American fiction, Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence (1961) and Marcus Klein’s After Alienation (1965). More so than the sedate and airless seminars on “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. . .and the like,” the kind of high-minded but intellectually less inhibited critical study represented by these two books was the earliest prevailing model of the scholarly analysis of postwar American fiction by which, and against which, contemporary literature would become the object of serious academic examination, and ultimately not just an acceptable if isolated course offered by the English department but itself an area of duly organized literary study in which one could ultimately become a certified “specialist.” By no means musty and pedantic, bound to no obvious critical orthodoxy, both books enthusiastically embrace contemporary writing and attempt to explicate then-recent fiction, as well as enliven their own examination of this fiction, by placing it very much within the main currents of the literary, historical, and intellectual developments of the mid-twentieth century.

Which is not to say they are not thoroughly “academic” in both intent and effect. Considering that if there was a reigning critical orthodoxy at the time these books were written it was New Critical formalism, one might expect them to show the influence of this method, but their origin in academic discourse and assumptions is to be seen in other ways. Both books are interested not in the close reading of text, nor even really in describing the specifically aesthetic qualities of the fiction they survey at all, but in classifying and categorizing, in isolating the thematic and structural features of these works that help Hassan and Klein compose a broader treatise on American literature as a whole, on modern intellectual history, on postwar American culture. Both are thesis-driven books—in each case, the thesis encapsulated in the book’s title—that seek to capture their cultural moment or identify a “certain tendency” in current practice, in effect to stay ahead of the literary curve, able to take the comprehensive view unavailable even to the writers whose practices are at issue. In so doing, these books proved to be the scholarly model for many academic studies of contemporary fiction to follow, which together could be taken as a kind of serial attempt to find the highest ground from which to scan the literary horizon. Indeed, this sort of well-positioned survey of current fiction would become arguably the most ambitious kind of scholarly book produced by the academic critics duly charged with the professional scrutiny of contemporary literature.

In Hassan’s case, the abstracted conceptual marker is that of radical innocence, a characteristic of the “new hero” of postwar fiction, who “brings the brilliant extremities of the American conscience and imagination to bear on the equable tenor of our present culture” (6). Using this encompassing idea, Hassan makes his way through selected postwar novels, showing how in all of them “the disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation” (7). That Hassan has much bigger game than present-day novels and novelists in his sights is further evidenced just in the titles of some of his chapters: “The Modern Self in Recoil”; “The Dialectic of Initiation in America.” Although Hassan’s readings (generally brief) of particular novels and stories can certainly be insightful, and in some cases remain useful critical references for readers interested in writers Hassan discusses (the reading of Salinger, for example, which benefits in an unforeseen way from the truncated nature of his career), as a whole the book is necessarily constrained by the author’s need to fit notable postwar fiction inside the critical framework he has erected. The notion that the protagonists of the various fictions he surveys are to one degree or another marked by a “radical innocence” remains a cogent enough formulation, applicable to a significant number of American novels—not only postwar novels—but it seems unlikely that Hassan was persuaded by its cogency only after a disinterested sampling of all of the diverse kinds of fiction produced by American writers after World War II. Such a sampling would be less dramatic in its pronouncements than Radical Innocence, to be sure, and would perhaps at best result in a rambling style of discussion such as that to be found in Frederick Karl’s encyclopedic American Fictions 1940-1980. The more learned analysis of Radical Innocence certainly allows for the kind of elevated commentary that might be thought appropriate for the critic who is also a professional academic.

Many of the writers on whom Hassan focuses his attention have continued to be regarded as important postwar American writers (many of their books, at any rate, continue to be read, or least continue to be in print). A few of them, such as Jean Stafford and Frederick Buechner, are no longer very frequently discussed, a few others, such as Robie Macauley and Harvey Swados, have almost entirely faded from critical view. By and large, however, one could construct a credible syllabus for a course on American fiction of the 1950s and 1960s using those writers whose works Hassan gives the most extensive consideration: William Styron, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Salinger, Saul Bellow. Indeed, any truly comprehensive survey of American fiction in the second half of the twentieth century would readily include any or all of these writers. Radical Innocence was a considerably influential book, for many years after credited as the first general study of contemporary fiction, which inevitably leads to the question of the book’s own role in producing a consensus view of what writers really matter, in helping to determine what might be called a provisional canon of academically sanctioned contemporary writing. Was it simply obvious in 1961 that these would be the important writers of the immediate postwar period? Was Ihab Hassan especially discerning in being able to point them out? To what extent were succeeding scholars, instructors, and students persuaded by Hassan’s analysis, perhaps reinforced by other, subsequent, scholarly books and articles, enough to invest it with the authority to establish appropriate standards for this provisional canon?

Moreover, to what extent can it be said that the touchstone provided by Hassan’s book (Klein’s as well) served to initiate a process whereby “criticism” as an ongoing activity of weighing the merits of current work was brought completely within the confines of the literary academy? During the 1950s and at least partly through the 1960s there were still literary critics who worked independently of university English departments, producing intellectually respectable, albeit by today’s standards excessively “belletristic” literary criticism. With the advent of academic criticism of the sort Radical Innocence portends, such “popular” criticism begins its decline into the superficial book reviewing and book chat it essentially, with exceptions, has become. With the further transformation of text-based academic criticism into theory and cultural studies, an unforeseen consequence of the triumph of “contemporary literature” in the academy is now that very little of what previously counted as literary criticism is even published at all. Certainly Ihab Hassan could not have fully anticipated such a development, but one could argue that implicit in the project of shifting literary criticism to the academy is the possibility that it will be subject to variations in the prevailing academic paradigm.

Reading Radical Innocence today, however, one can’t help but be struck by how inexactly it appears to fit any single academic paradigm. Influenced by American studies, incorporating elements of existential philosophy, myth criticism, and cultural anthropology, but not identical with any of these, it is, as I have already stressed, still a notable book in part because it helped to create a place for the study of contemporary literature, in effect to build a new paradigm suitable for academic discussion of current writing. Yet if it does not conform to any particular version of the then sanctioned scholarly methodology, it might not either be regarded by today’s academic readers as altogether “scholarly” in its presentation, at least according to presently preferred procedures and standards of decorum. Chapter 4, “The Victim with a Thousand Faces,” begins:

            History in the West seems to be consumed before it is made. The modern age belongs already to the past, the contemporary period yields to the immediate present, and the present in America fades in pursuit of an uncreated future. Obsolescence is the tribute we pay to our faith in perfectibility. And yet we continue to wonder about the internal logic, the unheard voice and the impalpable fatality, of the moment in which we live. (61)

The degree here of undocumented assertion, of outright, naked pronouncement, would not easily be accepted in the now prevailing cooler climate of scholarly discourse (however heated the underlying issues). But ultimately such prose, characteristic of the book, although not exclusively so, is not so much insufficiently academic—judged by complexity of thought rather than an established orientation to subject or style—as it is only the most obvious indication that Hassan’s overriding purpose in Radical Innocence is to express his own vision of the “modern condition,” contemporary fiction offering him the most immediately salient representations of this condition.

That much postwar American fiction does conveniently illustrate Hassan’s thesis is undeniably true, but it is also true that something like “radical innocence” is a character trait deeply rooted in American literary history and that it many ways it is not surprising this trait would reemerge with particular color and urgency in the years not simply following on World War II but also marking the beginnings of the Cold War. This is not so much a criticism of Hassan for a lack of originality or a willingness to rely on critical conventional wisdom as a more general point about the kind of stock-taking, multi-author study Radical Innocence represents. Any genuinely penetrating analysis of works of literature requires attention to particulars, if not exhaustive treatment of a particular work then careful consideration of any given work in the context of its author’s other works, at the least an assessment of the concrete effects of such tangible matters as, say, genre, or unmistakable anxieties of influence. Books that, following Radical Innocence, seek to in effect disclose the essence of contemporary writing or identify the truly significant contemporary writers, however much they may capture some relevant feature of recent literary fiction inevitably miss the many other more immediately “existential” features one actually encounters in reading individual works of fiction in favor of academic abstraction.

No more than Hassan is Marcus Klein in After Alienation much concerned with the aesthetic particulars of the works he examines, although he does discuss his five authors in more detail and across the full range of their at the time published fiction. He asserts quite explicitly, in fact, that “[t[he something new in these writers. . .is to be defined historically. . .in terms of the relevance of these writers [Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Wright Morris, Bernard Malamud] to the age.” Their importance “does not reside in any formal inventions or in any preferences of technique.” Rather, their fiction, “for all that it tends away from explicitly social subjects, is shaped by the social and political pressures of an age that is the most desperate in all history” (294). The hyperbole here is especially striking, since Klein’s enunciated thesis is that what makes his chosen writers “relevant to the age” is, presumably in response to the “social and political pressures” that under the circumstances could only be overwhelming, their work represents an “accommodation” to the realities of modern life, an “adjustment to the social fact” (29) in contrast to the typically modernist attitude of “alienation.” To adjust to the social facts of “an age that is the most desperate in all history” would seem a literary feat of remarkable rhetorical skill indeed.

Nevertheless, it is just such a determination to avoid the moral evasions of alienation that Klein locates in the work of Bellow et. al. For if Hassan draws on more eclectic sources of critical analysis, Klein seems a more straightforward moral critic of the kind perhaps most prominently represented in the postwar era by the New York intellectuals. These critics, associated in particular with the publications Commentary and Partisan Review, were indeed notable for the serious attention they gave to the work of current writers, and, initially at least, were mostly unaffiliated with university literary study. But by the mid 1960s not only were a number of the more prominent New York intellectuals (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) increasingly moving into university-sponsored positions, but younger critics in part inspired by them were also entering the university as bona fide academics. Klein, who received his PhD from the Columbia University English department of Lionel Trilling and Richard Chase, seems clearly to be writing from within the ambit of the New York critics and their focus on the social and cultural efficacy of literature, and his book represents both the exhaustion of Partisan Review-style criticism as an independent critical movement and its assimilation into the broader authority of academic literary study, as well as a kind of final capitulation to that authority about which even someone as thoroughly ensconced in academe as Trilling had expressed reservations (Leitch 109-14).

It is also a material example of the rightward political drift of the New York school as a whole by the mid 60s, in this case manifested not so much in the neoconservative political views to which many of the original New York intellectuals became increasingly inclined but in Klein’s outright disdain for the legacy of modernism, or at least the American version of this legacy, which he reduces to the assumed attitude of “alienation.” The New York critics are remembered largely as the expositors of modernism, champions of modernist complexity, although their enthusiasm for modernist writing was allied with a belief in its political potential. Klein continues this preoccupation with “social engagement”—“Social engagement,” he writes at one point, “is the meaning of accommodation” (26)—but the social/cultural significance Klein discerns in the fiction he singles out in his book is of a decidedly moderate if not utterly conformist character. In isolating those qualities of this fiction that allow him to argue it shows an accommodation to the social realities of postwar America one could also say that Klein robs it of its capacity to do anything other than affirm, and in so doing take its orderly place in Klein’s own accommodationist Cold War sociology.

That Klein would prove to be wildly wrong about, at the very least, the endurance of this move toward accommodation among American writers—even as Klein was publishing his book an intensely iconoclastic and unaccommodating strain of comic and experimental fiction was beginning to appear and would eventually come to seem the most significant development in postwar American fiction—and even arguably exaggerated the degree of accommodation expressed in, especially, Ellison, Baldwin, and Malamud is not the most important point to be made about After Alienation, however, although it does insure that few people would want to read it now aside from its historical interest. But it does have historical interest as the prototype for the academic survey in which contemporary literature provides a useful tool for sounding out fluctuations in the cultural atmosphere, however much the writing itself stands in as notional subject. The book further offers a compelling illustration that an interest in literature as political instrument or as the means for “cultural criticism,” no matter how “radical” its origins or “engaged” with the social and moral issues to which literature affords a point of access, is ultimately fully consonant with an academic criticism that likewise exploits the cultural standing of literature as a way of elevating its own discursively distinct project. In both cases, moreover, the aesthetic import of work not yet fully assimilated into even the most expansively defined literary “canon” is not merely ignored but implicitly judged not to be the concern of criticism at all.

If anything, After Alienation is even less interested in aesthetic analysis than Radical Innocence. Klein’s chapters consist mainly of a series of plot synopses and cursory explications that keep the writer focused on the book’s thesis that the important American writers after World War II move toward accommodation, which Klein at least manages to stress with some efficiency. It is noteworthy that, at a time when the prevailing academic critical method was –or is now broadly perceived to have been—New Criticism, these two books that first bring extended scholarly attention to postwar American fiction so resolutely resist formalism altogether, much less the specific presuppositions now attached to the New Critics. This approach to contemporary fiction—as a source of ideas or examples or cultural generalizations but not really as the object of detailed formal or aesthetic critique—has been prevalent enough in subsequent years that one could wonder whether there doesn’t after all lurk beneath the expanding scrutiny of contemporary fiction a residual uncertainty about its artistic value in the long run. How far beyond the disdain for contemporary writing embodied in the curriculum against which Klinkowitz rebelled is it really to allow certain writers and their work a kind of utility for advancing a brand of academic cultural commentary but implicitly regarding it as otherwise ill-suited to the ends of aesthetic inquiry? (To the extent, of course, that aesthetic inquiry is itself regarded as relevant to the business of academic criticism.)

Together Radical Innocence and After Alienation did help to establish for mid-century American fiction 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) 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.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)