Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Roy Rubin

Let me get this straight. Experimental means that unlike 19th Century novels and modern commercial fare where the reader is told everything, the way a room looks, what the character or all the characters are thinking, and all motivation is spelled out? So the Moderns and Post Moderns take us through a mysterious partial revelation. The reader must rely on his own impressions, puzzling the collage of scenary and conversation, reserving opinion on what the characters really meant, and noone is virtuous for all are sectarian sinners etc.


Whether or not Torrance's opinions are correct (and they're not), I'm surprised that such banal and recycled ideas still get published as literary criticism. What kind of a stupid binary is Cather vs. Fitzgerald, or anyone vs. Faulkner? And wasn't the Cather revival started over a decade ago, with her reputation as not just a "great American novelist" but also a modernist only strengthening since then? I laughed at the idea that Wharton's productivity is inherently superior to Fitzgerald's meager output, since people only still read four of Wharton's books (House of Mirth, Custom of the Country, Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome).


Interesting post, though it seems to be tackling two points at once--first, how the 20th century canon should or should not be perceived; second, what constitutes "experimentalism"? I think the second question is more provocative but it's a little buried in your post. A couple things you said:

>>>>Many of [today's] writers who are deemed "experimental" and have managed to garner some critical acclaim, as well as some popularity--Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer--are not really experimentalists at all but more or less conventional social realists who give their books an occasional postmodern tweak. Others--George Saunders, Aimee Bender--are at best mild satirists pretending to be daring surrealists. For the most part, American fiction is dominated by writers engaged in standard-issue storytelling influenced by modernism only--when at all--in the use of "psychological realism"....

>>Experimental fiction attempts to explore the unexploited possibilities of fiction beyond its established function as a medium for prose storytelling. The fiction of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather is not self-consciously "experimental," but neither is it merely prose storytelling these writers fastened on "to chronicle the American psyche," as Torrance also puts it. Torrance underestimates the extent to which both of these writers regarded fiction first of all as an aesthetic form to be "shaped" in distinctive ways. This conception of fiction's purpose, that it is available to the literary artist as a form without pre-established limits, I take to be one of the guiding principles of literary modernism.

So my first question is: who is "experimental" today? And to what end are they getting? I don't disagree with most of what you're saying, but at the same time you've listed who isn't experimental, and what experimental is/should be--but you've neglected to bring us to present day. Has this "guiding principle of literary modernism" been lost?

Incidentally I did a post that tackles this subject, though from a different angle. (It mixes in lit and music due to the larger conversation I was having with myself, but still gets at many of these same questions.)

Dan Green

See the previous post for someone "who is experimental today." I've put up numerous previous posts about innovative contemporary writers such as Dixon, Sorrentino, Steve Stern, etc. Others will come. In fact, I intend to concentrate most of my reviews from here on out on experimental (or ostensibly experimental) writers, especially from smaller/independent presses.

R J Keefe

It's too bad that Dawn Powell does nothing for you. No writer is less sentimental about American women and their compromises.

Rodney Welch

Thanks for this, Dan, although I think you really slight Dawn Powell. There's as much "social history" to her as there is to Jane Austen -- which is to say, sure, it's there, but it's not why people read her and it's not why people care. Read Angels on Toast, a glorious screwball comedy of adultery.

That's all I disagree with -- the rest of your post inspired my own thoughts on Mizz Torrance on my own blog.

Rocco DiStreitlmahn

In light of the post above:

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