Saturday, June 4, 2011
NEW FICTION NOVELISTS
Is there a connection between my work and those writers once described as "New Fiction novelists"? By now I suspect that readers of E-Channel will recognize how much I dislike labels that limit our experience of phenomenon. At their very best, labels can only be provisional; at their worst, they are like the bed of Procrustes.
In 1974, the same year I published Faith and the Good Thing, Joe David Bellamy published a collection of interviews entitled The New Fiction (University of Illinois Press). Those young (at the time) writers he interviewed were John Barth, Joyce Carol Oates, William H. Gass, Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenick, Tom Wolfe, John Hawkes, Susan Sontag, Ishmael Reed, Jerzy Kosinski, John Gardner, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Quite a diverse list, wouldn't you say? Everything from traditionalists to Sur-fictionists, meta-fictionists, and satirists.
In his preface, Bellamy said:
"Whether the new fiction of the last decade represents a "breakthrough" into fruitful new vistas or the 'exhaustion' of a decadent, spent art form, it is, at least, drastically different from the fiction written immediately before by the great American modernists (as they have come to be called) and is based apparently upon totally revised assumptions about the nature and purpose of art....Concurrent with the outpouring of some remarkable innovative fiction during this period, of course, numbers of writers continued to work skillfully in traditional modes, relying basically on nineteenth-century conventions for journalistic---or other nonfictional---purposes. In other words, amazing, sweeping, and unanticipated as its appearance has proven to be, the new American fiction is by no means monolithic, ubiquitous, or the result of any conspiracy, though it is no less amazing for that."
In constructing his definition of the "new fiction," Bellamy contrasts it to the literary naturalism that arose in the late 19th century. Think of Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (1897) and "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" (1893), a work so scandalously "realistic" in depicting the protagonist's sordid world that Crane had to publish it himself and only one bookseller carried it. Crane was known for journalistic authenticity---he knew a "madam" of a brothel, he himself was lost in an open boat, but apparently didn't need to go to war in order to write The Red Badge of Courage. I think at this juncture we need to distinguish between "realism" and "naturalism." You find the former in all sorts of literary traditions dating back thousands of years, even in fantasy writing where, say, a knight's shield may be described with great fidelity to detail and "realism" before he fights a dragon.
But literary naturalism is a specific theory of how the world works, physically and psychologically, one that by necessity had to be revised on the basis of new evidence. It arose as a literary movement between the 1880s and 1940, attempting to explain "scientifically" the underlying social and environmental forces that shaped a person or a character. In an important development in philosophy coeval with the rise of literary naturalism, many thinkers saw the flaws and dangers in the scientific sources this literary movement drew from (some Darwin, probably some Freud). For example, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl critiqued the "Natural Attitude" (Einstellung) as being the everyday unreflective attitude of naive belief in the existence of the world, a rationalism which either presupposes abstract principles or the uncriticized results of science, which is scientism. Most fiction even today, I would say, is written from the standpoint of the Natural Attitude---an attitude, as Buddhist teacher Bhikku Bodhi tells us, that is plastered over with layers of conceptual paint and lacks the radical empiricism involved in "taking stock" of each and every one of our experiences.
Naturalism as a literary movement, then, is problematic because of the presuppositions in its ontological model of Nature, which generally is Newtonian physics (the classical model) that collapsed due to the work of Einstein and relativity theory, (we do not have "space" and "time", but rather the phenomenon known as space/time), and lead Alfred North Whitehead to publish Process and Reality (1929), a major work of "process philosophy" that attempted to account metaphysically for the discoveries of quantum physics. Interesting, too, is how Whitehead's work offers a defense of theism, though his God has no resemblance to that of traditional religions. (And some commentators find parallels with Buddhist abhidharma or metaphysical writings in his work.) Even earlier, William James in his Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh (1901-02), which became The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, chastised the scientists in his audience for their dismissing the value of religion.
The "New Fiction" that Bellamy sees merging in the 1960s and early '70s is a fiction sensitive to the philosophical and scientific naivety in some exhausted, "decadent, spent" modernist fiction. As so often happens in literary history, it was a reaction by a new generation of American writers to the rules and reasoning they inherited from their predecessors (just as Sherwood Anderson, D.H. Lawrence and others reacted against the definitions of the modern short story as defined by Poe, O'Henry and critic Brander Matthews) and the unquestioned dominance of literary naturalism for three generations. It was sensitive to other, non-western cultures and how they described reality. It questioned the very foundations of the kind of fiction written between the 1880s and 1940s, even its writerly techniques, which embodied an uncritical weltanschauung. Many works by these authors were self-referential or deliberately self-conscious, shattering the illusion that stories were anything other than a linguistic game; some of the writers were anti-realists (in the philosophical sense of that term), acknowledging that a work of fiction is always a deliberately constructed artifice, never a mirror held up to reality. (See William H. Gass's brilliant essays on writing in Fiction and the Figures of Life.) How could it not be thus when in so many ways our understanding of the enveloping physical universe was so radically transformed? The response of, say, a John Gardner was to sometimes return to the pre-naturalistic tale-telling tradition.
Personally, I have the same great affection for the tale---an obvious fabulation---as a literary form in which aspects of spirituality can be explored without having to justify the presence of the life of the spirit in a story. I feel the same way about science fiction, first because it can address cutting-edge scientific discoveries and, secondly, because sci-fi over the course of its long history often assumes the conventions of the tale. But when a story demands a naturalistic approach (which most readers are conditioned to prefer---I'm thinking of readers who say tedious and tiring things like "Did that really happen? Your character used drugs, do you use drugs?"), like the ones in Soulcatcher and Other Stories, I render the fiction in those familiar naturalistic terms and that in tradition.
But, yes, some of my early work in the 1970s deliberately exhibits meta-fictional or New Fiction characteristics, Oxherding Tale in particular. Perhaps the best thing to say in 2011 is that we are all, in one way or another, New Fiction writers now.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 5:15 AM