Title: New American Fiction
Author: Leigh Buchanan Bienen
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Issue: No. 20, pp. 46-51
Description: Reviewed Works: ‘The Rector of Justin’ by Louis Auchincloss; ‘Herzog’ by Saul Bellow; ‘The People One Knows’ by Robert Boles; ‘A Confederate General from Big Sur’ by Richard Brautigan; ‘Full Fathom Five’ by John Stewart Carter; ‘The Higher Animals’ by H. E. F. Donohue; ‘Leah’ by Seymour Epstein; ‘A Mother’s Kisses’ by Bruce Jay Friedman; ‘The Nowhere City’ by Alison Lurie; ‘An American Dream’ by Norman Mailer; ‘To an Early Grave’ by Wallace Markfield; ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ by Hubert Selby; ‘If Morning Ever Comes’ by Anne Tyler
The individual’s identity within the culture is never defined, for the culture stays the same no longer than the growing and changing individual. Hence all solutions and statements are ultimately false and frustrating. And yet some sort of attempt must be made before other subjects can be begun.
Most writers respond by limiting their fiction in locale. They slice off a part of the confusing whole and immediately inform the reader that this particular segment is all they are taking on. This kind of parochial solution, which is never wholly satisfactory for the larger issues, can be applied to region or to class, by drawing the boundaries around a certain ethnic subculture, by, in some ways, limiting America to one small group. Thus, an ex-sailor may write modern horror stories of rape and mindless murder and deal exclusively with a small segment of lower class gangdom, with a particular group within a group, this time petty criminals who happen also to be homosexuals. Or a middle-aged classicist describes the rigidity of New Englanders, and the strength their institutions derive from the determination, vision and stubbornness of their old fashioned founders. And then there is always some variation on that most famous brand of American regionalism: The American South, with its trunk full of literary cliches and metaphors.
And yet despite the vast differences between the subject and style of individual American writers, there is an essence, at once eerie and unmistakable, which permeates most American fiction and makes it immediately- distinguishable from the art of other countries. It is perhaps partly that so many American institutions are nationwide, that the sectional differences always seem slightly exaggerated. But even granting the culture’s lack of homogeneity, most good American fiction still leaves you with that sense of the presence of a dominating and unique culture which pervades every American institution, whether it be a Supermarket in Chicago or an aid project in Africa. And it is the expression of this “Americanism”, as it both defines and projects the culture, that I would like to consider here…