ThAmericaNoveand the Way We Live Now is a gem, one of those con­cise little books that coruscate with gleaming wisdom and flashes of insight. As the title suggests, it is a study of cer­tain features of the contemporary Amer­ican novel, a commentary on prominent aspects of contemporary life, and an ex­position of the connection between the two. This connection, as his earlier books demonstrate (After the Lost Generation, In Search of Heresy, Time to Murder and Create, and The Devil in the Fire), has always fascinated Aldridge, and he frankly acknowledges his, now unfashion­able, tendency to treat literature in its social and historical context. He insists that no matter how remote and tangen­tial the relation between fiction and actual life might appear, we must remember that life is where the novel always be­gins. In the preface to After the Lost Generation (1951), he said, “One can­not speak of fiction without sooner or later speaking of values.” He hasn’t changed his mind about this.

A principal strength of this latest book is the combination of penetrating general­izations about contemporary American fiction and life and perceptive analyses of specific novels. Aldridge has a gift for probing a novelist’s methods and expos­ing the essential substance–or lack of it–in his or her vision. He is not taken in by techniques that are superficially im­pressive or persuasive yet mask real de­ficiencies. He is skilled in analyzing an author’s strategies (conscious and un-conscious) and in evaluating what they amount to. He is particularly good at recognizing when a novelist loses touch with the genuine nature and value of human experience. And he employs the same kind of critical acumen in his analysis of American society and evalua­tion of American life.

It is this element of evaluation–value judgments–that makes the book engag­ing. This is not to say that his judgments will find wide acceptance. Indeed, liberal intellectuals will find him disquieting. He criticizes their orthodoxies. He bumps against their sore spots and calls atten­tion to the holes in their socks, the tears in their underwear. Evaluation is now quite out of vogue in literacy discourse. Describing parallels or providing inge­nious subjective interpretation is more customary. If a “text” exists, it is perforce worthy of elaborate interpretation. To ask whether it was worth the effort of creation or reading is considered heretical or simply beside the point. Aldridge asks such questions here, as he has with consistency during the past three de­cades; his key ideas and attitudes have re­mained constant. But because critical fashion has turned away from social, his­torical, and moral context, his judicial approach appears increasingly novel; for those who lament the disappearance of rigorous evaluation in the discussion of books, it is refreshing and bracing.

In a way, as the preface hints, Aldridge has turned the tables on recent criticism. He welcomes the current tendency toward the subjective and impressionis­tic and appropriates the license it pro­vides to be “personal and provisional and conjectural and even crotchety and ironical” in expressing the very value judg­ments much recent criticism deprecates. 

His principal subject is “the various ways in which self-preoccupation result­ing from the loss of a sense of personal connection with the environment has become a dominant subject matter in our contemporaty fiction.” He explores the question of how the assumption that only the self is worthy of regard and con­sideration in fiction has achieved such authority, and he finds the answers in re­cent patterns of American life. His es­sential method is to discover the counter­productive or ironic consequences of various tendencies in contemporary life and fiction.

Intreating female writers, for example, he points out that the alleged journey to­ward liberation depicted in their books results in a freedom that becomes as op­pressive a tyranny as the tyrannies left behind. The female character who accepts the programmatic feminist con­ception of what constitutes self-liberation:

becomes aware (or we, in reading her story, become aware) that she is trying to will her life to move in supposedly liberating directions, while her emotions remain refractory and unsatisfied. Thus, finally, her struggle for freedom is balked not only by the fact that the struggle has become itself a bondage but by the more formida­ble fact that in trying to find herself she can find nothing to which she is willing to give herself and in the giving achieve the meaning of her freedom.

He perceives the same ironic consequences in the treatment of adultery. Alison Lurie, for example, depends heavi­ly on sexual intrigue for dramatic conflict in her fiction, but, according to AI­ dridge, there are insufficient moral pro­hibitions in the society she describes; consequently, her treatment of adultery is trivialized and suffers from “arbitrari­ness and in consequence.”

The preoccupation with the process of narration can be similarly counter­productive. He remarks that John Barth, in Lost in the Funhouse, “emerges as the authors so obsessively conscious of the possible ways of presenting his narrative that finally all possibilities are sabotaged and the very idea of narrative becomes unthinkable.” Aldridge notes the same unintended consequences in the man­datory egalitarianism now prevailing among us, which he says has “short­ circuited” whole areas of the national psyche, depleted its vital force and re­sulted in “rampant mediocrity.” Likewise, psychiatry, while intended as a healing force, has actually reduced our sense of “the concrete dramatic relation existing between the self and the environment” and inhibited our ability to deal with ex­perience simply by confronting and coping with it. In one area of American society and fiction after another, Aldridge probes beneath the surface, sees con­nections and recognizes implications and contradictions. His critiques of tele­vision and youth culture are particularly telling.

One of his major arguments is that the classic modernist view (“the dislocated self no longer sustained by the social structure and idealistic assumptions of the past, trapped in a demythologized and therefore demoralized present, dying a little more each day as the forces of entropy deepen and accelerate through­ out the world”) has become a cliche and consequently lost much of its meaning. It no longer serves an adversary func­tion. Many contemporary writers have adopted this vision a priori, uncritically, without measuring it against life as actu­ally lived. As a result, we now suffer from “a surfeit of negation and an apparent failure of understanding of just what val­ues have been negated, what were the il­lusions we once mistook for truth, and what, if any, remain to be exposed.” Official conventions of negative dis­course, such as black humor, have be­ come institutionalized They are available, like processed foods in a supermarket, to any artist or social commentator”in need of a jar of pickled Angst or instant Doom, and these ingredients had better be abundantly present in any work with pretensions to being taken seriously as an honest statement about the larger un­realities of our time.” As these conven­tions have established themselves, “the conventions of verisimilitude and sanity have been nullified.”

“Mr. Aldridge’s judgments are uncommonly harsh.”– NewYorkTimesBookReview

Aldridge concludes by asserting that the prevailing orthodoxy of unexamined negativism leaves much of the proper work of the imagination yet to be done, and he encourages novelists “to become genuinely and radically subversive once again, to resume the traditional function of examining with the clear eye of sanity whatever are the shams and delusions of the prevailing culture, and, by so doing, to restore some measure of wisdom, wonder, and even delight to the somber passage of our history through time.”

John Gardner completed On Becom­ing a Novelist just a few weeks before his death in September 1982, at age 49, in a motorcycle accident. He had pub­lished 10 volumes of criticism, five books for children, two works of poetry, two collections of short stories, and eight novels. On Becoming a Novelist is the product both of this publishing experience and of his years as a teacher of crea­tive writing. It is directed to the serious beginning novelist who wants not just to be published but to produce fine writ­ing and be read. Gardner’s objective is “to deal with, and if possible get rid of, the beginning novelist’s worries.”

The first chapter, comprising half the book, treats the question: Do I have what it takes? What it takes, according to Gardner,  is verbal sensitivity, an accu­rate and nonderivative eye, a storyteller’s intelligence, and an almost demonic com­pulsiveness. The following chapters treat the questions: How should I educate myself? and Can I make a living from writing novels? The advice, often ex­pressed in personal experience, is gen­erally wise, practical, and encouraging, treating everything from overcoming writer’s block to dealing with agents.

Gardner is not one of the novelists treated in Aldridge’s book. He doesn’t fit the categories examined there. In many ways he and Aldridge are on the same wavelength. Like Aldridge, he believed, as he told an audience at the Bread Loaf Conference, that the postmodemists are wrong “because they examine the micro­scope that looks at life, not life itself.” Like Aldridge, he warns the writer against expressing a despair or nihilism that he does not genuinely feel. Both men dis­play a marked preference for mimetic fiction and a suspicion of experimental fiction or what Robert Scholes has called “fabulation,” an antirealism that attempts to be self-contained. Both are preoc­cupied with the expression of values in fiction. Descriptively speaking, says Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist “the fiction that lasts tends to be ‘moral,’ that is, it works with a minimum of cynical manipulation and it tends to reach affirmations favorable rather than opposed to life.” One of his students at last year’s Bread Loaf Conference reported his say­ing that “affirmative fiction will heal us, will save us from ourselves, from despair. If fiction is immoral, then it is insignificant, whatever the dazzle of its expression or the appeal of its theory. Literature as ‘play,’ regardless of the level of the skill of play, is unworthy of serious interest and atten­tion of serious readers.”

But peculiarly enough, at about the same time he was saying such things, a Washington Post feature quoted him as saying he was ashamed to have published On Moral Fiction (1978), that it was the work of an undisciplined mind, that he didn’t really believe what he had writ­ten. Instead of inspiring his fellow writ­ers, he had alienated them, and he felt uncomfortable with the way Moral Majority thinkers had taken him up. The critical writing and public lectures of his last years manifest a contradictory pattern of such assertion and retreat.

Perhaps this situation is evidence of how powerful is the influence of the con­ventions in contemporary life and litera­ture examined in The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. Gardner seems to be a case of a writer who by background and temperament was dis­posed toward a mimetic fiction of moral affirmation, but who in the face of con­trary attitudes and fashions in contem­porary thought and fiction vacillated.

On Moral Fiction, which asserts that moral affirmation is the most fundamental artistic value and that true art treats ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, was undoubted­ly written out of considerable convic­tion; but it may also have been partly motivated by the desire to startle a liter­ary establishment that had separated itself so far from a moral conception of fic­tion. The book naturally provoked con­troversy, which apparently Gardner’s commitment was unable to withstand. This waffling is understandable in view of the fact that his is a voice crying in the wilderness, without support from the influential centers of literary opinion. His case is instructive and lends credence to Aldridge’s portrayal of the pervasive­ness  of negative orthodoxies in con­temporary fiction.