Preoccupation with the state of the novel was until about 10 years ago one of the major bores of American criticism. From the early 1950’s well into the 60’s, it was scarcely possible to get through a month without reading as a rule in the Sunday book review supplements or the editorial page of Life—that the novel in this country was dying, was dead, was coming back from the dead, was being reincarnated in the mutant forms of a new journalism or a fictional nonfiction. Then quite suddenly the autopsical discussions stopped. And even though at the present time in the criticism of the other arts such problems as the desperate plight of the theater, the scarcity of talented new play wrights, the vacuity or vulgarity of current films, the faddishness of modern painting continue to be dissected with undiminished vigor, we very seldom hear anything more about the state of the novel, sick or well—presumably because we no longer care very much whether it lives or dies.
For those of us who have worked closely with contemporary fiction, an explanation for this rather curious development comes easily to mind, although a convincing explanation of the explanation may be enormously difficult to discover. Clearly, if public and critical interest in the novel has declined, it has done so in large part because the novel over the past decade has dramatically lost authority both as an art form and as an instrument for reflecting and educating public consciousness. We have long taken it for granted that the great innovative authority of the classic modern novel is now an entombed, even ossified authority represented by a body of sacred writings worshiped for their ancient wisdom and their ability to evoke the spirit of a dead historical past. But what still seems surprising, no matter how long we have lived with the fact, is that novelists we continue to think of as very much alive and functioning contemporaries have been similarly institutionalized, as if they were already considered as passé as their great predecessors, and have come to be admired more for their artistry than for their power to excite our imaginations or deepen our understanding of the meaning of present-day experience. However gifted Bellow, Barth, Pynchon, Mailer, Roth, Heller, Updike, Hawkes, Gaddis, and our other important novelists may be, we somehow do not look to them for intellectual and imaginative leadership, as at one time we looked to the major novelists of the 20’s and 30’s.
Nor, for that matter, do we regard them as beings who, because of the originality of their work, have fascination as personalities or are leading lives that might in various ways instruct us in the possibilities of freedom, adventure, or individual integrity. Except for the two or three mostly third-rate novelists whose talent for self-caricature and bitchery has endeared them to talk-show audiences that know nothing of their books, the best of our writers today are ignored by the popular media unless and until they are arrested for disturbing the peace or manage to win the Nobel Prize. It is inconceivable that there is a novelist among us at this time who would be met by reporters at Kennedy Airport as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, even writers like Louis Bromfield and Pearl Buck used regularly to be met when their ships arrived in New York from Europe.
We may pass over the more obvious and clichéd reasons why these things are so: how artists of all kinds have lost celebrity status in a lime when only regular media appearance can, however temporarily, confer such status; how the novel has declined in influence with the decline in the habit of serious reading and with the rise of the dictatorship now exercised by television over the limited powers of mass public attention. These are factors we may cite without engaging the more complex realities of the problem. It is much more to the point to suggest that the authority of the novel never has been and probably never can be viewed as separable from the nature and quality of the human experience which, at any historical moment, may form its central subject matter. It is even possible that the novel will be most deeply influential at those moments when it is able to explore areas of experience that are not yet completely familiar to the reading public, thus functioning in its classic role as literally a bringer of the news, a discoverer of what is indeed novel.
These moments will usually coincide with periods of profound social dislocation such as the rise of the mercantile middle class out of the collapsing order of feudalism—a process in which the novel as we know it in fact began—or they may be typified by radical changes in manners and morals of the kind that tend to follow major wars. They may also occur during the emergence of ethnic, racial, regional, and sexual subcultures in which the initial struggle out of feudalism of the middle class is recapitulated in the struggle for freedom, acceptance, and personal autonomy of Jews, blacks, provincial Southerners or Midwesterners, women, or homosexuals—groups, in short, that have become newly conscious of themselves and the special nature of their minority or regional experiences.
Such central social transformations have over the past century provided the American novel with a continuously replenishing supply of vital materials, and usually their vitality has depended in very large measure on the factor of novelty, the opportunity afforded novelists by historical accident to express for the first time hitherto unknown or unexplored modes of feeling and being, new experiences that in some ultimate way were working to reshape the character of our national life and in the process were introducing fresh perspectives from which to envision the individual in some significantly altered relation to that life. These experiences will of course have been shared by some perhaps substantial part of the reading public. But they will not have been made understandable or imaginatively avail able to the public until recreated and evaluated in the work of an important novelist
The history of the 20th-century novel in this country might in fact be described as an evolutionary development in which each successive generation of novelists has discovered and appropriated to· its particular creative use one or more of the emerging social situations of its age, then has gradually—or in some cases very quickly—depleted it of its potential as imaginative material, in time, as a rule, with its absorption into the homogenizing system of the established national community. There seems always to be a moment when a nascent subculture, whether racial, ethnic, region al, or sexual, is, because of its newness or its bizarre character, a particularly fertile ground for the novel, just as there comes a moment when its materials will have grown familiar to the point of becoming unusable cliches and will lose authority to a more recently emerged subculture possessing newer and as yet unfamiliar materials.
This is a major reason why it is possible to speak of the stages in the growth of the American novel in terms of geographical locale and minority-group interest—and the process has repeatedly involved the conquest, consolidation, and finally the depletion and abandonment of new territories of social and imaginative experience. Beginning early in the 19th century and continuing through the years following the Second World War, we have had the New England novel of Hawthorne and Melville; the novel of the developing Western frontier of James Fenimore Cooper; the more deeply Western novel of Mark Twain; the international and New York novel of James and Wharton; the many works appearing after the turn of this century which dramatized the plight of the Midwestern and Southern adolescent struggling to escape the suffocations of the small town; other works which explored the usually destructive consequences of the adolescent’s escape—to New York, Long Island, Paris, and the South of France. Later during the 30’s there were the large numbers of novels depicting the new Depression-created subculture of the economically dispossessed.
After World War II, the racial and ethnic novel came into authority as the Anglo-Saxon Midwestern experience ceased to be the typifying experience of most American writers. During that same period the Southern renaissance initiated by Faulkner reached maturity in the work of several writers who were among the last to derive their primary materials from geographical locale, materials which in their case were ultimately devitalized as a result of the proliferation of novels composed of self-parodistic Southernesque formulations. At the present time the best of our novelists seem, for reasons later to be discussed, to have turned away from the direct presentation of regional and subcultural experience, leaving the field largely to the newer women writers who, now that the homosexuals have had their day, are speaking for what may well be the sole remaining American subculture still capable of providing relatively fresh materials for the novel.
An obsessive hunger for new experience and a disposition to seek it in the actualities of the social world rather than produce it imaginatively-these have been highly visible characteristics of our writers for as long as we have had a distinctively national literature. But what is perhaps less evident is how often their pursuit of novelty in material is joined with a preoccupation with the pursuit and exploration of novelty as a literary theme. If in the traditional European novel, characters tend to move in an environment already discovered and subdued by law, class hierarchy, and established custom, experience for Americans is an entity actively sought as destination and quarry, a dynamic and elusive state of both being and perpetual becoming which needs to be tracked down, grappled with, and brought under the control of the will and imagination. By the same token, dramatic conflict in the European novel has classically been generated within the givens of the established culture. Hell is indeed other people and the institutions they have created to force individual needs into harmony with communal interests, while the resolution of conflict is most often attained through the achievement of some more or less satisfactory mediation between individual and community. So the European novel again and again comes to rest in serenity and reconciliation, reminding us that salvation may perhaps be found only in an enlightened and usually chastened realignment of personal desire with public necessity.
The American novel tends by contrast to remain in a state of uncompromised adversary motion. Its characters move on or walk out at the end rather than regain admission to the social fold. The thrust of our imagination is resolutely kinetic, and the driving impulse is to seek salvation in escape from community and in the confrontation of un known possibility. It is not surprising that we have come to endow the search for new experience with mystical and sacramental meaning. To leave behind the known and, because known, commonplace reality is to invest in the promise of finding an “elsewhere” that will provide a second chance for being and consciousness, a regeneration of sensibility in the discovery of the authentic sources of the self.
Cooper’s intrepid and simple-minded frontiersmen, Melville’s seagoing pioneers, Hemingway’s seekers after the holy communion of precise language and true emotion, Fitzgerald’s oddly ascetic sentimentalists of wealth and glamour—all are fantasy projections of an essentially religious view of experience, a belief in the possibility of some form of beatific transcendence to be achieved through submersion in elemental nature, the exploration of instinctual truth, or the discovery of an earthly paradise of infinite richness and perfect beauty. It would seem that the experience of the frontier along with its attendant myths founded on such ideas as that the corruptions of civilization can be left behind, that there exist inexhaustible territories of fresh challenge and adventure to be conquered, that the meaningful life is a continuous romantic pilgrimage into the virgin unknown, and that man is most noble as a pilgrim in the wilderness and closest to God when he is closest to nature—these have all obviously done much to program our psychic expectations just as they have helped to form a central thematic preoccupation of our novels.
But there has also been a contrary impulse at work behind the American novelistic imagination, and it may well derive from what remains of one of the original functions of the novel as a form, which was to provide critical and satirical commentary on the excesses of the medieval romance. For even as our novels have expressed, and often seemed to celebrate, our romantic fantasies and aspirations to transcendence, they have also served-as a rule through the indirections of irony, metaphor, and ambiguity—as stern moral monitors of them. If there was a strong mythic and mythologizing dimension to the frontier experience, there was also an even stronger dimension of practical reality, physical hardship, privation, and danger—the inescapable limitations imposed by the environment upon the flights of the pioneer imagination. The conquest of the wilderness may have depended upon the existence of the dream of an earthly paradise, but survival in the wilderness depended upon the development of a hardy and altogether disenchanted pragmatism. Americans, we know, have never been at ease with the schizophrenia thus induced in them, and many of our most important novels have recorded with powerful intensity the anguish and frustration it has caused.
From the first genuinely American fiction of Cooper through the fables of Vonnegut, the pattern has repeatedly been one in which romantic aspiration or a certain idealistic vision of reality is subjected to the test of experience and shown to be empty pretense or illusion, founded on false values or meretricious hopes rather than on premises which take into account the practical necessities and the frailties of the human condition. The Ur-figures are of course Cooper’s Leatherstocking and Melville’s Ahab, both of whom are men obsessed with an idea of godliness and personal purity and who pursue it in the conquest of, or escape into, the sanctity of nature. Leatherstocking is overtaken and finally destroyed by the evils of the civilization he was presumptuous and innocent enough to try to flee, while Ahab presumes beyond the limits of human power and is defeated by a force that is both natural and cosmic.
Twain and James were both champions of the natural moral sense, that innate power of knowing right from wrong which Thomas Jefferson believed to be part of the common property of all mankind. But both writers also knew that such a sense is a fragile weapon for survival in a world in which the universal possession of this sense is, in actual fact, proven again and again to be itself an illusion. In Twain’s case it is the adult world into which one day Huck and Tom, like Holden Caulfield, will have to grow up. For James, the continuing metaphor is the society of Europe in which Isabel Archer’s and Lambert Strether’s trusting American ingenuousness is educated into a sullied comprehension of the nature of evil and the necessity for personal responsibility. The emphasis in Fitzgerald is not dissimilar. Gatsby’s virginity of heart, oddly augmented by the illegality of his business enterprises, is despoiled by the greater because morally lawless power of the Buchanaps’ careless ness and cynicism, their better understanding of the expedient ways of the world. In Faulkner, a society basing its vision of itself on certain assumptions about a half-mythic, half-actual heritage of honor and nobility is overcome by the barbarous, wholly pragmatic Snopeses and their ilk, even as it is eaten away from within by false pride, blood guilt, and decades of duplicity perpetrated in the name of honor.
The list could be extended, but significantly enough, appropriate examples become scarcer as we approach closer to the present time. While it is true that the 20th century has been remarkable for the accelerating vengeance with which novelists throughout the world have carried on the process of demythifying experience and eviscerating our illusions, it seems also to be true that at some point the dialectical balance had radically shifted. For 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. In a time when there is much evidence to indicate that fresh areas of social experience for the novel’s exploration have sharply diminished in number, we must also confront the fact that the great demythifying function of the novel seems to have come to an end in a cultural situation in which there seems to be little left to demythify and which has actually been engaged for years in a self-destructive process of demythifying itself. In almost every sector of human experience and endeavor—in politics, education, business, sexuality, marriage, the having and rearing of children—contemporary American society is itself performing the job once performed by our novelists, stripping away layers of idealistic assumption, hypocrisy, illusions of purpose, meaning, integrity, principle, and responsibility and exposing the emptiness or the corruption or the insanity beneath.
This has, of course, profoundly affected the nature of life in America at the present time, hence, inevitably, the nature of the contemporary novel and our response to it. For if we once found pleasure, instruction, even perhaps a form of Aristotelian purgation of the emotions of pity and fear through seeing, in so many novels of the past, our idealistic aspirations subjected to the test of actuality and exposed as mistaken or illusory, we did so in part because aspiration in its conflict with actuality was endowed with virtue, even when affirmed in the face of hopeless odds. The urge for self-transcendence in the struggle to defend some abstract ideal of dignity, moral principle, or social responsibility was revealed as a response to some deep necessity within the human spirit, a hubristic challenge to the power of the gods in which defeat was finally the measure of the significance, even the tragic heroism, of that necessity.
Today, in most of the novels that, for artistic reasons, should be able to make a serious claim upon our attention, we find reflected a complex of conditions and responses of a radically different order. To the extent that they contain any realistic portrait of the actualities of the present time, they tend to dramatize not our hopes but our feelings of generalized frustration and disappointment, not our need for transcendence but our paranoid fears that some obscure force, some metaphysical CIA, has robbed us of the means and the possibility and is bent on manipulating us in directions and for reasons we cannot understand and that have nothing to do with us personally. In fact, it is a characteristic feature of some of our most serious fiction that in it both the ideal and the reality of individual self-discovery and transcendence as central thematic preoccupations have been replaced by a dark fantasy in which prophecy and paranoia join to protect a horror of universal conspiracy and mass apocalypse. At the center of that fantasy one discovers once again the classic modernist representation of the human condition: the dislocated self no longer sustained by the social structures 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 throughout the world.
This is not a vision capable of giving us very much further instruction. Its meaning has been canceled by the cliché it has become, and it has lost its former adversary function: it is no longer a heretical corrective of the pieties behind our illusions. But it is, nonetheless, a reflection, however oblique and metaphorical, of a state of mind and condition of life we recognize as common to the present time, even as we also recognize that one of the most frustrating features of the present time is precisely that the vision of apocalypse, a relic of another age and so thoroughly devitalized by excessive literary use, should still have such pertinence to us. Yet there can be no question but that the conditions of which that vision was initially the radical expression have become more visible and seemingly more malevolent in our own age. We have, in fact, institutionalized all the famous old disaster syndromes and so assimilated them into our way of life and patterns of thought that disaster has become not only our central preoccupying experience but our principal fantasy of salvation. If religions of the past offered promise of some form of transcendental redemption, disaster holds out the possibility of infinite and deliciously horrible forms of damnation, the ultimate titillation to orgasm of world holocaust, which in our ultimate boredom is one of the very few experiences left that is likely to bring us to feeling.
We now take it for granted-and the fact creates around us a subliminal envelope of rehabilitating drama—that we inhabit a world in which violence of any and every kind can erupt anywhere and everywhere at any time with or without provocation or meaning. This is a world that some few of us experience every day, but for the rest of us it exists as an abstraction projected and often seemingly created by the reality-manufacturing and reality—fantasizing media of tele vision and film. Our direct experience is usually of another kind of abstraction, an urban or suburban noncommunity in which we are perhaps most conscious of floating in disconnection between business and home, passing and being passed by strangers in the void. Home is the place of brief refuge from the void, where family offers a substitute for community even as house functions as a frontier stockade erected against the disorienting ambiguities of existence in noncommunity. Business or profession pro vides an illusion of connection with people whose only connection with us and with one another is conterminous activity within the same “facility” or “structure.”
At intervals, which have grown less and less frequent with the passage of time, the separately orbiting entities of business and home may, for ceremonial reasons, be momentarily joined, and strangers from the one will be imported into the other, given food and enough to drink to ensure that they will not be able to notice that they have nothing to say to one another. Anesthesia is the only possible means of coping with a situation in which nothing can be communicated among people for whom the terms and materials of communication, the shared histories and common assumptions of purpose and value, have ceased to exist. Yet such a situation is only the microcosmic form of the abstraction projected by the media, the vast unstructured and dehistorified macrocosm composed of large and portentous or trivial and meaningless happenings occurring in some remote elsewhere and enacted upon strangers or stranger—celebrities made recognizable by the regular appearance of their faces on the screen but who are known to us only because, and only so long as, they are there.
The physical dislocation of the individual from direct relation to his social and public experience has its correlative in an ideological dislocation that has grown increasingly visible over the last 10 or 15 years. There has been a deepening and ever more obsessive preoccupation during this period with the nature and problems not so much of the individual life as of society as a whole-or put another way, the individual life transvaluated into a projection of, and a vexation laid upon, society as a whole. It is from society seen as a corporate entity that people now try to derive what sense they can of communal relationship and identity, and the effort has most often been made through declarations of allegiance to various political, sexual, racial, or ethnic groups, membership in which is based scarcely at all upon concrete experiences and shared backgrounds (as was the case with minority and subculture membership in the past) but rather upon problems that are conceived of in theoretical and statistical terms as being peculiar to a particular group.
Even as personal connection is sought through identification with a group, the group becomes a collective abstraction to which relationship cannot be directly achieved and, therefore, in which further abstraction is the inevitable result. If the loss of the older forms of community has projected us into a formless sociological void, our need to replace community with group membership has projected us even further into the void. For it causes us to see ourselves not as ourselves but as increments of such subcultural categories as female, homosexual, Chicano, or black, with a further erosion of our sense of the integrity and uniqueness of the individual self.
It follows from this that the currently obsessive quest for a preformulated “role” in some collective has replaced to a large degree the personal quest for a purpose in life and, not incidentally, is depriving the novel of one of its most vital traditional themes. For the search, in all its agony and great potential for destructive risk, that once went on within the precincts of the individual’s concrete struggle with his environment tends now to be viewed as a problem belong ing to a general social category, a problem with which the individual cannot be expected to cope and, therefore, which is to be projected upon an unjust and oppressive society or politicized into an “issue” which the technocratic powers of legislative reform operating somewhere out there in the void will be required to engage.
There inevitably emerges a state of mind having as its base the belief that life in general is not an experience to be lived but a problem to be solved. The having of experience, from which one may or may not eventually derive certain personal answers, becomes a procedure for which methods of analysis and resolution have been scientifically formulated. This has led to a shift in the individual consciousness from a sense of being the subject of experience to a sense of being its object, so that one examines the experience of other objects in order to ease one’s own feeling of unreality at being seen as an object, as another laboratory specimen being acted upon rather than living actively. The displacement of instinct by technological method, with all that it contributes to a further deepening of the passive, dreamlike quality of personal existence, is one of the molt deranging phenomena of contemporary life, and it is perhaps the most morbid expression of our desire to die out of the hazards and mistakes of personal existence and enter the nirvana of risk-free problem-manipulation where all difficulties are resolvable in a state of serenity which only death can approximate.
It may be paradoxical that this displacement appears to have increased rather than lightened the burden of narcissism that has so heavied the atmosphere of the present time. The individual has not been freed by the view that life is a problem to be solved by the right application of technological method. Rather, he has been forced to become obsessed with the technology of all his personal processes, to see them, as he sees himself and other people, as objects to be analyzed and evaluated for their correctness according to various behavioral measurements and sociological surveys. Since instinct or simply intelligence can no longer be trusted as a guide to feeling and conduct, since the precedent of the past is considered an inhibition from which we are struggling to escape, only technique is left—technique forced into the service of a profoundly narcissistic preoccupation.
The development—if that it can be called-from self preoccupation as a pervasive psychic condition of our society to novels that are specifically about self preoccupation reaches its logical culmination in novels that are themselves self-preoccupied—it being apparently the case that the overriding concerns of a culture at any particular time in history will find their reflection, however obliquely, in the kinds of fiction the culture produces. If, furthermore, we have, at one extreme, novels (like Philip Roth’s) whose subject is self-preoccupation and, at the other extreme, novels (like John Barth’s) whose subject is preoccupation with themselves, then it may well be that we are discovering only that the coin of narcissism has, in fact, two sides. Novels of the first sort seem to be saying that nothing is real or important except the self and the processes by which the self has become obsessively aware of this fact. Novels of the second sort seem to be saying-even belligerently proclaiming-that nothing is real or important except themselves and the processes by which, as artistic constructs, they were created—including of course the authors’ lamentations over the bewildering variety of alternative ways in which they might have been created.
John Barth has asserted that reality is a bore and therefore does not deserve to be treated in fiction. Yet this is merely a restatement in other terms of the widespread belief that experience outside the familiar and beloved precincts of the self—whether as person or as novel—is irrelevant, trivial, too incoherent and grotesque to be understandable, and indeed very probably a bore as well.
Such a belief, in whatever terms it is phrased, would seem to prophesy, even herald, the imminent extinction of the novel as a medium for making a realistic statement about the nature of our collective social experience, just as the arbitrary and often quite cynical use of the Barthian “versions” approach to experience would seem to express a fatal loss of respect for the integrity of both experience and the novel form. Yet it might be argued that much that passes for reality in the contemporary world is in fact a bore-as is, inevitably, so much of the fiction which reflects its boringness or turns away from reflecting it because of boredom. The self as a person or as a novel contemplating his, her, or its own intimate processes is deemed by the writers of such fiction to be all that remains worthy of their regard, even as we recognize that there are others like Bellow, Mailer, and Updike whose work stands in strong rebuttal to this assumption.
I have written at some length about 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 of our contemporary fiction. But fiction has only given imaginative form to what has become the dominant condition of contemporary American life, the symptoms of which are visible everywhere but perhaps with the greatest clarity in the two most populous precincts of the national neurosis: our twin obsessions with physical health and with death-twin because, while seemingly contradictory, they are in fact closely complementary.
It may be commonplace to observe that preoccupation with dying results from a suspicion that one is not and has not been living. And the same might be said about preoccupation with the state of one’s physical health. It is when the experience of life ceases to be challenging and adventurous and fails to occupy one’s full attention that one begins to be concerned about its inevitable termination in death, as well as about the condition of the organism whose efficient functioning is alone capable of postponing the onset of death. After all, there may be something amiss with the muscle tone or the coronary arteries that is causing this feeling that all is not well with the world, that life has lost its flavor and direction, along with the consequent feeling of generalized frustration and malaise. Presumably Henry James knew what he had in mind when, in The Ambassadors, he has Lambert