At this moment there is no overarching movement occurring in fiction, or in any of the literary arts, for that matter. But there are trends, affinities, and eddies within the river of creative writing that regularly reach readers. If you open... [more]
At this moment there is no overarching movement occurring in fiction, or in any of the literary arts, for that matter. But there are trends, affinities, and eddies within the river of creative writing that regularly reach readers. If you open up the New Yorker, Granta, or Ploughshares, you will find two different kinds of fiction, each with a certain flavor. Both of these streams descend from the mammoth mother movement we call Modernism. On the one side, there is the branch that comes from Hemingway and Fitzgerald; on the other, that which trickles down from Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf.
Taking a detour through Beckett, the latter branch issues into the self-conscious sea of Postmodernism, or Meta-Fiction. Writers such as Pynchon, Borges, DeLillo, Gaddis, and John Barth belong on this part of the map. The former branch, however, leads towards the region of 'realistic' narrative structure. John Gardner, that great writer on writing, was one of the first to label it Super-Realism. He defined this writing in terms of its plots, which run from one slight pitch to the next and objectify even trivial events. 'The conventional division of narrative into organized scenes is scrupulously avoided,' he writes. 'If some insight is awakened or emotion stirred, the fact is simply recorded, like any other fact.'
At first glance, this description might recall the spate of scientifically recorded details in the narratives of Balzac and Zola. But these early Realists used detail to construct public, not private, environments. And then they simply threw their characters in to see how they would do, a'la Darwin. The writers of Super-Realism allow their characters' consciousnesses to enter into the game. The characters pause, reflect, wonder, and even obsess. They are overthinkers, constantly testing the boundaries and the limits of their immediate surroundings. That doesn't mean that they are out for change: resignation and a certain dejected acceptance are major themes.
Who, then, are these writers? Richard Ford, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Zadie Smith, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Ian McEwan. The list goes on. While it seems like an academic exercise to lump these writers together, the affinities among them are striking. In these writers' hands, revelations emerge from daily happenings, and daily happenings become revelations.
Everything and anything is their subject matter. They take what writers before them might have dismissed as mundane, and mold it, sculpt it, until it shivers with intensity. Sitting around a table getting drunk, seeing a woman slip on ice in the street, observing a hot dog vendor go about his job - events like these take on added significance as they become part of a private drama that's at once mysterious and meaningless.
Whether future professors of literature will, like Gardner, lump these turn-of-the-millennium writers together remains to be seen. No doubt, each of them stands alone. Yet they are the chosen voices of the day and increasingly monopolize the biggest publications, holding hands across the vast line of contemporary literature. The poet David Lehman contends that the last avant-garde has already occurred. Will these writers be torn down as conformists, as merely mopping up after Modernism, or will they survive and point the direction for new fiction in the twenty-first century? [show less]