In the Box

Dale Peck

  • How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan
    Viking, 368 pp, £16.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 670 86990 2
  • Push by Sapphire
    Secker, 142 pp, £7.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 436 20291 3
  • The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
    Vintage, 228 pp, £8.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 09 973841 4

Every once in a while a reviewer is fortunate enough to find in his hands three or four or five books whose shared aesthetic and thematic concerns mark a distinct shift from those which have preceded them, and which afford the reviewer the singular privilege of announcing a new school of writing. It’s an idea, an image really, which has attracted me ever since I read Edmund Wilson’s early reviews of Stein, Hemingway, Woolf and Joyce; here was a man who, in the course of meeting his weekly deadline, just happened to chart the birth of Modernism. Oh sure, there was an element of luck involved – how often does a Ulysses just drop onto your desk? – but there was a certain skill on Wilson’s part too; an eye keen enough to discern new genius and a voice skilled enough to schill for the new literature without being shrill about it. Still, it’s not something a critic can plan for. Revolutions in the way literature is made occur maybe once or twice in a lifetime; and it takes such truly seismic shifts to spur the critical establishment to recognise the new movement. Modernism and Post-Modernism are the last two such radical restructurings of literary taste that I can think of, and the latter, depending on how you date it, is at least a half-century old. It sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it time for something new?

Well relax, folks, because this isn’t one of those times.

Still, I don’t think I’m the only person who wishes it was. I think that a lot of people are looking for something fresh in literature, and they’ve been looking, a little desperately, for at least twenty-five years. But the majority of those who are looking are doing so not in journals like this one, or in the academy, but at the marketing meetings of major publishing houses, where bottomline logic demands a new literary ‘movement’ every five years or so – and, more important, a new market for that literature. It’s this situation that seems to account for the fact that the nearer one comes to a contemporary point of view, the more likely it is that a single thread of literature’s tapestry will have been worried loose and gifted – or saddled – with a name of its own. Think of the Dirty Realism of the early Eighties, a term whose sole raison d’être seemed to be to place Raymond Carver in a marketable context; or the Brat Pack writers of the late Eighties, whose three ‘founders’, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, remain its only viable practitioners; or the so-called New Narrativists of the first half of this decade, writers as diverse in talent and sensibility as Rebecca Brown, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker, Gary Indiana and Sarah Schulman, writers whose main similarity seemed to be that they all started out at small presses before being ‘discovered’ by big houses.

By now – by which I mean, in the most Nixonian sense of the phrase, at this point in time – the formation and arrival of new schools of literature has become a given, a plot point in a narrative as familiar as a John Grisham thriller or a Danielle Steele romance: somewhere, ‘out there’, a few writers are preparing the ‘next big thing’, and these writers will ‘unexpectedly emerge’, usually at a time when critics are bemoaning the lack of fresh talent on the literary scene. Three seems to be the generally accepted minimum number of writers needed to announce a new school, as in the McInerney-Ellis-Janowitz school, or the Kerouac-Burroughs-Ginsberg school, and I’m sure that more than a few sighs of relief were heard in the meeting rooms of New York publishing houses when the novels of Isabel Allende first began appearing in English, so that her name could be added to that of Gabriel García Márquez and, um, Jorge Luis Borges, and a decades-old phenomenon combining certain characteristically Post-Modern elements with certain characteristically Gothic elements could be given the rejuvenating moniker ‘magic realism’, and the career of Louise Erdrich was made.

None of this is, by the way, particularly bad. Silly: yes. Distracting: usually. Necessary: well, probably. Certainly from a marketing point of view, but, from a critical standpoint, there’s something to be gained by charting the minutiae of stylistic and formal innovation. Henry James and James Joyce, for example, seem hardly to be writing in the same century, but if one inserts a few writers between them the journey from The Portrait of a Lady to The Portrait of the Artist doesn’t seem very long. Still, times have changed since the Modernists pulled the well-worn carpet from beneath the feet of the Victorians. Back then, it seemed that the old guard yielded to the avant only when the former had both exhausted its aesthetic possibilities and no longer reflected or commented on the changing world. Nowadays, the world is reckoned to be changing every five minutes or so; but, let’s face it, literature hasn’t done much to keep up with it in a while. Modernism is for all intents and purposes dead, and Post-Modernism, though it has its die-hard adherents, now seems like a footnote that doesn’t know when to stop. It is, in fact, Victorian realism, one foot firmly planted in the domestic observation of Flaubert and the other in the social satire of Dickens, that holds centre-stage; after Modernism first ran its course the realists returned to the fore; then, for a while, there was Post-Modernism, but that too retreated and realism returned. Now, what one hears hailed as an emerging new genre of writing usually turns out to be nothing more than a standard realist text inflected by a preoccupation with some subject or other. The Dirty Realists liked to write about trailer homes and motels, the Brat Packers liked night clubs and drug addicts, and the New Narrativists were partial to sexual transgression and anti-capitalist pronouncements. But whatever the sentiment, it was almost always couched in familiar realist terms, with perhaps an occasional PoMo trick thrown in for effect.

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