Late 20th and Early 21st Century Fiction: Short Stories and Novels
World War II ended with two nuclear explosions. In addition, there were revelations of the horrors of the concentration camps--coldly planned and methodically carried out atrocities on an unimaginable scale. The knowledge that human beings were capable of such evil, and that they now had the power to annihilate themselves, had a huge impact on postwar literature. After the war, the world was a different place, where individual human beings felt overwhelmed by the growing facelessness and rapidity of global change. After the war, people wanted stability and security; what they got was sand shifting constantly under their feet. There was a postwar economic boom, and lots of prosperity to go around (if you were white and male), but in school, your kids had air raid drills on a monthly basis in case the Soviet Union launched its atomic bombs. More people than ever owned homes, but they built bomb shelters under them. It looked like Happy Days, and Richie and Fonzie were innocently hanging out at Arnold's Drive-In, but stirring under the surface was the Civil Rights Movement and the growing dissatisfaction of other marginalized groups, including Latinos, Native Americans, and women. The Beats were beginning to speak out and inspire others to rebel against complacent materialism and the political repression of the Red Scare; rock-n-roll was being born, and in its early days, it served as an instrument of rebellion against color barriers and socially conservative values; the Supreme Court itself rejected the past, and handed down "Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas" on May 17, 1954, the first step in eliminating racial segregation in public schools and other public places.
The 1950s were the incubation period for the explosion of change that occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s: the Kennedy presidency, the Peace Corps, the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Antiwar Movement, the Flower Children, Woodstock, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and so much more. Those times were either exciting and full of possibility, or deeply frightening and disorienting, depending on your point of view. Either way, it became clear that the only constant was change.
The 1970s weren't much different: Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the oil embargo...By now, the 1950s seemed a century away and had begun to receive that patina of nostalgia that made people forget all the bad things and yearn for the good old Happy Days.
In all of this, there was fiction: short stories and novels that attempted to make sense of it all. Some that were immensely popular at the time have sunk under the weight of their topical references, so that they now seem hopelessly dated. Others have been forgotten as the events that produced them faded into memory. But some have survived and remained important, and no doubt others will emerge as the smoke of the recent past clears.
Post-War Fiction: 1945-1990
In post-World War II fiction--that is, the fiction published from 1945-1980--there is no single unifying characteristic. In addition, there is debate over what to call "Literature" and include in the "canon"--the list of works that everyone accepts as having literary value. And there is great debate over what to call "postmodern." Defining the term "postmodern" is even a matter of controversy.
"Postmodern" literature is defined by some as any literature written after World War II. Other critics argue that, in order to be called "postmodern," literature must be experimental in its style and structure. Still others use as their criteria a set of themes or assumptions about the world. While these arguments can be interesting and productive, we don't have time to go into all of them in this class. For the purposes of this class, "postmodern" will refer to literature which
- was written after World War II
- is experimental in its style, language, and structure
- accepts the assumption that life is inherently meaningless
- is ironic, cynical, and disillusioned in tone
- is committed to the idea that "objective truth" is an illusion
- presents experience as fragmentary and discontinuous, as though the ordinary rules of cause and effect had ceased to function.
Part of the confusion about the "canon" comes, no doubt, from the fact that postwar and contemporary literature are still relatively new. It's hard to say what will have lasting value until time has passed. But the chaos is also caused by the fact that not everyone shares a view of the world, and not everyone agrees on what is important in that world. New groups of writers began to make their voices heard after World War II ended, and those groups did not all share the same concerns. Some fall into the category of postmodern, while others do not. And although some of the following groups may have primarily social and political concerns, sometimes their styles and techniques may be considered postmodern.
One of the most prominent groups to arise were the Jewish-American writers, among them Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Isaac Baashevis Singer, and Bernard Malamud. Their novels (and I'm generalizing) write of the relationship between the past and the present, the Old World and the New, the American Dream as it was dreamed, and the American Dream as it was (or was not) realized. Often, black humor is an important tool in these novels. And often, these novelists examine the relationship between social and artistic responsibility.
African-American novelists made their voices heard in the postwar period, as well, among them Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. In their novels, race is the predominant issue, as well as identity and the role of family. Contemporary African-American literature, according to scholar and writer Henry Louis Gates, "...remap[s] the past and [seeks] in it that which would give meaning to the present."
Several trends can be found in contemporary African-American literature. (Remember, these are generalizations; not all works contain these elements, and there are exceptions.)
- There has been a strong influence of African belief systems and rituals, and of African writers, on contemporary African-American writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and many others.
- Some African-American writers, such as Alice Walker and June Jordan, have adopted the use of Black English.
- African American musical forms, such as blues, jazz, and rap, have influenced many contemporary African American writers, such as Albert Murray, Toni Morrison, and Al Young. They have used it not only for subject matter but have adapted its organizational, structural, and language patterns for their novels.
- Many contemporary African-American writers, such as Alice Walker and August Wilson, have been influenced by African-American oral tradition and the use of the vernacular used in that tradition, especially call/response patterns.
- There has been an explosion of works by African-American women writers since the 1970s. Due in large part to the influence of these women, such as Gloria Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid, and Terry McMillan, there has been a stronger emphasis on the delineation of specific black communities, and a rejection of the idea of "the black community"and an all-encompassing definition of "blackness."
- Before the 1970s, most African-American authors concerned themselves with black-white relationships; during the 1970s and since, writers have concerned themselves more with relationships between men and women, or other relationships in the community. This is apparent in the works of writers such as Terry McMillan, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison.
- Generally, many African-American women writers have insisted on relating personal issues to political and global issues.
- There has been a focus on issues of class consciousness within the African-American community, as you can see in the works of such writers as Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Gloria Naylor.
- Increasing numbers of contemporary African-American writers have chosen to use traditional Western literary forms (the detective novel, science fiction, and horror films, for example), but have refigured them from an African-American perspective. Walter Mosley, for example, has written detective stories; Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany specialize in science fiction.
During the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, Latino and Latina writers began to make their presence known in greater numbers. Among the Chicano writers were Tomas Rivera (And the Earth Did Not Part, 1971), Rudolfo Anaya (Bless Me, Ultima, 1972), Oscar "Zeta" Acosta (The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, 1972), and Ron Arias (The Road to Tamazunchale, 1975). The 1980s and 90s brought writers such as Arturo Islas (The Rain God, 1983), Rolando Hinojosa (Klail City (1987), Victor Villasenor (Rain of Gold, 1991), and Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek, 1991).
Among Cuban writers, one of the best known is Reinaldo Arenas (Farewell to the Sea, 1973, and The Palace of White Skunks, 1990).
Among Puerto Rican writers are Jesus Colon (A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches, 1961), Piri Thomas (Down These Mean Streets, 1967), Nicholasa Mohr (El Bronx Remembered, 1975), Edward Rivera (Family Installments, 1983), Ed Vega (The Comeback, 1985), and Yvonne Sapia (Valentino's Hair, 1991).
Among Caribbean writers are Victor Perera (Rites, 1983), Jaime Manrique (Latin Moon in Manhattan, 1992), and Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies, 1994).
Some themes which are common among Latino/a writers are
- the immigrant experience, especially including the anger and confusion of being ethnic in a country where ethnicity is not always valued;
- ambivalence about trying to live simultaneously in two cultures;
- the conflict between assimilation and cultural autonomy;
- the difficulty in choosing which language is more appropriate in which to express oneself;
- the conflict between native religions and Catholicism, which has in many places resulted in a hybrid: Jesus Christ is at the center of religious belief, but the Virgin Mary is idolized, along with myriad saints, who battle various illnesses and demons;
- political disaffection from the Anglo ruling class, and in more recent works, a growing sense of power and entitlement.
Prior to 1968, only 9 novels by Native American authors had been published. However, in 1968, N. Scott Momaday wrote House Made of Dawn, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and that seemed to open the floodgates. Following is a list of just a few Native American authors and novels: Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues 1994; Paula Gunn Allen, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, 1983; Ella Cara Deloria, Waterlily, 1988; Michael Dorris, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, 1987; Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine, 1984; Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water, 1993; Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, 1977; Gerald Vizenor, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, 1978; James Welch, Winter in the Blood, 1974.
One of the key themes in Native American literature today is the issue of identity. The U.S. government's deliberate policy of "mainstreaming" stripped many Native Americans of their cultural identity. Reconstructing this identity is, for many Native American writers, a huge task. For others, this task is complicated by the fact that many Native Americans have mixed blood, to one degree or another. Thus, the issue of who is a "real" Indian becomes central. Karen I. Blu, examining this issue in The Lumbee Problem, comments, "For Whites, blood is a substance that can be either racially pure or racially polluted. Black blood pollutes White blood absolutely, so that, in the logical extreme, one drop of Black blood makes an otherwise White man black...White ideas about 'Indian blood' are less fomalized and clear-cut...It may only take one drop of Black blood to make a person a Negro, but it takes a lot of Indian blood to make a person a 'real' Indian."
Native American writers differ from mainstream contemporary writers in important ways. Although they, too, repudiate the American Dream, and find themselves struggling against alienation, loss of self and community, they are almost always given (and often achieve) the possibility to recover from frgamentation and achieve a wholeness of self and community. As Louis Owens writes, in Other Destinies, "Ultimately, whereas postmodernism celebrates the fragmentation and chaos of experience, literature by Native American authors tends to seek transcendence of such ephemerality and the recovery of 'eternal and immutable' elements represented by a spiritual tradition that escapes historical fixation, that places humanity within a carefully, cyclically ordered cosmos and gives humankind irreducible responsibility for the maintenance of that delicate equilibrium."
The writers of the 1960s--particularly Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan, and Thomas Pynchon--explored the idea that the world is nothing but a lunatic stage set, a place for the individual self to disintegrate; the only possible chance for salvation is the use of the imagination. And this led to a genre sometimes called the "nonfiction novel," such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, in which fact and fiction are indistinguishably melded. Many of the writers of that time (and this) argued that, as the world becomes a more fantastical place, more like fiction itself, there is only the thinnest, blurriest of lines between fiction and reality anyway. More often than not, in the 20th century, life and art are indistinguishable.
And then there was "metafiction," written by authors such as William H. Gass, John Barth, and Robert Coover, which is fiction which examines the role of fiction itself: the reader is constantly reminded that he is reading a piece of fiction, to explore along with the writer the role played by fiction, and to think about what the act of reading it means, as well.
In addition, writers began to deliberately collapse boundaries between genres: more and more, contemporary writers are rejecting the stratification of literature into "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction. It used to be (and to a great extent still is) that "serious" writers didn't bother with mysteries, science fiction, romances, westerns, or children's books. The cynicism of postmodernism kept any writer from creating an ordered world where things make sense, and genre fiction demands an orderly world. How can it be a real mystery if you can't figure out the truth? What most readers like about genre fiction is that it posits a world where, once all the facts are in, everything makes sense, the good guys are rewarded, and the bad guys are punished. Literary fiction often denies readers those comforts, scorning such ideas as naive and unrealistic.
But some contemporary writers object to the snobbishness that has grown from this separation, and are making a concerted effort to show that genre fiction can be "literary" as well. Joyce Carol Oates was one of the first to deliberately cross the divide, with novels such as A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) and The Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984). During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, the "comic book" became the "graphic novel," as writers such as Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, and Harvey Pekar used the comic book form to write about "literary" subjects such as tenement life, concentration camps, cancer, and coming of age. And as the 21st century goes along, more writers are deliberately rejecting the restrictions of "literary" fiction to branch out. As Lev Grossman says in "Pop Goes the Literature," "One of the interesting things about the present moment in U.S. literary history is that the tough, fibrous membrane that used to separate literary fiction from popular fiction is rupturing. The highbrow and the lowbrow, once kept chastely separate, are now hooking up, which is why we have great, funky, unclassifiable writers like Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell" (Time, Dec. 17, 2004).
Michael Chabon has been the most vocal of the writers campaigning to break down the barriers between literary and genre fiction. He recruited writers from both camps to contribute stories to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and followed up that collection of stories with another, McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. In the Introduction to the first of these, he bemoans the fact that contemporary fiction has become so emotionally arid and predictable: "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" and says he wants to make fiction fun and interesting again, both for the writer and the reader.
Fiction from 1990 to the Present
As you may imagine, happy endings do not abound in postmodern literature, and neither do hopeful endings; there's also not a lot of redemption.
But something odd began to happen in literature on its way to the end of the 20th century, and it has continued into the first few years of the 21st. The most explicit sign of this change appeared at the end of the play Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, in 1992, when God reappears after having been missing for the better part of a century. Certainly, it's not the omnipotent God of the Old Testament; it's a considerably weakened God, who is reduced to accepting help from the corrupt and despicable Roy Cohn. But the fact remains: God is back. And the main character's last speech ends on a very hopeful note: "The Great Work Begins." This is not the cynical, disillusioned, meaningless message we've seen in other postmodern works. The play implies that we've descended into the depths, and now it's time to climb back out of the pit and rebuild a better world. In fact, the main character, Prior, follows a trajectory that is the opposite of that followed by many other postmodern characters. They begin hopeful and end disillusioned; he begins disillusioned, hopeless, convinced of the meaninglessness of life, and ends up with energy, hope, and optimism. Many of the characters around him have redeemed themselves in some way.
Certainly the ending of the play is not entirely happy; but it is very different from the endings of most postmodern works. The ending of Angels in America is a call to action, beginning with the assumption that all life is not meaningless and hopeless.
More and more, this change of attitude is beginning to appear in contemporary novels. Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and many others leave open the possibility that life has meaning; that innocence can be good; that disillusionment can be overcome; that redemption is possible. Of course, this is still the 21st century: we all know that life is fragmented and often beyond our control; that truth is a matter of perspective; and that "facts" can change from moment to moment. The world is a violent place and human beings are capable of astonishing cruelty. The ground under our feet is quicksand. But many contemporary novelists seem to be saying that, despite all of this, there is room left for just a bit of optimism.
A new generation of writers seems to be in the process of shaping a new literary movement. How that movement will mature and what it will be called remains to be seen. Read Michael Chabon. Read Dave Eggers. Read Jonathan Lethem. Read Jim Crace. Read Nathan Englander. Read Nuruddin Farah. Read Marisha Pessl. Read Simon Van Booy. Read...well, the list is endless. Just keep reading!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.
4. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1991.
5. Louis Owens. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.