The other day I was looking through my files labeled 'Ancient History' and found an essay by Tom Wolfe (author of 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' and 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' to name a couple). The essay's title: 'Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast' - A literary manifesto for the new social novel. I couldn't remember having read it way back in 1989 when it appeared in Harper's Magazine (November issue). But there it was, pointing the way back to the future. Or, to put it another way, can counter culture really be counter to the culture if it is running against the current, back to where it came from? Let me explain.
In the years after WWII we began to hear about the death of the novel. What was meant by that, really, was the death of the novel as we knew it. That is, the death of the realistic novel that had been around for a long time, (say, since Mark Twain at least). "The realistic novel, in their gloss," (according to Wolfe, speaking of the intellectual intelligentsia that was emerging then), "was the literary child of the nineteenth-century industrial bourgeoisie. It was a slice of life, a cross section, that provided a true and powerful picture of individuals and society - as long as the bourgeois order and the old class system were firmly in place."
"By the early 1960s," (he continues), "the notion of the death of the realistic novel had caught on among young American writers with the force of revelation... It had been only yesterday, in the 1930s, that the big realistic novel, with its broad social sweep, had put American literature up on the world stage for the first time. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis, a realistic novelist who used reporting techniques as thorough as Zola's, became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he called on his fellow writers to give America "a literature worthy of her vastness," and, indeed, four of the next five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in literature - Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck - were realistic novelists."
"Yet by 1962, when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize, young writers, and intellectuals generally, regarded him and his approach to the novel as an embarrassment."
Now, it is tempting to just go on quoting from this excellent essay, but that could cause me some trouble. What I am grappling with here is this: What have we been doing for the last twenty years? This essay could have been used to propel us in a new direction. Or, rather, it might have compelled us to go back to where we had been and to start again. But no such movement seems to have taken place. There are a few of us around who are running counter to the post-modern trend to write some very realistic literature. But we are in the minority. Meanwhile, the literary world charges ahead into a kind of no-man's (ok, no-person's) territory and my question is this: Has this really produced a better or higher quality literature? I think not.
There is an even larger question embedded in this discussion. 'Has the breakdown of our society caused this fractured, broken, disjointed form of literature to emerge; (post-modernism) or has this chaotic, moral relativism helped break down the society in which we live?' That's a mouthful, I know, but the way we view the world around us is important, and it is our writers (and readers) who help shape that world-view. So, if the point of our writing is that there is no point, what does that say about our world?
In case I haven't made myself clear, count me in as a writer of the realistic style. Whether my writing helps lead us back to the future is yet to be seen. I, like Wolfe, am also experimenting with nonfiction as well. Unlike Wolfe, however, I am trying to discover a whole new set of rules that will apply to nonfiction, rather than plundering all the ficitonal techniques and trying to adapt them to nonfiction. What better place to begin looking for the truth, after all, than in true stories. In my latest effort, 'American Masters', a popular history of American literature and our most famous authors; I use a sweeping narrative style with a hidden first-person narrator, with symbolism and motif to create an underlying current that helps sweep the story forward.
I'll write more about that in the future. Until next time, then, keep reading and writing.