Richard Kostelanetz, a young critic who is acutely conscious of both his youth and his critical responsibilities, has edited a volume called Young American Writers…. As some of the young politicians do, he distrusts everyone who is over thirty, and therefore he has included only authors born after 1936. As it happens, several of his best writers were born in 1937, and it must grieve him to feel that within the next twelve months they will be lost to the cause. Indeed. Kostelanetz himself has only three years to go.
Older artists are always conscious of the hungry generations that come along to tread them down, but nowadays they come faster and faster. "American writers born 1937 and after," Kostelanetz says, "comprise the third literary generation of the postwar period." First there were such writers as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, James Jones, and John Aldridge. The second generation, which was "thoroughly disorganized," included LeRoi Jones, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, John Updike, John Barth, and others. The third group, to which Kostelanetz devotes this volume, seems to him "a talented generation, more thoroughly educated and culturally sophisticated than earlier chronological sets; and although we are hardly cautious, the mistakes of our elders, particularly their vulgarisms, oppress us." Although he complains that most of the younger writers are neglected, he takes consolation in the fact that "by 1972 one-half of the voting population will be under thirty-two … the future is very much ours." But by that time Mr. Kostelanetz will belong to the unhappy minority.
It is interesting to note that four of Kostelanetz's writers have not been ignored but have a respectable record of publication: [Jerome Charyn, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Ross Miller, and William Melvin Kelley]…. It may be heresy to say so, but I think that these four are the best writers represented in the book, and I will add that, of the stories by the others, there are only two or three that seem to me to have cried out for publication.
"In the literature itself," Kostelanetz says, "no theme seems as pervasive as the discontinuity of experience—the unwillingness of the writer to make what he portrays fall together into the neat linear patterns of traditional literature." He goes on: "Discontinuity, one hastens to add, does not mean incoherence." Not necessarily, I would say but often. Awareness of the discontinuity of experience is not new, nor is the attempt to make literary use of it. T. S. Eliot, who must, by Kostelanetz's reckoning, belong to the ninth generation back, relied heavily upon it in his early work, and E. E. Cummings, who was presumably of the eighth generation, devoted his life to raising hell with "neat linear patterns." It is true that their work seemed incoherent to many of their contemporaries, yet for several decades the continuity underlying the discontinuity has been obvious. Perhaps some of the writers Kostelanetz includes will eventually emerge in the same sort of triumph. However, there are only two or three about whom I feel hopeful—Eric Felderman, for example, Kenneth Gangemi, and maybe Arno Karlen….
The poets are also much possessed with discontinuity, as many poets have been in the past. Several of them seem to me largely or even completely unintelligible. Experience warns me that the fault may be mine, but not necessarily. There are some poems that justify the effort they demand, but not many. (p. 25)
Certainly [Kostelanetz] is right about the rapidity of change, but it does not follow that the new is the better. Moreover, I should think that serious young writers, including Kostelanetz, would be disheartened by the prospect of being obsolete day after tomorrow. (p. 26)
Granville Hicks, "Obsolete at Thirty," in Saturday Review (© 1967 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 48, December 2, 1967, pp. 25-6.