The writing and study of fiction has become increasingly metaphysical in recent years; as criticism becomes more fictional and fiction becomes more critical, both reflect on each other and on themselves, as in the surrealistic funhouse of John Barth in which mirrors reflect mirrors in infinite regress. The result is a radical brand of irrealistic fiction which self-consciously proclaims itself antimimesis, antireality, and antimeaning. Conservative critics such as Malcolm Cowley and John Gardner find this trend morally disturbing, with Cowley claiming that such fiction has no subject or theme except the difficulty the authors find in writing fiction when they know a great deal about technique and have nothing else but that knowledge to offer their readers.
Ever since Donald Barthelme’s first story appeared in The New Yorker in 1963 and his first collection of stories (Come Back, Dr. Caligari) appeared in 1964, his short fiction has been both much complained about and much imitated. Critics have complained that Barthelme’s work is without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without any concern for the reader’s understanding. It is, of course, these very characteristics that have made Barthelme so imitated. If Barthelme is both imitated and criticized for these reasons, so also are Robert Coover, William H. Gass, Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, John Hawkes, and John Barth—writers who have earned such variously defined titles as practitioners of “antifiction,” “surfiction,” “metafiction,” and “postmodernist fiction.”
The term “postmodernist” is both the most all-encompassing and the most difficult to define. Most critics, however, seem to agree that if “modernism” in the early part of the century manifested a reaction against nineteenth century bourgeois realism, and, à la James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, frustrated conventional expectations about the cause-and-effect nature of plot and the “as-if-real” nature of character, then postmodernism pushes this movement even further so that contemporary fiction is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes.
According to the basic paradigm which underlies this movement—based on European phenomenology and structuralism and further developed in psychology, anthropology, and sociology—“everyday reality” itself is the result of a fiction-making process whereby new data are selectively accepted and metaphorically mutated to fit preexisting schemas and categories. One critical implication of this theory is that literary fictions constitute a highly concentrated and accessible analogue of the means by which people create that diffuse and invisible reality which they take for granted as the “everyday.” To study fiction then is to study the processes by which reality itself is created.
The primary effect of this mode of thought on contemporary fiction is that the story has a tendency to loosen its illusion of reality to explore the reality of its illusion. Rather than presenting itself “as if” it were real—a mimetic mirroring of external reality—postmodernist fiction makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The underlying assumption is that the forms of art are explainable by the laws of art; literary language is not a proxy for something else, but rather an object of study itself. William H. Gass notes that the fiction writer now better understands his medium; he is “ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows, more often now, that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is master—language.”
The basic problem of such experimental fiction, however, is that it is often called unreadable, as compared to the more realistic and therefore readable fiction of such writers as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and William Styron. Raymond Federman, one of the advocates and practitioners of experimental fiction, has recently commented on this problem. Readability, says Federman, is that which orients readers within the “reality” of the world, guiding them back from the text to the world and offering comfort. Unreadability is that which disorients readers, cutting off the referential paths between the text and “reality.” “Reflect on language, write language,” says Federman, “examine your relations with language within the mirrors of the text, and you are immediately denounced, accused, and found guilty of ’experimentation,’ and therefore declared unreadable.”
The short story as a genre has always been more likely to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up. It has probably always been one of the great “unreadable” forms of fiction for this reason. Fictional self-consciousness in the short story does not allow the reader to maintain the comfortable assumption that what is depicted is real; instead, the reader is made uncomfortably aware that the only reality is the process of depiction itself—the fiction-making process, the language act. Similarly, and for the same reasons, Donald Barthelme has been called an artist who is high on the list of great “unread” New Yorker writers. It is certainly true that readers schooled in the realistic tradition of the nineteenth century novel will find Donald Barthelme tough reading indeed. For Barthelme, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes. Such a view is as old as Giambattista Vico, who insisted that when one perceives the world one perceives the shape of the mind which one has projected on it, and as new as Jacques Derrida, who proclaims that the desire to find a world in which there is an essential connection between the word and the reality is a chimera, an illusory “metaphysics of presence.”
The problem of words, Barthelme realizes, is that so much contemporary language is used up, has become trash, dreck. In Barthelme’s first novel Snow White (1967), a character notes that when...
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