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...
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