The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction
edited by Nona Balakian, edited by Charles Simmons
Doubleday, 265 pp., $4.95
This is another of those books, of which there have been so many lately, that seems to have come into being by editorial fiat. A collection, like most of them, of essays by diverse hands (novels still cannot quite be produced this way) it is dedicated to nothing less than certifying the arrival of the contemporary American novel on the scene. Since most readers had been aware of this event for some time, the book naturally labors under the disadvantage of appearing to be totally unnecessary; to the credit of the editors Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, it must be said that they overcome this initial handicap brilliantly by ignoring it. Theirs is the stunning achievement of introducing to the reading public such authors as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote as though they were charting new areas in literature, engaging in some bold venture in tastemaking. With an air of unequivocal partisanship, Miss Balakian undertakes a running defense of what she is pleased to call the “new writing”—standing up superbly to those critics who continue to disparage it, marshalling in its behalf now the argument of merit (its hardships are salutary, for they “make communication more creatively challenging”), now the argument of authority (the Times Literary Supplement devoted an entire issue to “The American Imagination” some five years ago), conceding her own reservations about certain of its “less attractive things…(its) violence, vulgarity, morbid fascination with the grosser aspects of man,” only in order thereby to make her ultimate faith in it the more convincing. Not unexpectedly, Miss Balakian concludes her ringing demonstration of a foregone conclusion with the quiet certainty that the “surface negativism” of these new writers conceals “a growing faith in the possibilities of man.” By this time the reader, gradually recovering from that numbed fascination which has held him in thrall, has all he can do to contain a barrage of questions: Do the editors really find this polemic stance still warranted, and if so who is that fortunate reader who is being salvaged for “new literary experiences?” Who are those mysterious unnamed critics evoked on every page and where do they publish? Is this evidence of cultural lag authentic or has all the ardor merely been trumped up at some editorial conference, resolved to squeeze the last possible drop of heat and light from the cultural explosion?
Apart from the novelty of its first assumption, the Introduction is an entirely predictable exercise in the genteel approach to literature. There is no quarreling with its critical position, for it does not take one, confining itself to staunchly defending what is not under attack. Thus though the venture as a whole is dedicated to the hotly contemporary, the giant shadows of Faulkner and Hemingway fall across every page and the frequency with which their presences are invoked and, one has the impression, placated, strikes perhaps the only note of excess in the otherwise tasteful moderation of the …