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Fail-Safe

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 proceedings. Miss Balakian and Mr. Simmons have in common that prose style which is the mark of those who are not so much literary critics as professionally au courant with books; recruits to the cause of literature rather than its judges, they strive at all times to mediate between its demands as a sacred calling and its bustling realities as a going venture. Accordingly, the Introduction vacillates in tone between the hushed reverential and the trade talk chatty, abounding on the one hand with tributes to “creativity,” the role of the artist, and so on, and on the other with such formulations as “OK Writers”—a happy choice of Mr. Simmons, which he subsequently attempts to disavow, though once evoked it is, given the fearful power of language, there to stay. If one becomes aware here and there of a certain patronizing tone taken toward Authors in this document—it is benign enough, as well-intentioned as those newsy columns in the Sunday Supplements which feature the Writer perennially en route, absent-minded, just a bit on the foolish side, but entering, God bless him, his fourth printing.

In general, Miss Balakian handles the larger speculations and Mr. Simmons is the Realpolitik man. His job is to describe just how the writers were chosen who merit inclusion in the book and so he must perforce be sterner than his co-editor, more of a disciplinarian. Mr. Simmons has no patience with laggard authors and will not tolerate unfulfilled promise. Only those writers, he tells us, have been given a license to practice in the “creative present,” whose past performance suggested they might grow in the future. Such prediction is necessarily chancy, and Mr. Simmons is the first to admit its perils—conceding that even during the three-year interval between the first “OK List” and takeoff, decisive changes have occurred, too late unfortunately to have been recorded in the volume, though fortunately not of such magnitude as to have necessitated wholesale revision. John Updike, for instance, should by all rights “have his own essay” instead of having to share one with Bernard Malamud and Herbert Gold; Jack Kerouac, on the other hand, “who has continued to produce but not to grow,” should have been left out; the decision to drop Calder Willingham, however, turned out on the whole to have been wise, for late galleys arriving just after the presses got rolling showed his performance was not up to par; Norman Mailer has been granted a temporary permit, for “that ‘unpublishable’ book he talks about may yet turn out to be something.….” One almost sympathizes with the excesses perpetrated by Mr. Simmons here, unnerved as he must be by a labor which could be altogether undone by tomorrow’s edition of Publisher’s Weekly.

Turning from the Introduction to the rest of the book, the reader is, needless to say, in a less than ideal frame of mind for the serious consideration of literature; encouraged by the Introduction to view what follows as in the nature of a tip sheet, he hastens first of all to find out who got in and who didn’t. But even here he is doomed to disappointment. The editors have perpetrated no startling omissions, even as they have included no writer whose espousal might reflect some purely personal, and therefore perhaps interesting, taste, and hence be open to question. Accordingly there are, as the first OK List Conference might have had it, three Timeless Southern writers, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote doubling up and Eudora Welty, separate; three post-World War II Alienation writers, Saul Bellow, William Styron, and Bernard Malamud—with the last relegated for some reason to sharing an essay with two Bland Fifties writers, Herbert Gold and John Updike; there is one official Beatnik writer, Jack Kerouac, doubling up with James Jones, on grounds, apparently, of disorderly conduct; Mary McCarthy is there to represent the thirties. Then there are James Baldwin, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, and J. D. Salinger to round it out, with Willard Motley and Ralph Ellison, whose rate of growth was apparently not deemed sufficient to warrant fullscale inclusion, represented in two long footnotes. Apart from raising feebly such pointless objections as, yes, well what about Flannery O’Connor? (answered by Mr. Simmons in the Introduction) or, haha, you forgot about Paul Goodman, the reader must dispiritedly admit that all the writers are OK all right, though this does not diminish that sense of indefinable anxiety before the disparate which is so much a feature of books like these.

Then there are the critics—who range, one might say, all the way from Partisan Review to The Saturday Review with several stops along the way for The New York Times Book Review. Here one can take more spirited issue with the editors, for the result of this random juxtaposition of styles, tones, and critical methods is to make impossible any sort of relative estimate of the writers under scrutiny; proportions are thrown off, distinctions of magnitude are blurred and distorted by the vast differences—even in temperament—among the several essays. Thus a reader so ill-advised as to go through this book from start to finish must perforce engage in a complex system of multiple cross-checkings, taking constant readings of temperature and pressure gauges of the various critics in an attempt to correct the imbalances. An innocent reader taking his bearings by this book alone could well conclude, for example, that the main issue agitating American letters at present is the perfidy of Granville Hicks or, deluded by the disparity between Robert Gorham Davis’s reticence and the more sanguine temper of Granville Hicks, that Saul Bellow and William Styron are accomplished craftsmen who will some day achieve the eloquence of Herbert Gold. At least Hicks appears to be genuinely fond of the authors in his charge—even to the point of failing to make the necessary distinctions among them.

The individual essays of merit are like gifted actors trapped in a turkey; they take on a cautionary function. Thus the restraint of Mark Schorer’s essay on Truman Capote and Carson McCullers serves as a kind of implicit rebuke to the stridency of Donald Barr’s piece on Salinger—a Freudian assault which now and then departs the text altogether to tell us more about Salinger’s infancy than we care to know; even as Diana Trilling’s meticulous disposition of opposing claims made upon Norman Mailer is in contrast to Harvey Breit’s essay on Baldwin, a kind of tone poem which undertakes to misunderstand in the most ardent terms the difficulties besetting a writer who is also engaged in being a prophet.

The curious thing about a book of this kind is that in spite of its miscellany, it does generate a sense of collective identity modeled, in accordance with that Gresham’s Law of Anthologies, on the lowest common denominator. Thus the reader is left with certain general impressions—abhorrent perhaps to the spirit of certain of the individual contributions—but reflective of the temper of the book as a whole. The general style remains in the memory as that dispiriting blend of the Survey Course and the Encouraging Letter from the Fiction Editor, which finds characters “not quite in focus,” resolutions “not quite satisfactory,” artists “polishing the tools of their craft,” which views literature as a kind of relay race with its participants busily engaged in handing “influences” around to one another, when not engaged in choosing between life and art, the inner man and the outer man, the political and the “human.” If there is, in fact, a word more often evoked in this book than the word “style,” it is the word “human” (almost always in tandem with “positive” and “affirmation”), and if there is anything like a coherent philosophic temper to the venture it is the one signalled by the misuse of that term. One almost yearns at the end for some critic to congratulate some author on having produced a warm and simian document.

Passionately though it addresses itself to the present, this book wears in general—down to the mortuary slabs of biography preceding each of the individual selections—the forlorn aspect of a memorial volume. It demonstrates that for purposes of rendering the opposition limp, nothing will do the trick more efficiently than sheer bland approval.

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