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Literary Minimalism Without Revelation : THE NEW GENERATION Fiction for Our Time From America's Writing Programs edited by Alan Kaufman (Doubleday: $18.95, cloth; $10.95, paper; 340 pp.)

December 13, 1987|Roberta Smoodin | Smoodin's new novel, "White Horse Cafe," will be published by Viking/penguin in March

Forget Galileo. Forget Columbus. The news from creative writing programs, if "The New Generation" is any real guide, is that the world is flat. Exercises in minimalism have turned real examinations of desperation and the ineluctable, inexpressible horror of our existences into figure skating. The smooth surface of a story may be decorated with cunning designs, but it is seldom, if ever, broken.

There is more news. Narcissism is not a trend or a fad or a boomlet. It seems, instead, to be here to stay. Of the 23 stories in this collection, 20 are in the first person. Twenty narrators report, mostly with typical minimalist emotional detachment, their feelings and experiences, giving the reader the feeling that the writer needs a slap on the face or a glass of cold water thrown on him more than he needs an MFA.

And more news: Youth is no longer wasted on the young. Short stories from writing programs make the most out of childhood, using it as grist for the writing mill, then re-using it and re-using it and re-using it. Precocity got you down? If there's too much of it in our culture in general, all over television and movie screens, the bad news is that it pervades this fiction as well. Nearly half of the stories are concerned with white, upper-middle class, precocious childhoods. Occasionally a story wanders into a lower-class family. One Oriental childhood is explored, and one Hispanic childhood. Except for these last two stories, one gets the impression, in this collection and in fiction today in general, that all children are born Caucasian and privileged and that occasionally they grow up to be the infrequent black or brown or yellow characters in stories and novels. America's backslide from the brink of racial and ethnic tolerance into the frightening and reactionary violence of the late '70s can be seen reflected here.

In style and shape, these stories tend to present a minimalism without revelation. There is a paucity of endings, real or hidden, few character epiphanies, some hazy suggestions of the germ of realization, making these stories seem mere muscle flexing, exercises in story writing rather than the real thing. The flatness of the world of much of this new fiction is both literal and metaphorical, found in style and in content.

That said, the stories that come to life, that have within them a deftness, or a vividness, or a sense of humor, or a character to whom one might want to talk at a party, must be noted. "The Big Sway" by Dennis Johnson has a main character whose voice is quirky and funny, and whose unluckiness in love seems just about to change. Bob Shacochis' "I Ate Her Heart" is full of his usual brilliant rhythms and absolutely hearable dialogue, and in the short course of its pages it works up to an act of such violence and horror that one gasps at the end and wishes life were otherwise. Mona Simpson, Debra Spark and yes, even the much maligned Tama Janowitz, make contributions that should be acknowledged for signs of life and imagination.

Graduate programs in creative writing are blossoming all over the country and are turning out an army of MFAs, young people with an aptitude, if this volume is any guide, for dreary realism and solemn prose. All of the stories in "The New Generation" were written by students or graduates of the master's programs at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and the University of Iowa; one can assume these stories to be indicative of, if not superior to, the work at many other such programs. As a graduate of such a program myself, I can vouch for the value, even the wonderful luxury, of having two years to concentrate on writing fiction. But young writers need time to grow up; most are not ready, upon receipt of their degrees, to publish. I fear that the phenomenon of the emergence and commercial success of such writers as Brett Easton Ellis and Janowitz is responsible for the publication of "The New Generation," instead of the much more worthy possibility that work of such brilliance is being turned out by creative writing programs that it should, that it must be published.

Writing programs were designed to cultivate young talent, to give it a place to begin to bloom without concern or care for the crass commercialism of our culture. Learning the trade of writing is far different from learning the trade of selling writing, of making money from writing. If writers were apt at the latter, there would be no need for literary agents. "The New Generation" demonstrates that young writers are being taught the skills they need to create fiction. Next, though, they need to grow up enough to utilize such basic elements of a writer's emotional vocabulary as empathy, passion, compassion, insight and surprise.

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