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Nonfiction in Brief

DIMINISHING FICTIONS Essays on the Modern American Novel and Its Critics by Bruce Bawer (Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn. 55175: $18.50)

June 19, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

"Who do you think is writing the Great American Novel these days?" a professor asked the author a few years ago. "Nobody," said Bruce Bawer. After reading about this exchange in the introduction, one's heart leaps out to the writers who are about to be evaluated. For the most part, however, Bawer treats them fairly, dismissing a good number of modern novels for conformity and "relentless negativeness," but doing so without smug, overly dismissive barbs; Bawer's arguments might be highly subjective, but he puts his critical cards on the table. His basic concern is that modern novelists have turned a blind eye to the heterogeneity of the human spirit, allowing themselves to be consumed by trendy nihilism rather than endeavoring to create a diversity of realistic characters.

Thus a relatively obscure book like Glenway Wescott's "The Apple of the Eye" is praised for its "three-dimensional characters" and "assured, natural style," while Saul Bellow is criticized (not very originally) for writing "talky" books with "interchangeable" characters. Bawer is right, of course, that American fiction has lost a good deal of realism since Darwin, Freud and World War I shook so many assumptions. "Diminishing Fictions" is a bit dismissive, however, for realistic character portrayal is often Bawer's only criterion for evaluation. He thus overlooks the fact that modern fiction is legitimately reflecting the mood of a social milieu, however unrepresentative that milieu might be of American society. The novelists Bawer criticizes, then, have not lapsed as writers, but as reporters, failing to convey "the depth and variety of human life in the closing decades of the 20th Century," especially the "courage, character, moral strength and beauty" that could be found in pre-World War II novels.

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