Fiction of the Sixties
Author and teacher, two of whose novels, THE MAX WHO WAS NOT WITH ITand THE OPTIMIST, hare been published under the Atlantic—Litlle, Brown imprint, HERBERT GOLD here discusses the tone and the themes which he believes will characterize the fiction of the coming decade.
THE pig is the most discreet animal; it never looks at the sky. With just this much apology for iny indiscretion, let me try to anticipate the color and content of American fiction in the decade ahead, I shall first perform sonic harassed wigwagging before my brother novelists, stalled on our dark roadways, and then offer an optimistic view of the next place on the road, and hope that the peculiar disconnection between actual and prospective station can provide an occasion for inventory of self by both readers and writers.
The immediate decade past has not been a bad time for novelists if they did not care about getting their messages through. There have been career opportunities aplenty for bona fide, stamped and certified, government-inspected, prime tellers of stories. George P. Elliott, one of the fine writers who matured during the decade of the fifties, recently commented wryly on these fellowships and prize opportunities, academic offers, lecture offers, writers’ conference offers, article-writing offers, ghost-writing offers, review offers, copycomposing offers: “Fiction writers are in short supply.” Having been sponsored by United Artists and Esquire and sent by first-class jet on a visit to Hollywood, where he stayed at the Beverly Wilshire and had his clothes valeted by the great movie company, and having been locked in manto-man talk with mighty agents and famous actors, all this energy spent on an article for Esquire about
a movie producer, he returns to the little back room in New York where he does his writing. There he contemplates the enthusiastic reviews of his novel, Parktilden Village, which has thus far been sold to about 700 readers. Mr. Elliott has finally come into some esteem as a writer — without, however, being read.
Of course, 700 out of 180 million Americans suggests a startling number of nonreaders for a vigorous contemporary talent, but it is not a much more lugubrious percentage than 3000 out of 180 million, which is more typical of the nonbestselling novel. The American cornucopia has enabled the American writer to keep alive, but the same embarrassment of riches which has fed his family with irregular spurts of cash has provided the prospective reader with enough distractions to avoid any imposition of books on his time. Perhaps some new foundation should give fellowships to novel-readers.
We are all aware of the peculiar inadequacy of book distribution, beginning and ending with the tic of the nervous book buyer, who asks for whatever title is floating in the air that week. The first books of Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, and Vladimir Nabokov sell in the hundreds; in these cases, eventually something happy occurs, a peculiar combination of virtue having out and the wheel of fortune spinning. A novel like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man sells poorly, receives an important prize, picks up sales, finally does okay. For the publisher, who operates by statistics and needs only one best seller to justify ten poor sellers, the business risk is a reasonable one. But what about the forsaken novelist, who loves his book and wrote it to say something important to an audience which does not realize that it has been spoken to? Well, he either sheds a noble tear (his own view of it) or a maudlin one (everyone else’s opinion). He reminds himself, if he has the required strength: “No one asked you to write stories, pal. Do you want to or don’t you?”
Answer: he wants to. and wants to again; a gadfly whose victims do not know when they have been gadded.
So MUCH for shoptalk about the writer’s financial and nervous problems. But the peculiarly book-shy audience bears watching for clues about the subject matter of serious American novelists in the immediate past and in the future which we project from it.
In the thirties and the early forties, political and social ideologies preoccupied the minds of most writers, and many books ended with such rooster morals as “Strike!” or “He died for all of us” and had doctrinaire donkey titles like Brother, the Laugh Is Bitter. The old problems were still with us during the fifties, but the teeth of the beasts were sugared into ruin by the fact of a victorious war (however temporary), economic prosperity (however specious), and the lack of an important political ideal to set against apparent American failures. The blissful despair of the twenties had turned to the blind staggers; the great enemies of the thirties, fascism and depression, were slumbering quietly; the hopes of Marxism and Peace Through War were dead.
The coming-of-age novel, the quest novel, the novel of philosophical purpose demanded intense formal and stylistic ingenuity to fill the gaps left by diminished political passions. Novelists could not yet make their deep response to the Bomb and a lemming impulse to race suicide dramatically relevant in fiction. There was no active cause to join, no genuine war to declare (plenty of false wars and individual bandit expeditions). The simplicity and resolution which even the dramatically complicated mind finds necessary were hard to discover in public life.
A characteristic expression of the period is John Chcever’s uneasy exploration of middleclass decorum in The Wap shot Chronicle and his many stories. Truman Capote and J. D. Salinger attempted to raise elegant eccentricity and child psychology to the level of literature. Writers like Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Bernard Malamud managed to make explicit philosophical purposes relevant in fiction by the force of their personal vision.
The great fads were, first, the novel of American self-congratulation, typified by Sloan Wilson, Cameron Hawley, Herman Wouk, and other celebrants of business and obedience; and later in the decade, the so-called hipster writers, who also failed to produce a convincing voice. The trouble with both groups is a symptomatic one. They are not egotistical, but rather nonegotistical, lacking a firm sense of self, thus terribly frightened, needful, vain, demanding from a public which is itself avid for genuine personality an assurance that they really exist. The weak ego strives lor strong assertion through immolation in bureaucracy or advertisements for its selfishness: Help me, tell me I am here!
Many other passive novelists settle for everybody’s unhappy childhood, exposes of the already exposed, tremendously gory and horny war novels, pseudo revivals of religious conformity, imitations of Henry James and Kafka and Fitzgerald, guiltmongering and magnolia-mongering and the moony, loony interior decoration of prose. Some of them seem to know Shelley’s description of the skylark, which pours out its “full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” but they forget that the sincere skylark is a mere feathered bird, not a hairy poet, and a human being’s sincerity must come of more than the winds of nature blowing in his craw. The poet or the novelist sings most with his own heart when the arbiter of his intelligence has brought both his body and the rest of the world together into the room where he does his singing.
Certain ideological writers—the Freudians, the neo-religious, and the hipsters, for example — like to think of themselves as devilish chaps with probes stuck into their very depths, and so they rejoice. Milton’s Satan made their point with succinct awareness and terror: “Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell” and thus understood that the awful privacy of the rebel must be mitigated by some meaningful communion with others. The writer needs a causal connection with his society, some sense that his work does something to make everyone’s privacy a privilege rather than a burden. Else numbness, coolness, the erosion of self, and the acquiescence in self-murder around us. Without this causal connection with the wide world, the writer may issue shrill directives from his own coddled privacy; he may fidget and giggle and tell himself he is Whitman or Kafka, hip or cool, gimmicked by chic and as fashionable as a sports car; he is in hell all the same.
The categories of American virtue (material accumulation plus good intentions) and American guilt (spiritual vagueness plus nuclear derangement plus impure intentions plus a clouded future) exclude the writer who is not a compulsive joiner of causes. And yet he seeks to broaden the allegiance of his one-member team. The most serious writers of this period feel as an immediate personal deprivation the lack of an imperative politics, an enveloping and involving view of the world. And the best creation of the time has implied an effort to close this gap. Probably no imaginative writing can do the work of a society in giving a sense of public hope and purpose to a people, but awareness of the lack and the personal effort to find personal solutions constitute an essential labor in a difficult time. Literature, like politics, is an art of the possible.
A few writers have Bed to traditional shelters — religious revival, political dogma, hedonism and its anemic, psychoanalytic grandchild, the pursuit of health, which provides a misunderstood parody of the classical purgation by pity and terror in order to reach order and calm. The strongest have accepted their ignorance and their doubt; they will continue, in the decade to come, perhaps learning themselves, as they note along the way what some among the world of men have learned. As Ralph Ellison’s invisible man asks, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies,
I speak for you?” The labor of opposing invisibility — to others and to ourselves — will be continued by novelists who aim not at a secondary quality of health but at the primary issue of ransoming the time by inventing a sharply personal reality.
In the decade ahead, the successors to Faulkner and Hemingway will be new novelists, striving in their little rooms and staring out the window, as writers always do; but they will be striving with issues and staring out over a world which the elder statesmen of American letters must find quite alien, slippery white, electronic, forbidding. The society celebrated by Faulkner and Hemingway, Wolfe and Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Sherwood Anderson and Steinbeck has become a matter of history — a history of vital concern, perhaps, but history. For that essential fictional mastery of the way things are, we must now look to younger voices evaluating an altered experience of America. No one can call the roll of the strong talents of the sixties. Many of them are already at work, but some are probably still in high school. However, we can anticipate something of the kind of world out of which their stories and novels will emerge.
The environment of American writing in the sixties will provide an accelerated continuation of the post-war period, with a possibility of closer challenge and confrontation of the risks of technological explosion, of living on a shrinking globe jostled by the Soviet Union and China, and of the revolutionary reversals of the importance of work and leisure. The bloating of cities and populations. with resulting great shifts of power, suggests frontiers at least as exciting as those out in space.
MANY of the writers who will nominate themselves to reckon with our world through the magical synthesis of fiction will seem more strange than Martians to some of us. Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, the Depression, and the War will be dim history to them. My earliest “political” memories are of a teacher weeping over the bank closings and of the freight trains ant-heaped with men traveling hopelessly in search of work. What political reality will the youngest writers of the sixties carry forward from their seventh years? A TV apology by a worried candidate? A discussion of the effect of ileitis on the stock market?
Not many of these writers will wash dishes in diners while going to college; scholarships even reach down to arts students. When they rebel against their parents, suggests one psychiatrist, the mania for popular psychology will oblige them to rebel against being understood rather than being misunderstood. They will be richer, healthier, groupier, more suburban, rarely driven into the early isolation of economic crisis, secondgeneration conflict, and rapid changes of class.
They will nevertheless discover the eternal problems lying in wait after their air-conditioned classrooms and their Merit Scholarships. How to find proper work for a man? How to find a way of living that is worthy? How to survive in a world which is no longer addicted to necessary progress? Are we really reborn through love? If so or if not, how to live with the cardinal fact of death?
But these new writers will have grown up among the specters of passivity, isolation, and doubt which haunt American political and family life. Passive self-absorption is surely the great antagonist of the creating mind. Unless others respond to the “moving image of desire,” the writer does not really have a command post; he is in isolation, no matter how shrilly he raises his voice. The writer of the sixties will have to thread his way through the interlocking loneliness of contemporary America. If he accepts the ticket for the Fun House maze, where all he can make out is his own reflection in thousands of mirrors, he fails.
Dare anyone promise that fiction writers in the sixties will discover the causal connection between their work and our society, the impulse to make a self-engrossing music and the need to tell the best truth a man knows? Of course not. The first difficulty is that the imaginative writer is not that unacknowledged legislator which his dream as a young man tells him to be; he may find himself in “short supply,” but the occasional accident of best-sellerdom bears little relationship to a powerfully attentive audience. He is, rather, an acknowledged nonlegislator. But more important than the personal career disconnection of the writer is the fact that he suffers like the rest of Americans, at three o’clock in the morning and all day long, individually and as a people, with the need to find a significant connection between desire and love, ambition and work, principle and actual function in the largest world. What, as a people, we lack of the large public issues of spirit and purpose, the novelists in their narrow rooms can hardly provide.
Then what will they give us in the sixties? At their strongest, they can offer relish even in trouble, freshness even in chagrin; they can tell us stories about how things are, how they might be; they can create heroes who point to better chances through being tested in extremity. They can refresh the sense of personality and remind us that the mysterious pride in self is more than the lining to our striving or cajoling public faces. If tragedy lies buried in a ruck of pathos, they can still show us where tragedy lies buried. This is familiar work for the novel, but it must be done afresh every time.
At their frazzled worst, novelists will continue to give us the ephemera which inspire us to a constant activity of forgetting. The juvenile delinquent will remain loyally with us, as he has since Zeus ate Kronos, but the hipster will fold his hypodermic and silently steal away; though no one can replace Jack Kerouac, the no one’s name will be legion. The thick book-club novel, fashioned by steady hand and indifferent heart, and the thin interior decorator’s novel, fashioned by the desire to pitch a camp in the tent of literature, will produce their accustomed results in the form of dollars and social status. The self-absorbed outpouring which sometimes precedes a controlled gift and sometimes precedes silence and oblivion will continue to find optimistic publishers and tireless but fatigued reviewers. The weekly great book about America’s Mission will detonate ecstasies by the familiar missionaries.
THE new serious writers will find an inadequate substitute for the moral equivalent of the traditional life-and-death struggles in the coming-ofage novel and the suburban novel and the business novel and the exposure-of-selling-out novel. The novel of political and social protest must find new energies; it is difficult to be as attentive to Margaret Mead, telling American men to unite as Men, as one was to Karl Marx, telling us to unite as Workers. Though the alarmed viewers of American family life have a pertinent “issue,” “problem,” “question,” it does not suggest the bedrock challenge of the apparent breakdown of an economic system in the thirties. Can there be a powerful general cause for the writers of the sixties, apart from their personal need to tell a story?
The vital accommodations to reality and demands upon experience will, I think, present themselves with a force that must change our sense of the American novel. The first question is moral, philosophical, metaphysical, religious; the second, linked with it like a Siamese twin, has political roots. How does a man place himself as a person in the coming new world? How will Americans accommodate to this world as a people?
Part of the novelist’s purpose has always been to present possibilities, to judge, to decide, and to give a weight, assurance, style, and energy to these decisions. In the sixties the best novelists will grapple with a problem which can be pejoratively described as “abstract” but which involves a return in extremity to the deepest poetic demand: to know.
They will ask final questions: For whom do I live? For what? They will search out examples of personal value in a massified society: What is the relationship between freedom and isolation, loneliness and independence, responsibility and that pseudo responsibility of merely following orders? Stripped down to poetry and story and the inauguration of passionate conviction, they will leave the self-conscious recording of the details of social life to the social historians; the “research team,” that miniature lonely crowd, is better equipped to perform this interesting but secondary function.
Because the novelist relishes what is, he will continue to find joy in the bizarreries of talk and the salient observation, but he will, I believe, look for a specific coherence in much the way that philosophers and religious thinkers traditionally have done. He will do this partly because the linguistic analysis of contemporary philosophy and the sermons of contented religiosity leave the primary questions unanswered. The writer who fought in Spain did nothing more than sign a petition for Hungary, but he must find a way to translate his ardent moral judgments into literary meaning in time of shock and crisis.
And the sixties will surely be a time of shock and crisis, sensed by the artists even if the mass of Americans do not admit it. (When a body is first wounded badly, it does not feel the pain.) The novelist obliges himself to confront the individual’s changed relationship toward himself and a mass society; his changed assignment of duty will also be the result of two important political facts built into the texture of American life out of which the novel of the sixties will emerge. The first fact, relatively easy to accept, is that America is neither the great villain of mass civilization nor the wistful hope of the world. American self-love and selfromanticization have jaded along with the sellhatred of the Anglophile or the Marxist myths. The second, more difficult realization has to do not with patriotic indulgence but with power. The United States is no longer the young giant (peace to Thomas Wolfe); it will be one giant among at least three, including China and Russia and perhaps India and perhaps some European complex. The drama and images of American novels will either be reconciled with these facts or unreconciled, but fiction always shows the effect of its nourishment by facts.
Let us follow this notion in one detail: If we accept the reality of Chinese power, we will begin to trade with China. If we trade with China, San Francisco will rival New York as a great port and center of cultural radiation. And when this occurs, the magnetic attraction of New York City for novelists may well be succeeded by the image of another city, in which European and Oriental influences are combined as Western and Byzantine influences were combined during the glory of Vienna. The St. Lawrence Seaway makes Cleveland, Ohio, an ocean port, with French sailors strolling up Ninth Street. Jet planes will take Huck Finn to Moscow from Hannibal, Mo., in only a few hours. The map of the world is part of every novel. Even without hydrogen explosions to break up continents, the tidal waves of transport and trade and the erupting volcanoes of national power will create a new mental geography and a new need for coherence in the sixties.
Rhetoric and the shape of speech itself must reflect these tidal changes. A small example: If Said Bellow were writing The Victim now, the sentence which begins the book, in which he describes New York as “hot as Bangkok,” would carry less of the fantastic Arabian Nights associations which it had for the writer ten years ago; he knows people who have been to Bangkok, he may go there himself, Bangkok is there as a part of the hard life of the times.
Fiction in the sixties will be bent to celebration of a world magnificently on edge, at the limit; while perhaps free in fact of economic crisis and war, we will remain under ultimate threat, with implications of being chastened for error by the disappearance of men from the earth. Avowing the facts of man’s ambiguous destiny, the writer will try to give his private vision some viable control. He will often stumble, often settle for shrillness. Many thoughtful writers will create out of total mastery and partial awe. That is, they will know too much, or at least think too highly of their partial knowledge; brain-proud, convinced, combative, and making points, they will prune their effective awe before the brute gift of life on earth. The supple and compassionate mind is essential; knowledgeability is the enemy of awe, that sun under which the artist’s wisdom turns and grows.
The best writers of the sixties, as of all periods in history, will suffer gladly under partial mastery, being gripped by strong convictions and total awe. The novelist’s ideas will finally be stopped before the greatest idea of all for a writer of fiction, the fact that his people live and that what they do is important; in other words, before his awe at the spectacle of human love and sorrow, folly and dignity. Having thought, the novelist will then suspend thinking and go into the kitchens, the streets, and the dilemmas of his Active world. Once again he will discover actions, themes, styles, and forms which enable him to do that labor which must be performed afresh for every time, finding an exemplary reality in the true lie which is a story.