Basic Books, $11.95
As a critic of what might loosely be called “the sixties experience,” Morris Dickstein seems temperamentally well-suited. He sympathizes with the radical activists who sought a more humane and a less bureaucratic society. And he shares the conviction of sexual revolutionaries that “moralism and hypocrisy” infect our most private relationships. But Dickstein, like Conrad’s Razumov, wanted no part of the barricades. And, as his literary criticism makes plain, that is because his deepest sympathies lie elsewhere.
“All modernist writing is in some ways experimental and revisionary, thriving on the decadence of previous forms and norms. . . . But in all the best modernist writing, this negative and parodistic element never predominates.” This view explains Dickstein’s admiration for Borges and (selectively) for Thomas Pynchon. It also explains his reservations about the work of John Barth, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Rudolph Wurlitzer, among others, whose writing, Dickstein says, “too frequently lack[s] . . . poignancy, intensity, a recognizably human framework.”
Particularly interesting is Dickstein’s discussion of “black writing” in the sixties. He weaves carefully through the complicated clashes between an old guard (Baldwin and Ellison) and aggressive newcomers such as Eldridge Cleaver and Ishmael Reed. The bottom line, however, is that a black novelist is a good novelist when his (her) fiction meets “conventional standards,” which means an organized plot, believable characters, and a controlling sensibility we’re willing to listen to. That downgrades the work of such writers as Cecil Brown, LeRoi Jones, and Calvin Hernton, but allows Dickstein to explain in some detail why he admires the fiction of two lesser-known writers, James Alan McPherson and Toni Morrison.
The culture Dickstein describes is even now in a period of retrenchment and self-judgment. His skepticism about the value of new forms, both in politics and in art, will not please revolutionists, but this book, full of sensible and informed observations, will give them a base for their next round of discoveries.
—C. Michael Curtis