October 10, 1999, Sunday
New York Times Book Review

Look Who's Modern Now

By Wendy Steiner

IN 1988, I completed a book-length monograph on contemporary American fiction for Volume 7 of the Cambridge History of American Literature. This summer, it was published. Eleven years from pen to print? No, this isn't a joke, and no, I'm not bitter. Sometimes there's value in having to rewrite a book three times in order to weigh in on the fast-fleeting now.

I first heard about the Cambridge History in 1984, when its general editor, Sacvan Bercovitch, phoned me up out of the blue. His assignment, were I to accept it, was to write a history of the American novels and short stories published too recently for me to have studied them in college: to historicize the fiction of my adulthood. A modernist by training and profession, I had written academic books on Gertrude Stein and early-20th-century painting and poetry. The only novel I had taught from the contemporary period was Thomas Pynchon's ''Crying of Lot 49,'' which was more an obsession than an object of study. Good, I thought: academia is all about making a profession out of one's obsessions.

With ''Lot 49'' in mind, I assumed that the important fiction since the 1950's was post-modern -- the esoteric, goofy, often elephantine work of Pynchon, Barth, Vonnegut, Coover and Hawkes. This was a widely held assumption in the mid-1980's. In ''The Anatomy Lesson,'' Philip Roth's Zuckerman -- who has published a book that sounds suspiciously like ''Portnoy's Complaint'' -- receives a letter from the editors of his old college newspaper. They ''wanted to interview him about the future of his kind of fiction in the post-modernist era of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon.'' Because Zuckerman is in the hospital, the editors have sent a list of written questions: ''1. Why do you continue to write? 2. What purpose does your work serve? 3. Do you feel yourself part of a rear-guard action, in the service of a declining tradition?'' Guided by Zuckerman's editors, I decided to write one chapter on the post-modernists and another on Roth and the other rear-guard men. I'd add a third on women writers too, since the canon needed expanding.

Accordingly, I read deeply in the experimentalists and wrote that chapter, pleased at finding my way through these compelling mind-teases. Then I started on the traditionalist men -- those whose focus was ethnicity, the anomie of suburban domesticity, the alienation of war. But strangely, Roth and Heller and Mailer didn't seem all that different from their experimentalist brothers. Their plots turned in on themselves like Moebius strips; fact and fiction refused to keep their distance; existential despair and post-modern relativism worked their usual nauseous vertigo. It's the end of traditionalism, I decided.

Except, that is, for women writers. In the mid-1980's, everyone believed that women were still writing 19th-century novels, or at least that was what a lot of men, especially experimentalists, liked to say. John Barth used the label ''premodern'' for the works of ''most of our contemporary American women writers of fiction, whose main literary concern, for better or worse, remains the eloquent issuance of . . . secular news reports.'' I read a raft of women's novels -- by Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, Marilynne Robinson, Gloria Naylor -- and they did seem different. They were rich in imagery and emotion, consumed by the desire to recover a lost or hidden past. They did not deny existential despair, but neither did they react to it with brittle intellectualism or irony. Instead of offering the blankness of Vonnegut's ''so it goes,'' they dramatized their characters' suffering. I reported this supposedly premodern syndrome faithfully, without using the word ''retrograde'' except in quotes.

By then it was 1988, and my 200-page essay was finished. Unaware of the coming hiatus -- my Cambridge history was optimistically marked as ''forthcoming'' on my vita for each of the past 11 years -- I went to London for an extended sabbatical, reviewing a lot of new books and thinking hard about how academic humanists relate to the general culture. The answer that emerged was simple. In England they do; in America they don't. I never went back to studying modernist poetry, but eventually I went back to the States, where I taught contemporary American novels, or at least the ones I had discussed in my history. Disconcertingly, they were growing less contemporary all the time. As I taught them, reviewed new fiction and judged literary prizes, contemporary novels proliferated. I felt like Tristram Shandy, waiting for a birth that was endlessly postponed while its prehistory kept growing and growing.

It was obviously time to rewrite. But I noticed a curious thing as I cut and pasted in the early 1990's -- and in the middle 1990's and again last year. The themes and values in women's writing that I had discussed in my first draft had become utterly compelling to me, and the ''brilliance'' of the post-modernists seemed no longer demanding and insightful but tedious and self-indulgent in the extreme. This wasn't the result of a sudden conversion to feminism on my part; it was an esthetic and even an economic response. I could no longer see why I needed to process 700-plus pages of esoteric ''in'' jokes in order to see the meaninglessness of modern experience yet again. Authorial generosity and proportion seemed much more valuable than uncompromising irony, and I yearned for fineness of touch -- beauty -- with the hunger of a starving person.

I don't think I am alone here. As a judge for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1997, I found especially revealing the debate over Don DeLillo's brilliant ''Underworld,'' which did not win the prize. The novel opens with 60 pages of as glorious prose as may be found in any recent fiction. With its waste-manager protagonist, ''Underworld'' fits in a direct line from ''The Waste Land'' (and ultimately Dickens's ''Our Mutual Friend'') to the W.A.S.T.E. communications system in Pynchon's ''Crying of Lot 49.'' It depicts an American innocence lost with the advent of the cold war and multinational capitalism. The next 800 pages of post-modern convolution reveal that that innocence can never be recovered. For many of the judges, this was a Great American Novel if ever there was one. For others, it was yet another blockbuster metafiction, excellent among its kind, but of a kind by now all too familiar.

Consider an even more recent post-modern megafiction, Salman Rushdie's ''Ground Beneath Her Feet.'' A novel full of etymological puns and literary and pop music allusions, it is nevertheless retro in every sense of the word, wisecracking with the brotherhood of Joyce and Eliot and Pynchon and requiring a lot of reading to achieve what those geniuses achieved earlier and better. How many generations of clever, verbose metafictionists do we need concocting fables of absurdity? Not only have we already heard that there's no ground beneath our feet -- the post-modern theme with a thousand faces -- but we've moved on from there. The real challenge Pynchon so eloquently bequeathed us is to find a place for interest, beauty, pleasure and value in an ungrounded world.

To the surprise of some, the novel that won the N.B.C.C. award over ''Underworld'' was ''The Blue Flower,'' by Penelope Fitzgerald. A compact, beautifully realized work about the German poet and philosopher Novalis, who lived his romantic ideal of love, it conveys a depth of feeling -- for people, for language -- that is intensely moving and satisfying. This year, the Pulitzer committee made a similar choice, awarding its fiction prize to Michael Cunningham's fine novel ''The Hours,'' which builds on the tradition of a ''softer'' modernist than Eliot or Joyce. Granted, one can't generalize on the basis of two recent literary prizes. But both these cases -- Fitzgerald's reconnection of esthetics and love and Cunningham's return to a more lyrical modernism -- exemplify a shift in taste toward a kind of fiction that was pioneered by contemporary women writers. Readers may be casting their votes this way too, at least according to the Amazon sales rankings, as I'm writing this, for the four books just discussed: ''The Hours,'' 228; ''The Blue Flower,'' 661; ''The Ground Beneath Her Feet,'' 5,424; ''Underworld,'' 9,492.

The last novel I added to my history was Annie Proulx's ''Shipping News,'' the story of an extremely unpromising man who becomes, by the end, something of a hero. He does so not through paroxysms of tortured irony but through humility, dumb will and fidelity to everyday responsibility. The book's language begins as boorish as its protagonist, but stays with him, ending in an inspired, marveling prose -- irony humanized into a paradoxical hope: ''Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat's blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.''

Through this lyricism and concern for individual experience, Proulx deals with existential pain, but differently from the early post-modernists. For her, the absurdity of life can be met only by the assertion of individual interest, the same lesson that Pierce Inverarity teaches Oedipa Maas from the grave in ''The Crying of Lot 49'' -- to keep the ball bouncing, ''to take on interests.'' For Proulx, however, the appropriate response is not hyperrationality, paradox and the absurd but a kind of nurturing steadfastness. She stays with the nonheroic until it is imbued with grandeur.

If the post-modern period opened with metafictional fireworks, it closes with the extraordinary commonplace of love. And this is a fine lesson for an academic to have learned through writing -- and rewriting -- a history of contemporary American fiction.