A Material Difference: Notes on the Newness of 1980s Fiction

A Material Difference: Notes on the Newness of 1980s Fiction

The rich diversity of American fiction has always made newness difficult to characterize. But the 1980s have seen not only the arrival of fresh work by writers who have long established that diversity, but also the fracturing of literary culture along quasipolitical lines: the rise of a multi-ethnic literature encompassing the work of Chinese-Americans, Indians, African-Americans, and European ethnics, a growing gay literature, and new additions to feminist fiction. Powerful novels of Vietnam and its aftermath, many by combat veterans, have added to the cultural ferment. Yet all these often “radical” voices do not so much signal what has changed as serve the traditional end of extending our fiction’s longstanding concern with the drama of marginal man beating at the doors of society. The literary revolution of the eighties has erupted in a fiction of those who have already gained entry.

Perhaps nothing reveals what has changed more than the transformation of those heroes and anti-heroes propelled toward mythic stature by an avid college market. The youthcult heroes of one period are made obsolete by those of another. Reflecting the aspirations and anxieties of coming-of-age, cult heroes dramatize the ethos of the day. The sweet brotherliness of Holden Caulfield in recoil from adulthood reflected the 1950s belief in authenticity, innocence, and family as bulwarks against the crassness of the social world. The sexual freedom of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, whose Martian hero teaches the benefits of nonverbal communication, communal life, and abandoning possessive jealousy, reflected a 1960s rejection of competitive, acquisitive America. An attack on authority and authoritarianism figured in the feminist assault on the double standard, fueling mass market bestsellers of the 1970s, from Fear of Flying by Erica Jong to the ambitiously belletristic novel of Francine Duplessix Gray, Lovers and Tyrants. But the comparable fiction of the 1980s seems to be giving up the counterculture attack on adulthood, authority, and repression. There is in progress a quiet but sharp recoil from the concepts of self and society, from the quest for authentic emotion, from the visions of individualism and possibility that have been animating forces in our literature. In the 1980s we encounter the new Self in its most extreme form: the Hero as Nostril.


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima