Orchestrating Reception:

The Hierarchy of Readers in Post-modern American Fiction

by John Unsworth

Centennial Review, 34:3 (Summer 1990)

Any essay which addresses itself to "post-modern American fiction" has at least two things to explain at the outset: its understanding of the terminology it uses, and its focus on the American scene. There has been considerable disagreement over the use (and even the form) of the term "post[-]modern," but some consensus has developed around the idea that there have already been two generations of post[-]modernism -- an earlier one which sees itself as extending the project of modernism, and a later one which sees itself as rejecting modernism. I use the presence or absence of a hyphen in the term as an artificial but logical way to distinguish between these two generations. The earliest form of the word, "Post-modernism," has a hyphen which privileges the modern, and this term is properly applied only to the first of the two generations; in "postmodernism," on the other hand, the hyphen has dropped out and the agglutinated form, in which "post" gets top billing, implies the emergence of a new entity. This form of the word is increasingly common, but rather than being applied indiscriminately it ought to denote specifically that rising generation which conceives of itself as distinct from and often opposed to modernism.

As for my focus on the American scene, I agree with those who feel that post[-]modernism is in many ways an international movement, but I maintain that there are certain distinguishing features in its American manifestation. For one thing, American post-modernism has been largely an academic phenomenon, and as such it displays an unusual, if not historically unique, interplay between reader and writer, each having great practical importance for the other, and each at limes competing to supplant the other. This reciprocity between producer and consumer has few parallels in contemporary culture, even in the mass marketplace. What I will be describing, then, is a sort of discrete economy within the culture, small enough to be extremely responsive, and having its own hazards and rewards, its own channels of distribution, its own peculiarly adaptive forms and practices.

I. Identifying the Audience

In "The Shaping of a Canon: American Fiction, 1960-1975," Richard Ohmann begins the difficult but important process of quantifying the value of raw sales, major reviews, attention from intellectuals and academics, and even inclusion on the college syllabus in the elevation of a contemporary novel to the canon. He notes that the last of these factors is

all but necessary: the college classroom and its counterpart, the academic journal, have become in our society the final arbiters of literary merit, and even of survival [for literature].[1]

On the basis of the historical record of the period covered by his study, Ohmann argues that both large sales and the approval of intellectuals are preconditions for canonical status; but the facts do not logically disallow the possibility that a few readers, properly placed in the cultural machinery, could permit a book to bypass popular currency and arrive, slowly but perhaps more surely, at canonical status.[2] Such is the case, I would argue, for American post-modern fiction. With respect to this fiction, Ohmann's network of buyers and reviewers reduces to a more specialized hierarchy of readers, consisting for the most part of teachers and students. Of course, writers who have a predominantly academic audience are not guaranteed admission to the canon, but neither are they automatically threatened with oblivion: as I will later suggest, continued interest in these writers is endangered more by restrictive readings than by a restricted readership.

One might well ask, to begin with, what basis there is for the assertion that American post-modern fiction has a largely academic audience. Although publishers have sometimes included post-paid market survey cards in the books they sell, there isn't much research into the market for specific books -- in part because the profit margin doesn't justify the expenditure that would be required, but largely because of the opinion, widespread in publishing, that books can't be sold like soap, and that works of fiction in particular are unique products without a predictable or consistent market. On the other hand, editors with whom I have spoken are aware that the market for post-modern fiction is "academic and big-city": these books don't sell "in the shopping malls in the suburbs."[3]

In contrast to book publishers, magazines do have the resources to determine the nature of their audience, and can often describe their "average reader" in minute detail. On the assumption that their editorial decisions would reflect this carefully cultivated sense of audience, I reviewed the activity in various periodicals around a group of authors who, I contend, find their audience almost exclusively among professional academics and those they educate, and also around a control group of authors who have both public and professional followings. Using several on-line databases, I compared the number and nature of citations for Gass, Hawkes, Davenport, and Coover to those for Bellow, Updike, and Roth in the MLA bibliography and in the popular media.

My survey of citations for Bellow, Updike, and Roth indicates that while these writers do publish in and receive the attention of the tastemaker periodicals, they also appear in a much broader range of media. Philip Roth, for example, has published essays and interviews in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and Harper's; he has also given interviews to Mademoiselle and Vogue, placed essays in U.S. News & World Report, and excerpted his fiction in the glossy New York magazine. These results bear out Ohmann's claim that the author of certified literary merit will usually be one who has sold a lot of books but has also been well-received in the key periodicals.

The results of my survey of the citations for Gass, Hawkes, Davenport, and Coover indicate that some writers do succeed in establishing a reputation and an audience in intellectual circles without ever achieving popular recognition or celebrity status. Compared to Bellow, Updike, and Roth, these writers were the subject of fewer citations in both the popular and the professional media (though the number of references in the professional media was proportionately higher); nonetheless, the references occurring in popular media were almost exclusively restricted to those periodicals most often named as the "gatekeepers" of literary merit: The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and occasionally some more general but still intellectually upscale magazine like Harper's.[4] What this suggests is that, although these post-modern writers clearly do have an audience, they do not have much of a public.

In an interview given after Omensetter's Luck had been in print for twenty years, Gass was asked whether "what has usually been considered as the traditional audience for the novel, that is, middle-class women, specifically in the USA, middle-class housewives, has been replaced by the academic community of readers?" His response is worth repeating:

There are of course students and faculty people who read your work, but outside the academic community the majority of readers are still women, women who happen to be housewives and who, in one way or another, have been influenced by the university system.[5]
In order to disarm the question, Gass is willing to suppose an audience of (college-educated) housewives, but even granting that Gass's audience is comprised of "the few" rather than of "the many" it seems unlikely -- were it the audience he describes -- that he would have enjoyed the enduring reputation he has. On the contrary, what is demonstrated in the case of American post- modernism is that fiction with a limited public can survive and even thrive, as long as it finds its handful of readers among those who confer literary prestige.

Robert Boyers, founding editor of Salmagundi, has estimated that a writer like William Gass "will be lucky to find ten thousand readers for his book over a period of ten years," and that estimate is confirmed by others in the publishing business.[6] The standard explanation of this circumstance, one Gass himself has endorsed, concludes that a work like Omensetter's Luck is too demanding for the average reader. In the words of Gass's former editor, this author's audience is "obviously" restricted to "the highly literate reading public."[7] But the numbers indicate that Gass's work can't be reaching very many readers even in that rather limited group and in any case if Boyers is correct when he calls Gass "a brilliantly accomplished and not impossibly difficult novelist," then the restricted size of his audience is probably due less to the challenge presented by his works than to that professionalism which has come to dominate what Peter Burger, in his The Theory of the Avant-Garde, called "the institution of art":

When one refers to the function of an individual work, one generally speaks figuratively; for the consequences that one may observe or infer are not primarily a function of its special qualities but rather of the manner which regulates the commerce with works of this kind in a given society or in certain strata or classes of society.[8]

Post-modern fiction, like most experimental art of the twentieth century, has depended on the mediation of "interpreters and exegetes" in its commerce with the public.[9] What is new in the current American situation is not literary promotionalism itself, but rather the fact that until recently most mediators have not been academics. The example of nineteenth-century tastemakers like Charles Eliot Norton or James Russell Lowell might be raised in contradiction (both men held Harvard professorships), but though these critics may have derived some of their authority from an academic position, they exerted their considerable cultural influence primarily as editors of prominent periodicals (respectively, The North American Review and The Atlantic Monthly).

In any case, neither one would have been allowed to teach a course in the writers he promoted and published. In fact, there was apparently no such thing as a course in the modern novel until the very end of the nineteenth century, and it was not until the middle of our own century that even serious contemporary fiction would have been considered an acceptable subject for academic study. It has only been in the last twenty years that English departments have routinely offered courses in contemporary literature, and only in the last ten that this has established itself as a field in its own right within the discipline.[10]

Given the traditional animosity between the academy and experimental art, academic post-modernism represents a noteworthy convergence -- one no less interesting for the fact that these writers maintain the anti-academic rhetoric of the avant-garde in the face of their practical accommodation with the institution they derogate. Gass, for example, recently drew the following distinction between the scholarly article and the essay as practiced by Emerson (and Gass):

The essay is obviously the opposite of that awful object, "the article," which . . . represents itself as the latest cleverness, a novel consequence of thought, skill, labor, and free enterprise; but never as an activity -- the process, the working, the wondering. . . . [T]he article pretends that everything is clear, that its argument is unassailable, that there are no soggy patches, no illicit inferences, no illegitimate connections . . . it knows, with respect to every subject and point of view it is ever likely to entertain, what words to use, what form to follow, what authorities to respect; it is the careful product of a professional . . . . and its appearance is proof of the presence, nearby, of the Professor, the way one might, perceiving a certain sort of speckled egg, infer that its mother was a certain sort of speckled bird. (25)

Gass's point that scholarly writing pursues a standard of completeness not enjoined upon the personal essay is interesting, though neither as new nor as valid now as it was when Adorno first made it in 1958;[11] what is more remarkable is the vehemence of his anti-academicism (in which he is joined, of course, by many if not most American academics). It is worth noting that "Emerson and the Essay" originally appeared in The Yale Review; and although the affiliation between Author and Professor still goes largely unacknowledged, it does deserve to be explored -- not only because it offers us insights into the fiction produced by academic post-modernists and -- the manner in which their largely professorial audience has received it, but also because it may bring us to a better understanding of the cultural and institutional framework we share.

II. The Hierarchy of Readers

Nowhere is criticism so thoroughly integrated into the process of reception as it is in the case of academic post-modernism. This may be because post-modern fiction presupposes a reader who places a high value on formal innovation; certainly most of its critics have been readers of this type. But one problem with this apparently ideal arrangement is that criticism dissipates the element of novelty so important to the formalist undertaking. As Jauss puts it,

the aesthetic distance with which [a work] opposes the expectations of its first audience . . . can disappear for later readers, to the extent that the original negativity of the work has become self-evident and has itself entered into the horizon of future aesthetic experience, as a henceforth familiar expectation.[12]
The result of the process of reception for readers, according to Jauss, is that "familiar expectation" eventually overtakes even an 'avant-garde' work of literature. Post-modern authors, when they join in the activity of mediation, help not only to form new expectations, but also to bridge the aesthetic gap on which their claim to innovation is based.

Throughout modernity, criticism has played a decisive role in establishing the public image of an author, and in determining the qualities for which that author's work would be admired or despised; that fact alone might explain why authors sometimes enter the lists on behalf of their books especially when those books are likely to contradict "the expectations of the first audience." And in cases where the work is aesthetically, politically, or culturally marginal, it is not uncommon to find the way prepared by polemic.

One of the interesting things about aesthetic polemic is that, though it is always advanced as one side of a dialectic of taste and is therefore by definition exclusive rather than all-encompassing, once accepted it has a tendency to reify even its most partisan points as Truth. But what is unusual about the post-modernists with whom we are concerned is that, while they undoubtedly share with their avant-garde ancestors the inducement of self-explanation -- or did twenty years ago, when their books were still considered experimental -- they have acceded to respectability with unprecedented speed. This is in part due to the nature of the contemporary culture industry, in which -- as Hans Enzensberger put it -- "what is steadily being offered for sale is, as in other industries, next year's model."[13] The consequences of this historically unique situation are manifold and various, but some are clearly undesirable.

Although the essentially avant-garde rhetoric of marginalization -- the indispensable trope of all aesthetic manifestoes -- continues to animate the self-descriptions of post-modernism, its value is more nostalgic than descriptive at this point. These authors may not be widely read but, as we have seen, they have gained admittance to and recognition from the group that, perhaps more than any other, determines literary status.

In fact, when we examine actual hierarchies of readers which have developed around post-modern fiction, it becomes clear that they are characterized by inter-relations and interactions even more subtle and complex than those described by Ohmann. Discussion of any such hierarchy is complicated by the fact that people often play different roles within it. As we will see later in this essay, the author may double as his or her own most important reader; beyond that, readers will divide into teachers, students, critical writers, and other authors -- all potentially overlapping groups. Still, at the heart of the web of relations that preserves any work of post-modern fiction, one always finds what could be called the 'properly placed' reader. That reader, by definition, has two things: authority, according to whatever standards currently hold sway, and an audience. In other words, the properly placed reader must also be a writer -- and if her evaluation of an author is to shape general opinion, then at least some of her readers must be writers as well.

In "Contingencies of Value," Barbara Hernstein Smith points out that

Although . . . the evaluation of texts is not confined to the formal critical judgments issued within the rooms of the literary academy or upon the pages of its associated publications, the activities of the academy certainly figure significantly in the production of literary value . . . . drawing the work into the orbit of attention of a population of potential readers; and, by making it more accessible to the interests of those readers (while . . . at the same time shaping and supplying the very interests in relation to which they will experience the work), they make it more likely both that the work will be experienced at all and also that it will be experienced as valuable.[14]
Following the genealogy of literary value backwards to its source, then, the taste of the general reader develops under conditions laid down by critical judgment, which in turn has been prepared for by the author's own evaluation of his work. According to Smith, this last is "a prefiguration of all the subsequent acts of evaluation of which the work will become the subject" (24).

The activity of "critical judgment" to which Smith refers would characterize most of what goes on in the community of writing readers that I have in mind, but the artistic prevaluation which she describes is far less organized and overt than that which is carried on by certain post-modern authors. In many cases, these authors stand at the head of their hierarchy, with an audience of critics who grant a great deal of authority to their opinions. For better or for worse, then, authors who double effectively as First Readers can exercise a lasting influence on the reception of their works.

Self-representation of this sort is by no means a post-modern invention -- Henry James's prefaces to the New York Edition of his works performed this function quite effectively -- but it takes on new significance when the author belongs to an academy which focuses systematic critical attention on contemporary fiction. The interaction between author and reader which in James's case played itself out over a period of years has lately been telescoped into an exchange that is literally conversational: the contemporary author addresses himself to living readers in interviews.

Given that, one might want to know what the effects of this practice are: Is the influence of authorial self-criticism intensified or diminished by the "spirit of competition and cooperation"?[15] Does the professional interaction and practical interdependence of author and critic imply a mutual loss of autonomy? Does it have consequences for the creativity of the former or the judgment of the latter?

The interview is one place to begin looking for answers. In replacing the preface as the platform from which the author delivers a First Reading, the interview capitalizes on the intensification of activity in the print medium through which aesthetic programs reach their audience. Hans Enzensberger's remarks about the culture industry suggest that this intensified activity is essential to marketing aesthetic movements in a culture where "everyone becomes aware of the process of steady advance, and this awareness, in turn, becomes the motor that accelerates the process" (25). At this point in the century, his contention that the arts are driven by the doctrine of progress seems incontrovertible; in the example that follows, it will become equally plain that the motor he posits has turned out to be that reciprocating engine, the interview.

III. Orchestrating Reception: a case in point

Interviews vary in tenor and tone depending on the individuals involved; nonetheless, there are certain types of behavior which seem to characterize the encounter between author and critic. As an example, John O'Brien's interview of Gilbert Sorrentino -- published in the inaugural issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (which O'Brien edits) -- offers us an excellent opportunity to describe some of the more typical aspects of the author-interview, and may serve as an example of the nature and extent of post-modernist criticism's remarkable reliance on the self-analysis of authors. The Review of Contemporary Fiction, published out of Illinois Benedictine College, devoted its Spring, 1981 issue to Sorrentino. Establishing a pattern for future issues, O'Brien contributed both an interview with the author and an essay on that author's latest publication -- in this case, Mulligan Stew: a look over the brief history of this journal shows not only that the authorial interview and excerpts from the work in progress are fixed features of almost every issue, but also that authors who are the subject of one issue are often contributors to the next. The Review of Contemporary Fiction is not an important taste-making organ like the reviews Ohmann discusses, but it is representative of the type of criticism that contemporary fiction has received, and O'Brien himself, as a critic who almost specializes in the interview, is highly illustrative of the problems that confront even the best in a field where, as some rejoice to say, "critical practitioners and most of their subjects are alive and working at the same time" (Klinkowitz).

To begin with, the interview is a personal encounter, and the etiquette of such encounters is naturally somewhat different from that which governs the encounter between a critic and a text. We would expect the interviewer to be more deferential than the critic, even when it is the same person who plays both roles. Postures in the interview are reflected in syntax: the interviewer questions and the author answers; the interviewer's utterances are submitted, the author's are proffered. Add to this the assumption, reigning since James, that the author knows more about what he has written than any other reader, and it should not be surprising that most of the questions asked in interviews are polite requests for authoritative information about methods, meaning, and (artistic) motivation.

One form of the request for information is the invitation to self-appraisal, in which the author is asked to step back and survey his accomplishment with the eye of a detached observer. Like all other such solicitations, this one can be cast as a direct question --

O'B: You have now published several works of fiction and poetry. What do you see as the relationship between the two?

GS: They're married. They're absolutely married. The whole sense of language, the conception, the syntax, my attempt to destroy metaphor that conceals simile and allegory, which I have done my very best to destroy because I don't think that anything is alike. I never try to compare anything because I don't think that anything can be compared. [16]
or presented as a statement courting affirmation --

0'B: Your distaste for using literature as a vehicle for ideas is implicit in the first two novels and explicit in your third. In various ways you keep reminding the reader that this is art, not life.

GS: The breaking up of the concept of reality in The Sky Changes as well as in Imaginative Qualities has to do with my idea of what fiction should be; it doesn't seem to me that fiction should take the place of reality. The idea of the mirror being held up to life is a very remote one as far as my fictional thinking goes. (7-8)

The request for information may also take a more limited form -- for example, the interviewer might ask the author explicit interpretive questions about his work:

O'B: [I]s the first narrator [in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things] the moral guide in the novel or is he too being satirized?"

GS: . . . The first narrator is not the moral guide. He is also being attacked and satirized as much as any other figure in the novel (14)

Arguably, satire hasn't worked if you have to explain it but it is possible that O'Brien's question is simply a statement in disguise. This sort of answer-as-question may be thought of as an inversion of the statement courting affirmation, and can be recognized by its phrasing:

0'B: Do you think that the primary relationship among your novels is stylistic rather than thematic? [italics mine]

GS: I see a clear relationship . . . [that] has to do with my own sense of my prose style, because I don't think of my prose or poetry as being conceptualized exercises in ideas or themes.[17]

Another common form of this occurs when an interviewer cribs his question from ideas presented by the author at an earlier point in the conversation:

GS: The narrative line of The Sky Changes is broken and splintered. The past, the present, the future are mixed together in order to show very clearly that there really is no past that is worse than the present and there is no future that will be better than the present. The mood of the book is darkness. I wanted to create a world that was black and without hope.

O'B: The tone of The Sky Changes is hopelessly grim . . . . the story physically spans across America [sic] as a way of paralleling the desolation of the characters with that of the country. Is the novel as dark as I see it?

GS: As a matter of fact, it is not only as dark as you see it, it is much darker. (9)

In addition to requesting information, though, an interviewer may at times confront the author with some more complex behaviors. For instance, if the interview seems to have become too friendly, the critic may exhibit mock aggression:

O'B: The beginning of The Sky Changes seems to me quite abrupt, perhaps artificial. (9)

In such cases, a look backwards will usually reveal that the interviewer is trusting his weight to ice already tested and approved by the author:

GS: I'm interested in a prose which is absolutely cold, structured, and chaste. I think [The Sky Changes] has a numb quality about it. I hope so. (9)

But should the interviewer really stray from the author's side, the path back to safety will be clearly (if not always patiently) pointed out:

O'B: I can anticipate the grimace when I ask this, but do you see any similarity between your second novel, Steelwork, and James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan? You are both dealing with the concept of "the neighborhood" and its determining effects upon its inhabitants.

GS: No, I don't see any similarities between the two . . . . I had no interest in making a figure like Lonigan and telling you about his life and times. This book sedulously avoids narrative in order to avoid that very thing. It sedulously avoids a protagonist for the same reason. (11)

This sort of one-sided exchange, in which the critic aims at reproducing an analysis scripted by the First Reader, may seem harmless enough when the primary purpose is to draw the author out (though it had the disadvantage, in this case, of restricting conversation to themes and ideas that even in 1971, when this interview was begun -- had little to recommend them beyond their espousal by the author, and certainly were not blazing any new aesthetic or critical trails). Our expectation of critical insight from the interviewer is tempered by the awareness that civility is more likely than belligerence to induce candor in the author -- in any case, we may remember D. H. Lawrence's warning that "an artist is usually a damned liar," and bear in mind that the artist's self-understanding is likely to be a partial one. Nonetheless, these excerpts exhibit either a lack of imagination or a concerted partisanship on the part of the interviewer; granting O'Brien the benefit of the doubt, and given the cultural and historical context in which the interview occurs, the latter is strongly indicated.

Post-modern fiction has been in the difficult and unusual position of carving out its own niche in the canon, defining itself for the future, and actively competing with literature of other traditions for adoption and enshrinement in the academy.[18] If the critic who writes on behalf of the post-modern author were the editor of a magazine like Pound's Little Review, clearly devoted to promulgating the enthusiasms of a partisan few, then there would be no confusion of role and hence no cause for concern -- but The Review of Contemporary Fiction is, in format and in fact, an academic journal, filled with what presents itself as academic criticism and scholarship.

If the interview were the only place where these boundaries blur, we might consider this merely an interesting problem in social psychology -- but O'Brien mimics Sorrentino's First Reading in his critical essay as well. In what follows, I have arranged excerpts from Sorrentino's interview and O'Brien's critical essay on Mulligan Stew in parallel columns -- Sorrentino's remarks on the left, O'Brien's on the right -- an admittedly artificial device, but one which should make it easier to see how the First Reader can set the terms critics will use to discuss his work, establish the context in which the work will be evaluated, and even define what it is to be a good reader.[19] On the other hand, the comparison also suggests some drawbacks associated with the exercise of that power.



[Mulligan Stew] is sealed . . . . A narrator who exists outside. . . would have given the reader a way of getting a handle on the book, but I didn't want the reader to be able to get a handle outside terms of the book itself. (24) [Mulligan Stew is] a truly enclosed world, dense . . . and devoid of any agent [to] serve as a guide through it. (64)
It doesn't seem to me that fiction should take the place of reality. The idea of the mirror being held up to life is a very remote one as far as my fictional thinking goes . . . . [Art is] the making of something that works, if you will forgive me, in a machinelike way. (8) [N]othing in the book can be used as a mirror for the world outside . . . . The result is a machine, a . . . contraption of moving parts, each of which has no purpose other than to move. (63)
Interestingly enough, I came to see that a list somehow strips all verbosity from the usual narrative paragraph. (19) It seems to me that [the] interest [of writers like Rabelais and Joyce] in [the list] is to investigate what happens when words are stripped of their narrative padding. (79)
Poems don't have ideas. Poems are artifacts, like sculpture. (5)
[F]iction is real unto itself. (18)
The artifact, not the life or the man, is the source of answers for whatever questions one may put to the work. . . The work explains itself. (76)
Poetry has a function, and its function is to be beautiful . . . . [It] is a medium which is as magical, precise, and as inviolate as the music of Mozart and Beethoven. It is on this basis that poetry should be criticized . . . the critic [should not be] trying to tell you what the poem means. (27) Art has to do with beauty [and] the language of criticism . . . should [describe] the making. The work of the critic is to open up the world of an . . . [as] object whose sole purpose is to be beautiful. (74)
[Mulligan Stew] is . . . a reality . . . . It's as if it were in an airless box, existing in a kind of vacuum. (25) [In] Gilbert Sorrentino's fiction . . . the airless worlds of [Sterne, Flaubert, James, and Joyce] are again confirmed as pure and inviolate conceptions of the imagination. (79)
Writing fiction . . . . is indeed magical. (24) [James pulled] the curtain on art's methods, so that the magician's act [remained] a secret, [but] Sorrentino lifts that curtain . . . to reveal that the act is indeed magic. (63)
The only lies in art lie in falsification of structure. Art selects and orders experience. It is not history. It is not what "really happened." (13- 14) The artist is not a historian.... A novel cannot violate the laws of nature . . . [only] the rules established by the author within the work. (77-78)

Now, while the interview puts us on our guard against subjectivity's limitations and biases, the same is not equally true of critical analysis. On the contrary, the expectations against which we measure this genre of writing are of arguments carefully considered, conclusions based on demonstrable evidence, and useful understanding independently arrived at. O'Brien's essay is so reliant on the absent text of the interview that it gives the impression of being a rather poor example of critical writing -- its defect, though, is not that it is derivative, but that it misrepresents itself altogether. Rather than being criticism, it is the advance-copy for a campaign of intellectual promotion, designed to advertise a certain brand of fiction and establish a critical context favorable to it.

At the most basic level, authors influence reception by supplying the critic with language and ideas. In the column-text, we can see Sorrentino's descriptions of what he intended in Mulligan Stew being repeated, in the O'Brien essay, as analysis of what that novel is. Sorrentino says that he "didn't want the reader to be able to get a handle on the book outside the terms of the book itself," and O'Brien calls the novel "a truly enclosed world . . . devoid of any agent who will serve as a guide through it" (!); Sorrentino says "the style of Mulligan Stew is essentially the style of Lamont," and O'Brien advises us that we should "look to Lamont" as the source of the novel's parodies.

This comparison also makes it clear that Sorrentino's generic and aesthetic ideas about fiction have been adopted as the criteria according to which O'Brien judges the success of Mulligan Stew and the stature of its author. At the level of genre, this happens when literary traditions are re-read to establish the legitimacy of Sorrentino's endeavors -- a process which can be observed when the language of Sorrentino's remarks about the list resurfaces in O'Brien's generalizations about Rabelais and Joyce. The same transfer takes place at an aesthetic level, when Sorrentino's assertion that "The idea of the mirror being held up to life is a very remote one as far as my fictional thinking goes" becomes O'Brien's conviction that "nothing in the book can be used as a mirror for the world outside." Of course, the critique of representation is not the intellectual property of either Sorrentino or O'Brien, and my point is not that the critic in this instance is stealing an original idea from the author but the critic is equipped for and guided in his judgment by values and intentions the author discloses in the interview. Ultimately, this authorial influence extends beyond the evaluation of an individual work, and even beyond the establishment of aesthetic standards; it defines and circumscribes the role of the critic himself. When O'Brien follows Sorrentino's rule that "[Art] is not history," and concludes that "the artist is not a historian," he may have done nothing more than grant an author his donnee; but the domain of the critic an his autonomy within it have clearly been diminished when O'Brien fashions a professional credo -- that "the work of the critic is to open up the world of art . . . [as a world of] objects whose sole purpose is to be beautiful" out of Sorrentino's declaration that "poetry has a function, and its function is to be beautiful . . . . it is on this basis that poetry should be criticized."


I suggested in discussing Richard Ohmann's theories that fiction has little to fear from a restricted audience, but that restrictive reading does pose something of a threat; when a theoretically-inclined post-modern author commits explication to the permanence of print, and when the criticism of post-modern fiction validates that explication in the guise of independent assessment, the risk is that the key meant to open aesthetic space for a work of fiction will instead lock that work into a single function -- the illustration of theory. This, in turn, virtually ensures that once the theory has dated -- as all theory eventually does -- the fiction will date as well. Consider, for instance, how obvious, unremarkable, or uninteresting seem some of the claims which O'Brien makes on behalf of Sorrentino: how many readers today would repeat in tones of dismissal O'Brien's laudatory assessments -- that as an artist Sorrentino "is not a historian," that his book "is a machine," that its "sole purpose is to be beautiful"?

The modernist doctrine of the autonomous art-object is an article of faith not only for Sorrentino and O'Brien -- in the words of the latter, "the work explains itself" (!) -- but also for Gass, Hawkes, and most of the authors of this generation. However, a radical dependence on factors outside the fiction is indicated by the very orchestration of reception. As we have seen, this nature of this dependence, and the fact that it goes unacknowledged, poses certain problems in the institutionalization of reception; this institutionalization, in turn, poses a problem for the long-range response to the work. To be sure, the future response to Sorrentino will involve factors beyond authorized readings, but such readings may well continue to exert a considerable influence, in less obvious ways.

As long as post-modern fiction continues to find its principal audience in the classroom, and as long as the doctrine of progress continues to drive our evaluation of contemporary literature, then the authority exercised by the author acting as First Reader may ultimately have the effect of promoting obsolescence, by rendering the works themselves uninteresting to those who mediate between the author and this audience. William Gass, speaking in general terms of the situation in which the post-modern author finds himself, blithely admits that

. . . increasingly he writes books that will teach well, you know. He may be teaching books himself. He is often in classes talking about how you write, to writing students; before you know it, his books are about writing, and they teach splendidly because you have all these things that you can do in the class, to point out this device, that move, and so on . . . . So there is an interaction: the writer is writing, of course, for the audience he has; the audience he has is also moulded by the kind of books he writes.[20]
Gass seems completely satisfied with the state of affairs he describes, but novels that "teach splendidly" today may not be taught at all as the interest of the profession shifts away from demonstrating "this device, that move, and so on."

As post-modern fiction comes to be studied in new ways and appreciated for different reasons, it will be necessary to find new ways to read these authors if interest in them is to be sustained. In order to do this, we will have to start by acknowledging that these are works which must be understood as belonging to a particular historical and institutional context, and which must be read with an awareness of the ways in which, within that context, our understanding of these texts has been produced and orchestrated.


  1. Richard Ohmann, "The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-75," Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 206. This essay has been reprinted in Ohmann's Politics of Letters (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987). Back

  2. Ohmann himself cites Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as two instances in which a book achieved canonical status without becoming a best-seller in the first few weeks of its release; and in fact, in Ohmann's own summary of the steps leading to canonization, "commercial success" is a notably minor element, one which could conceivably be replaced by the oft-noted "intangible" benefits (to pride, reputation, and recruiting) of publishing that fiction which is widely admired but rarely read. Back

  3. C.f. the following exchange during my interview of 7/10/87 with Bob Bender, a fiction editor at Simon & Schuster:
         JU: Without asking about numbers in this case,
         another way to ask about the market for this fiction is to
         ask if there is any way to characterize the readership for
         writers like Coover, Gass and Hawkes.  . . is their
         readership largely academic?
         BB: Academic and big-city, yes.
         JU: Academic or people who have been through the
         BB: Yes. I mean those books, for instance, if we
         publish . . . let's take the chains, the bookstore chains as
         a case in point . . . .
         JU: Waldenbooks/K-Mart?
         BB: Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, because they've got
         let's say about 800 stores. If we do those books, what will
         happen with the chains is that they will take them through
         their A-level stores, which are their big-city stores, and
         that represents maybe one or two percent of their stores.
         It's very difficult, unless we can somehow make the case
         that this is a big breakout book, in which this particular
         author now reaches far beyond his previous audience, those
         books are never going to show up in the other Daltons and
         Waldenbooks. So . . . .
         JU: Their sales will be determined to a certain
         extent, by what . . . .
         BB: By the buyers at the chain stores, yes, who will
         say 'Oh, this guy doesn't sell in the shopping malls in the

  4. An interesting sidelight: Gass and Guy Davenport have both published in House and Garden (a Conde Nast magazine, cousin to GQ and Vogue), indicating either the special influence of a particular editor, or that these writers are not averse to reaping the rewards of public notice. In another anomalous instance, Hawkes published a story in the 15 Jan. 1964 issue of Vogue. Back

  5. E. G. Diez, "The Writer's Community in the USA: An Interview with William Gass," Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingles 8 (April 1984): 162. Incidentally, as of late 1988 Omensetter's Luck had gone out of print; I was not able to find out from its publisher, New American Library, what its sales had been or why it had been discontinued. One possibility is that this novel will now be picked up by David Godine, who has republished several of the books Gass originally published with someone else. Back

  6. Robert Boyers, "The Little Magazine In Its Place: Literary Culture and Anarchy," in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History 58. Boyers puts the problem in the following context:
         In the twenties and thirties, when Pound and Williams were
         young and the little magazine seemed full of promise, it was
         no doubt appealing to think of a publication directed mainly
         to one's peers in the community of letters. In time one
         might expect to win a range of other readers, and very few
         artists actually believed it might be possible to produce
         important work without ever passing beyond that original
         little-magazine readership. In our time the literary
         situation has decidedly altered such expectations. One
         needn't have precise figures to know that the wider
         readership earlier anticipated by the poets does not exist;
         that volumes of poetry, even by established and clearly
         "successful" older poets like Stanley Kunitz, will find
         readers only in the tiny community which reads and aspires
         to publish in this little magazine or that; that a
         brilliantly accomplished and not impossibly difficult
         novelist like William Gass will be lucky to find ten
         thousand readers for his book over a period of ten years.

    His estimate of ten thousand was confirmed in two of my interviews with publishers. Nan Talese of Houghton Mifflin suggested that the high end might be a sale of 65,000 copies for a new novel by an author such as Updike, with the low end possibly as low as 3,000 copies for a new or unknown author. In fact, she said that sales of three to five thousand copies would be normal for a work of literary fiction (personal interview, 10 July 1987). In Bob Bender's estimate, "fiction, literary fiction, tends to sell in a certain quantity; one can generalize somewhat and say these books sell 10,000 copies, maybe 12,000 copies -- something like that, depending on who we're talking about" (personal interview, 10 July 1987). Back

  7. C.f. the following exchange, in personal interview with John Herman of Weidenfeld & Nicolson (7/9/87):
         JU: How would you describe the audience for these
         books? . . . Who do you think reads these authors? You're in
         a better position to know that than . . . .
         JH: No, frankly, there again, though it sounds
         strange, one of the strange things about publishing is that
         one doesn't have a very good sense for most books of
         who the audience really is. You can sort of . . . We don't
         do any research on it. Obviously! highly literate . . . .
         the highly literate reading public is the obvious answer for
         these kinds of books. Each has its own niche beyond that . .
         . .

  8. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Theory and History of Literature 4; Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) 12. Back

  9. See Elizabeth W. Bruss, Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982): "ever since the advent of so-called avant-garde literature there has been a silent army of interpreters and exegetes ready to . . . mediate between the latest literary experiment and the unreadiness of the audience" (78). Back

  10. These assertions rely on Gerald Graff's book, Professing Literature (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987). Graff cites the autobiography of Yale's William Lyon Phelps, in which Phelps claims that the modern novel course he taught in 1895 was "the first . . . in any university in the world confined wholly to contemporary fiction." Graff goes on to note, though, that "Phelps may not have been so far ahead of other professors as he implied"; Brander Matthews and Bliss Perry were also working on courses in the modern at about the same time (124). Back

  11. T. W. Adorno's "The Essay as Form" is well worth reading; the English translation, by Bob Hullot-Kentor & Frederic Will, can be found in New German Critique 32 (Spring-Summer 1984): 151-71. Adorno presents the idea as follows:
         In the essay, concepts do not build a continuum of
         operations, thought does not advance in a single direction,
         rather the aspects of the argument interweave as in a
         carpet. The fruitfulness of the thoughts depends on the
         density of this texture. Actually, the thinker does not
         think, but rather transforms himself into an arena of
         intellectual experience, without simplifying it. (160-61) 
    And in contrast to Gass's Platonism -- which, as the conclusion of his quoted remarks demonstrates, has the effect of equating the manner of expression with the nature of thought and thinker, Adorno extrapolates a more genuinely postmodern account of the essay's relation to experience:
         Unconsciously and far from theory, the need arises in the
         essay as form to annul the theoretically outmoded claims of
         totality and continuity, and to do so in the concrete
         procedure of the intellect. If the essay struggles
         aesthetically against that narrow-minded method that will
         leave nothing out, it is obeying an epistemological motive.
         The romantic conception of the fragment as an artifact that
         is not complete in itself but openly striding into infinity
         by way of self-reflection, advocates this anti-idealist
         motive even in the midst of idealism. Even in its manner of
         delivery the essay refuses to behave as though it had
         deduced its object and had exhausted the topic. (164)
    Finally, it is worth noting that Adorno makes these points as part of an argument with his academic contemporaries, who persist, he says, in "fencing up art as a preserve for the irrational, identifying knowledge with organized science and excluding as impure anything that does not fit this antithesis." As Adorno sees it,
         The person who interprets instead of unquestioningly
         accepting and categorizing is slapped with the charge of
         intellectualizing as if with a yellow star; his misled and
         decadent intelligence is said to subtilize and project
         meaning where there is nothing to interpret. Technician or
         dreamer, those are the alternatives. Once one lets oneself
         be terrorized by the prohibition of going beyond the
         intended meaning of a certain text, one becomes the dupe of
         the false intentionality that men and things harbor of
         themselves. Understanding then amounts to nothing more than
         unwrapping what the author wanted to say . . . .

  12. Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti, Theory and History of Literature 2 (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982) 25. Back

  13. Hans Enzensberger, "The Aporias of the Avant-Garde," in The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics, and the Media, ed. Michael Roloff (New York: Continuum-Seabury, 1974) 25. Subsequent references to Enzensberger will be incorporated in my text. On the preceding page, Enzensberger observes that
         Eternal survival in the museum is being bought with the
         prospect that henceforth the march of history can stride
         across everything without extinguishing it. Everyone becomes
         aware of the process of steady advance, and this awareness,
         in turn, becomes the motor that accelerates the process. The
         arts no longer find protection in their future: it confronts
         them as a threat and makes them dependent on itself. Faster
         and faster, history devours the works it brings to fruition.

  14. Barbara Hernstein Smith, "Contingencies of Value," Critical Inquiry 101 (1983): 25. This piece is reprinted as the title essay in Smith's Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988). Back

  15. The remark is Jerome Klinkowitz's, from his preface to The Fiction of William Cass: The Consolations of Language (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985), by Arthur M. Saltzman. Back

  16. "An Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino," with John O'Brien, in Review of Contemporary Fiction 1.1 (Spring, 1981): 5. Subsequent references to this interview will be incorporated in my text. Back

  17. Page 5. On Sorrentino's never treating his prose or poetry as "conceptualized exercises in ideas or themes," see page 26 of the interview, where he says,
         I write poetry in much the same way as I write prose when I
         am working on a book like The Orangery . . . . The
         driving force behind the books I write is that I have always
         liked to risk falling on my face. . . . I like to create
         problems for myself and see if I can solve them. . . . [In
         The Orangery] I wanted to see if I could take a
         precious, literary idea and make strong poems out of it. .
         .  I have always loved exercises and I have always tried to
         take the simplest literary exercises and make literature out
         of them. 

  18. In the Sorrentino-O'Brien interview, for example, there is a current of hostility directed at Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Updike, James Baldwin -- authors who are in direct competition with the formalist innovators for the attention of posterity. Back

  19. Ironically, the O'Brien article is called "Every Man His Voice." Along with his interview of Sorrentino, it appears in Review of Contemporary Fiction 1.1 (Spring, 1981): 62-80. Subsequent references to this essay will be incorporated in my text. Back

  20. Jared Lubarsky, "The American Writer in Society: An Interview with William Gass," Eigo Seinen 124 [Tokyo 162, Japan (1978): 9]. Back