Incisive, witty book probes forces shaping modern fiction

The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation, by Charles Newman. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. 203 pp. $20.95. Toward the close of this marvelously incisive and endlessly quotable book, its author, novelist and critic Charles Newman, poses a question that may have occurred to many of those interested in the fate of fiction: Whatever happened to that newly sophisticated reading public, ``created within distinct memory by the explosion of higher education,'' which might have been expected to serve as an enthusiastic audience for contemporary writing?

The question, however, may be chiefly rhetorical: As Mr. Newman suggests, that audience is still -- at least potentially -- there.

Newman is neither naive enough nor paranoid enough to imagine that publishers and others in the so-called ``communications industry'' are deliberately working to deprive fiction writers of their rightful audience. But simply because there is no conspiracy, no organized plan to curb the kinds of writing traditionally deemed politically, religiously, or sexually controversial, this does not mean that readers and writers are being allowed to participate freely in the open forum of ideas. Newman states the case eloquently and forcefully:

``If a book deserves to be printed and is refused because it won't sell 10,000, that is censorship. If a novel is denied its potential audience because it is not reviewed, promoted, or in stock, that is censorship. It hardly matters whether this is due to ideological opposition, . . . a conspiracy of indifference, or the exigencies of a `free' market, it has the same effect -- the denial of a rightful audience and the loss of community.''

No simple theory based solely on economic, political, cultural, or aesthetic factors can adequately explain what Newman calls ``the power of oligopoly by default.'' Although would-be dissidents, aesthetic and political, continue to behave as if they were challenging some centralized source of authority, contemporary America has no equivalent of the Acad'emie Franaise, no recognized bastion of standards against which avant-garde bricks may be hurled.

What forces, then, are at work? In these brief, pungent essays, as thoughtful as they are witty, Newman focuses on a number of vital areas affecting the composition, marketing, and reception of fiction. Although no single factor bears the ultimate responsibility, he astutely identifies inflation as the central issue. In addition to the actual inflation of the money supply that has beset us since the lifting of price controls at the end of World War II, Newman notes that even in the wake of the Reagan administration's successful efforts at controlling the problem, we still suffer from an inflationary psychology. The publishing industry is no exception, scrambling to buy whatever has the most ``spinoff'' value in terms of being sold to other media, rather than cultivating a long-term relationship with writers, readers, and independent booksellers.

In this vacuous cultural climate, inflationary aesthetic theories flourish. Critics pronounce the death of the novel, while publishers complacently cite these complex critical theories as justification for what are, in fact, simple economic decisions.

Newman sees the very notion of ``Post-Modernism'' as evidence of the degree of inflation afflicting literary criticism. Practitioners of ``Post-Modernism'' coin new titles but are still trading in the substance bequeathed by modernism. What the masters of hype most fear is stability.

Newman draws instructive parallels between literary poses and political posturings, noting that the avant-garde continues to mock a vanished bourgeoisie, while a new generation of neo-realists reacts to the ``cost-overrun linguistics'' of a Thomas Pynchon with the ``rent-controlled vernacular'' of an Ann Beattie. ``Against the fever of the subversive,'' remarks Newman, ``we get a low-grade infection of the banal.''

Newman's invective can be dazzling, and is seldom merely acrid or petulant. He does have a tendency to overgeneralize, which makes some of his pronouncements less than reliable. A few of them are downright misleading. But his sweeping statements, on the whole, ring true, passing the most important test that can be applied to generalizations: They overturn current truisms and cut right to the heart of the matter.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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