A Call to Authors: Explore Culture

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TO stretch a comparison here, critic Sven Birkerts has approached what he sees as the weak cathedral of the American novel, and like Martin Luther with his 95 theses, has nailed a protest to the door.

In this case, the protest (really a summons) is directed at American novelists writing in the fields of minimalism, nostalgia, and the other sweet-smelling soaps of Post-Modernism. Mr. Birkerts wants them to return to the novel form that explores culture with depth and historical resonance.

His engaging new book, "American Energies," contains his "summons" on page 150. It is a list of the attributes to be found in the works of "elder writers," followed by the "lite" attributes of younger writers.

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Younger novelists fall short, says Birkerts, because their books are morally neutral, without depth, fragmented, and conceived ahistorically with everything taking place in the present. Character is implied without much social dimension, and the books end with insignificant resolutions.

Birkerts brokers his analysis on the reader with a sharply reasoned but calm style. No urgent shouting here; no doomsday lurking for the novel (yet), but a somewhat raised voice of concern by a critic who still likes to "stumble onto a novel and have my breath taken away." He recognizes talented writers today, but sees their fiction as a "flutter at the margins of the culture."

His first book, "An Artifical Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature" (1987), won the National Book Critics Award for Criticism. A second book on modern poetry, "The Electric Life" (1989), won the PEN Award for Distinguished Essays.

For seven years, Birkerts taught expository writing at Harvard University. Now he teaches writing part time at Emerson College in Boston, and is working on his next book about the place of reading in society. From his home in Arlington, Mass., Birkerts was interviewed by phone.

If the novel of substance and resonance is fading, could it be that nonfictional forms of writing - literary travel books, personal-experience books, even literate food books - are becoming more compelling to this age?

As far as my sense of human nature goes, we have an absolute and fundamental appetite for narrative. What I think is happening is that we are getting our narrative much more expeditiously elsewhere these days. I think the idea of the novel as being the carrier of extended and complex narrative that shows us our world used to be its reason for being. That has been taken over and eclipsed by the narratives everyone gets by going to movies or turning on TV at night. The price of entry for a reasonably deman ding novel is a certain willingness on the part of the reader to make a sacrifice, to say, "I believe this narrative is going to be worth my time." This has to be seen within the larger context of reading itself, which is moving a little bit to the margins. It's a sad thing because it speaks to a change in our culture away from certain habits of being.

Fifty years from now, you might be proved to have been wrong.

I imagine in 50 years there will be a small, self-perpetuating kind of elite squadron of people who still read for the reasons that one reads, just as people go to the opera. For me, and this is the point I argue in my book, the biggest challenge the novel has to face is to find a form and a series of approaches that can deal with a reality that has so radically changed around us in the last 30 or 40 years. What the novel is doing is scurrying in retreat into minimalism or looking back at scenarios that are 20th-century timeless in small towns or domestic circles. I see few works trying to serve up life as a great many of us are now living it, which is simultaneously on many levels.

I think in the pre-TV world, things were more opaque; there was more of a sense of true obstacle and distance and otherness.... The nature of what TV does, no matter what you watch, is that it gives you a kind of fluid and transparent sense of the world's nature, almost unconsciously, and I think it begins to structure your own attitude toward reality....

Perhaps what we are seeing is the loss of power of male novels, just as male power in our culture is changing, and we are seeing the inevitable rise of feminine sensibilities in novels.

In the beginning of the l970s, there was a kind of explosion of the woman's novel. That process is now being duplicated on other fronts in the sense that women had been held back from expression. Now there has been a great efflorescence, for instance, of gay novels and African-American writing. These are upon us with the pent-up energy which seeks to right a lot of wrongs.

With more novels written from the woman's perspective now, won't this writing give us an enriched understanding of the human condition?

Over the last two decades that is what has happened. My complaint is that I'm finding a little bit of the law of diminishing returns kicking in. This kind of subtle and sustained domestic exploration, which was a new thing 20 years ago when women began exploring the untold story of the family, I think, has run its course. I think families have been archaeologized possibly too far. I would like to see some of these extremely talented writers plunge into the larger social [arena], one that would require a kind of structural frame, which in the past, at least, we associated with male writers.

Earlier, you mentioned a squadron of people who love to read.

If you are a true reader, and you love books, then there is something you have in the world that nobody can really take from you.... It's a world you can reoccupy, not that every book is a different world; it's a world that various books define, and you can enter that world.... You know you can hoard it, that after you brush your teeth, you've still got three chapters left, and it's something waiting for you.

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