Here's a guide to fiction that predicts what will fade, what will endure; American Fictions 1940-1980, by Frederick R. Karl. New York: Harper & Row. 637 pp. $32.50.
SUBTITLED ''A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation,'' Professor Karl's massive and detailed study undertakes two distinct tasks, either of which would have made for an impressive achievement. One is to provide readings of scores of postwar novels by such writers as Bellow, Malamud, Styron, James Jones , Mailer, Percy, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Burroughs, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, Mary McCarthy, John O'Hara, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Updike, Cheever, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Philip Roth, Kosinskicq, Didion, Barthelme, Thomas Berger, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Carson McCullers, Ken Kesey, Marilyn French, Toni Morrison, Lisa Alther - in short, almost everyone. The other is to offer a polemical view of what qualities make a novel - or a fiction - worthwhile, that is to say, what distinguishes mere writing from literature.
It may be supposed that Karl's exhaustive study will serve as a guide to beleaguered students in search of a quick fix on the subject of contemporary writing. (One can just imagine them solemnly noting down Professor Karl's tendentious opinions side by side with names, dates, and plot summaries.)
But ''American Fictions'' is clearly intended to be more than a reference book for those too lazy or busy to read all the novels discussed therein. Without the customary benefits of hindsight - that all-important distance lent by time - Karl aims to separate the sheep from the goats, to pronounce on which of our contemporaries will fade and which endure. This makes for a more interesting book than a mere reader's guide, whether or not one may agree with Karl's evaluations.
On the whole, it is good to have critics like Karl speaking out against a marketplace-dominated publishing world, where editors - like television network executives - keep hoping that each new book will be another whatever it was that last sold like hot cakes. In such a milieu, writers who show artistic promise may be caught up in the same system of celebrity celebration as writers of pulp novels. While fiction languishes, authors become personalities.
But, we may ask, who are the artists and what are the particular aesthetic qualities that Professor Karl would preserve from the Philistinism of the literary marketplace? In his view, he is defending the genuine inheritors of all that is central in American tradition: Burroughs, Pynchon, Barth, Hawkes, and Gaddis, to name some of those whom Karl considers the heirs of Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville. Those of us who may wonder how Karl arrived at his list need not search long to discover the professor's main criterion in selecting these particular goats from the general run of sheep: In Karl's view, fiction stands or falls by how innovative it manages to be.
Ever since Ezra Pound exhorted his fellow-artists to ''make it new,'' the expectation of formal innovation in literature has displaced other criteria to become a kind of obsession with some critics, among whom Karl may certainly be numbered. Karl's understanding of innovation in the form of the novel may be linked to his interest in Joseph Conrad, who, along with other conscious modernists such as Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce, was deeply involved in transforming the literary forms in which he worked. New ways of experiencing and/or perceiving life, it was felt, demanded new means of expression - new forms. Conversely, it came to be assumed, artists who employed new forms of expression probably had new ideas to express. This is not always the case.
Interestingly enough, the modernist expectation that form would correspond to content is derived from Coleridge's Romantic image of ''organic'' form. In Coleridge's view, the form of a work of art expressed its essential nature, and indeed, was somehow determined by that nature. Coleridge's organic model of form , drawn from nature itself, harmonized well with other Romantic values, such as spontaneity, individuality, originality, and later the idea of authenticity. The notion of organic form presupposes a high degree of organization, but conceives of organization as a function of self-expression arising ''naturally'' from within, rather than being imposed artificially from without (e.g., by society).
Just as Coleridge's image of organic form reflected the Romantic interest in nature, so the modernist hunger for innovation in form seems to express an uneasy need to measure art against the machine. One hears in Pound's demand to ''make it new'' the rallying cry of a group of artists anxious to prove that in literature, as in technology, ''newer'' means better. But, even if we were to grant that innovation is an important criterion for evaluating art, when it comes to evaluating works as recent as those considered by Karl, the critic will be hard pressed to distinguish those innovations that will come to be regarded as landmarks from those that will come to be recognized as gimmicks.
For a broader perspective on the subject of innovation, we must look further back in literary history. Sterne's ''Tristram Shandy'' is surely more innovative than Fielding's ''Tom Jones'' or Richardson's ''Clarissa,'' yet most critics consider that Fielding and Richardson occupy a more central place in the history of the novel. Austen, Bronte, Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot were not formally innovative. They were, however, highly conscious of form.
What Karl would do better to look for and demand is not formal innovation but a sense of form. Whether a novelist may break old forms, make new ones, or radically or subtly alter existing ones, he will assuredly be writing with an awareness of form. And this, perhaps, is what will eventually set him apart from less ambitious writers, who are all too happy to use any well-worn form or formula without examining why.