by Brian Evenson
Anybody familiar with literary history realizes that the writers praised by their contemporaries are not always the writers that last the longest. Look at a 20-year-old copy of the New York Times and see how many of the Books of the Year are still available, how many of the names still hold respect today. Indeed, very often what strikes reviewers, critics and readers as necessary to the moment is not what lasts over the long haul. Herman Melville, for instance, was all but forgotten until the discovery of Billy Budd, but since has been defined as one of the giants of his period. Aphra Behn was largely ignored for 200 years, but now is seen as one of the most significant voices of the 18th century.
There are many different methods used to sort out literary history, each of them with their own flaws. At one end of the spectrum is the traditional method, the so-called Test of Time. It goes something like this: if a book is genuinely good, it will last while lesser works fall by the wayside. Such a view has tended to generate a canon that's quite conservative, that doesn't readily admit new additions, and that remains somewhat musty in the way it reads the work it includes. It relies on notions of taste rooted in the 18th and 19th century, is hostile to "otherness," generally considers literature a mimetic enterprise, and isn't always kind to innovative work. At the other end is the notion that individual experience is primary, and that the works that are valuable are those that represent a diversity of experience. Such a view validates works of literature that the Test of Time excludes and is kind to minority viewpoints. The difficulty, however, is that at its worst, such a method ends up validating work that quickly feels dated, quickly resembles local color. And like the Test of Time it validates certain kinds of works and certain kinds of readings, looking at writers in terms of race class and gender and perhaps excluding those writers who don't quite fit into those boxes.
One side emphasizes the timelessness of literature, the other its timeliness. Either method, as I've said—and all the methods in between—are flawed; too much slips through the cracks. Thus, readers tend to negotiate several different aesthetics as they read contemporary writers, hoping that one writer will lead to another, that one can wade through the books being published to find work that strikes one as genuinely good. To do so one needs, however, a little bit of distance, some way to gain a perspective on the work of 20th- and 21st-century writers.
One way of doing that is to go abroad, for to be outside of American culture can create a distance analogous to the distance that time can provide. Oddly enough, some of the best writing on American writers is being published not in America but in France, in Éditions Belin's "Voix Américaines" [American Voices] collection. The series is directed by critic Marc Chénetier, who has translated into French writers such as Alexander Theroux, Jerome Charyn, Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski, Russell Banks, Denis Johnson, Willa Cather, Mary Caponego, and Robert Coover, among others. Chénetier himself has also published, in both English and French, work on writers ranging from Vachel Lindsey to Richard Brautigan, from Paul Auster to William H. Gass, from Stanley Elkin to William S. Wilson. His book Beyond Suspicion: New American Fiction Since 1960 (U Penn Press), is one of the best studies of American writing of the '60s, '70s and '80s available.
Indeed, it is no surprise that a series directed by a rigorous foreign critic and scholar, who remains quite aware of contemporary trends in American literary criticism but who has maintained a careful commitment to the text and to language, would be itself rigorous and first rate. While many similar American series, including Twayne's American author series, are written for the lowest common denominator (beginning college students), and as a result often oversimplify the work of some genuinely interesting writers, Belin's "Voix Américaines" demands more of its readers. It refuses to dumb down the writer.
Each of the more than 40 volumes of the series is 128 pages long, and each tries to offer a fairly precise overview of the author along with careful analyses of the major works and acknowledgment of the criticism. Writing my own book on Robert Coover this year, I found Jean-François Chassay's opinions in his Belin book on Coover invaluable as something to play my own ideas off; indeed, published in 1996 it is the most recent book on Coover and the only book to discuss works such as Pinnocchio in Venice and (very briefly) John's Wife.
The Belin series contains books on well-known American writers who have often been written on in America, such as Willa Cather, Arthur Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, John Cheever, Norman Mailer, Edith Wharton, and Sherwood Anderson. It contains as well more contemporary acknowledged masters such as Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, and John Edgar Wideman. It also includes writers such as John Barth, John Hawkes, James Purdy and Robert Coover who were highly regarded in America in the 1960s and '70s but who since have been less visible in our country. Belin's books make a good case for the strength of these writers, suggesting that they might have fallen out of favor for the wrong reasons. It is astounding, for instance, that James Purdy hasn't had a book written on him for several decades, despite the fact that some of his stylistic gestures were at the heart of the development of the minimalist aesthetic in the '70s and '80s. Figures who have been written about in America as popular icons but seldom with any depth considered as literary writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Richard Brautigan, are included as well. Intriguing are the inclusion of writers such as John Ashbery, William Gaddis, and William Gass. Finally, most intriguing of all are the inclusion of a few writers who have never had much written on them in America and certainly not a book: for instance, Guy Davenport and Robert Steiner. Davenport in particular, though he is respected, puzzles Americans. Well-read and quite original, as proficient as an essayist and translator as in fiction, he doesn't fit easily into any American box and thus has been unjustly ignored. Indeed, while Belin's series reaffirms the greatness of American cannon writers and commemorates once-popular, now-forgotten ones, it more importantly culls writers we've neglected, though they are world class.
In all cases, these short books offer views of American writing that focus on the stylistic qualities; they suggest that current American writing has a relevance that moves beyond the confines of our own nation. While we may not share the French opinion of, for instance, Jerry Lewis, we have quite a bit to learn from the seriousness and insight with which Belin's "Voix Américaines" approaches American literature.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003