By Warner Berthoff
Probes postwar American writers' abandonment of distinguishing gains of literary workmanship in writings seen as testaments of private survival and displays at the customers of literature in a time of cultural predicament and waft
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Extra resources for A Literature Without Qualities: American Writing Since 1945
In times past the writer's license to participate in the ''intellectual's privilege'' has regularly been his mastery of a special repertory of qualities and re sources by which the intractable chaos of experience might be subdued to the clarifications of significant form. But form, we now ask-the consummation of all incidental qualities-which is significant of exactly what, beyond its own self-seeking? And sig nificant to whom, apart from an educated arid bu reaucratized elite holding on for dear life to illusions of cultural primacy and the satisfactions and preroga tives of commodity-market ''excellence''?
There is a convergence also with the mid-career self-trans formations of several gifted school poets-Adrienne Rich is a notable example-who have driven them selves into this same posture of accusatory public testimony. With Oates and Rich all the resources of a studious apprenticeship to modern literature, with Coles the corresponding authority of mod er11 psychoa11alytic and socioa11thropologicaf un dersta11ding, are marshaled (or else conspicuous! y rejected) for a purgative assault on t11eir audience's complacency.
M npaBOM 52 A Literature Without Qualities a characteristically intense schooling in the tech11ic of modern fiction seen1s indicative. It is the novel she titled them (1969), and the lower-case printi11g is it self symptomatic of her shocked vision and of her will to shock others into sharing it. There is a se11se i11 which all her characters, a11d her readers too, are ''them'' to her; are approached from that humiliated privacy Sat1l Bellow t1ndertook to define in Herzog. The virtual anonyn1ity of these fictive ''them,'' their exclusion from established cultural privilege and recognition, oppresses Oates not least because she finds herself as impotent as anyone else to overcome it, even in her writing.