A survey study of influential American writers of the past thirty years--from Raymond Carver to Louise Erdrich--divides them into two camps, the talents and technicians, to comment on how their work has made a mark on our culture.
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As a literary and social critic, Aldridge (The American Novel and the Way We Live Now, 1983, etc.) has distinguished himself by being the first to discern a cultural trend, whether it be the similarities among postwar American writers or the tyranny of youth culture in the 60's. In this somewhat hasty study of the latest in literary fiction, Aldridge would have us believe that he's done it again, that he's discovered a triumph of MFA-style over world- historical substance in recent stories and novels; and that he's here to fill the ``standardless void'' with his (admirably) old- fashioned notions of edification, instruction, and the imagination. That would all be swell were the self-quoting Aldridge truly the first to notice what's wrong with the writers he discusses at some length: the ``sentimental'' Raymond Carver, the ``politely nihilistic'' Ann Beattie, the ``cutely enigmatic'' Mary Robison, and the ``slick proselytizer for gay rights,'' David Leavitt. He rightly characterizes Frederick Barthleme's ``literary tranquilizers,'' Amy Hempel's ``chronic minimalist constipation,'' and the designer fiction of McInerney and Ellis. Among the ``look- alike writers'' with their ``ideologically impoverished backgrounds,'' he finds some promise in Lorrie Moore's ``mordant sense of humor'' and T.C. Boyle's ``sheer eloquence and richness of language.'' But none of them, Aldridge argues, can hold a candle to their elder, Don DeLillo, offered here as a model for what fiction can do at its best. All of this is right on target, though it's also already been said over and over by many of the ``working critics'' Aldridge claims no longer exist. Which points to the main flaw here: If Aldridge deplores the marketplace hype of the current scene, why discuss ``writers who have received the largest amount of attention and praise?'' Instead of validating the very notions he abhors, Aldridge would have done us all a favor if he'd searched out those contemporary writers who really deserve the critical ink. -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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