More tone in nation's voice

Contemporary American Fiction
November 15, 2002

It has long been recognised that not only does the US produce some of the most innovative and exciting fiction but that its imaginative geography long ago sloughed off its dependence on a British or even European sensibility.

Once upon a time students of American studies were expected to recognise the Yankee themes of secular Puritanism and the American Dream, southern obsessions with violence and steamy degeneracy and frontier myths of Adamic self-making and rugged individualism. For the most part, the authors were men.

Kenneth Millard's new introductory textbook returns to these myths now refracted through other and more diverse eyes - an America that includes black women, Korean, Chinese and "Mayan" immigrants, dysfunctional families and Shakespeare's The Tempest .

This new diversity, a complex melange of peoples, characteristics and languages, finds its varied narratives in the works of the post-1970s authors chosen for Millard's book, itself split into seven themed sections:

"Family values", "Gender and history", "The West", "Consumerism, media, technology", "Language and power", "Sport", and "Imaginary subjectivity".

These sections are further divided into a number of key authors, ranging from famous names, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Don DeLillo, to the lesser-known writers Sherman Alexie and Gish Jen. Millard uses each section to provide close readings of a number of novels, novellas and short stories.

This useful collection is nevertheless marred by problems of intellectual approach and organisation.

Why, for instance, in a work that claims that heterogeneity is the key to postmodern American sensibility, do we get multiple entries for an author such as DeLillo while Kathy Acker or Bret Easton Ellis, for example, is dismissed in a sentence?

And why, if a group of authors can no longer "represent" America, were certain authors selected, if not because they represent something that smacks oddly of political correctness and tales of victimhood?

Clive Bloom is professor of English and American studies, Middlesex University.

Contemporary American Fiction: An Introduction to American Fiction since 1970

Author - Kenneth Millard
ISBN - 0 19 871178 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £10.99
Pages - 328

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