By the mid-1970s, American postmodernism was in its heyday and the short stories of Donald Barthelme, in particular, were widely represented in creative writing programmes. Since then, and until the emergence of devotees such as Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace and George Saunders, Barthelme's status as a role model for prospective student writers has been diminished by Raymond Carver, a writer whose early death in 1988 at the height of his creative powers has ensured a mythic stature not known since one of Carver's heroes, Ernest Hemingway. The work of Carver and his associates, most notably Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, has often been seen as a counter-response to the influence of postmodernism. Yet, what I will show in this chapter is that their fiction often unsettles what is meant by literary realism in ways not dissimilar to their postmodern counterparts.
Part of the problem in distinguishing the characteristic features of Carver and his contemporaries has been the critical tendency to impose upon them a sufficiently resonant group identity. Wolff refers to 'Minimalists, New Realists, Dirty Realists, even Neo-Realists' (Wolff 1993: xi), while Ann-Marie Karlsson adds to that list 'K-Mart Realism' and 'Hick Chic' (Karlsson 1990: 144). Although Carver and Ford had first met in 1976, with Wolff meeting them both while Ford was living in Vermont before joining Carver as a creative writing tutor at the University of Syracuse, the group identity rapidly becomes diffuse. The tendency towards realism in American fiction at the start of the 1980s extends to writers not part of this small coterie, for example Ann Beattie, Richard Bausch, Andre Dubus, Amy Hempel, Bobbie Ann Mason, Lorrie Moore, Jayne Anne Phillips and Mary Robison. Perhaps most perplexing is the case of Frederick Barthelme, whose early fiction at the start of the 1970s is marked by the stylistic