Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Fiction of Russell Hoban

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Fiction of Russell Hoban

Article excerpt

The career of the novelist, Russell Hoban, is surely instructive, although the lessons which it suggests are both ambiguous and speculative. Perhaps, ultimately, they highlight the accelerating fragmentation of the modern reading audience into smaller, more specialized, more parochial, and more volatile groups, along with an overall weakening of these groups--collectively considered--in their ability to penetrate or significantly influence the taste of the mass-market. For it is apparent that there exists a markedly new kind of division in the production of artistic "consumables"--one which only superficially resembles the traditional split between "serious" and "commercial" that has long been a staple characterization of American literary expression. I refer in part to such once-hallowed distinctions as "literature/fiction," "classical/popular," "highbrow/lowbrow," "paleface/redskin," etc., which were automatically invoked in examinations of the cultural condition of American fiction. And the recent frenzied debates sparked by discussions of the "canon" are largely the emotional byproducts of this more radical and already far-advanced fragmentation.

Critics and social commentators have traditionally focused on the problems of disparate audiences--from Melville to Mencken, from DeTocqueville to Allan Bloom. The irreconcilable claims of democracy and taste engender facile rhetorical battles in which counter-charges of egalitarianism and elitism thunder forth, while covert political, economic, and ideological agendas are triumphantly exposed as the Yalta-like cabalistic core of whatever conspiracy theory the particular critic finds most villainously attractive. It may be the entrenched tenacity of a mysterious Establishment resolute to retain and expand its hegemony; it may be the machinations of variously-defined insurrectional bands of guerrillas intent on placing themselves in positions of power. Common to analysts of all persuasions, however, is an acid focus on the easy targets of the mass-marketeers who (rationally enough, it seems to me) invest their resources in terms of a "bottom-line" formula of mass-appeal, mega-volume distribution, and super-hype. The cynicism and intellectual mendacity of the entrepreneurial spirit produce an enticing and plausible ogre to hiss and upbraid--partly because it is real, partly because it is protean in form and can always be discovered or inferred, and possibly because it's oddly irrelevant to the unpredictable destiny of what the passage of time may ultimately determine as credible literary worth.

Of lesser consequence to the highminded critic whose attention is on the "canon," or education, or the proper distribution of political power, is the degree to which this necessarily marginal "specialist" himself cooperates with and contributes to the adulteration or abandonment of taste as a meaningful measure of value in the reception of artistic products. In fiction, for example, we have already reached a state for which the term, "Balkanization," is far too homogenous to describe the raging contrarieties which occupy the contemporary literary scene. Our literary map is a barbed-wire patchwork of regions, sub-regions, and sub-subregions-each an autonomous postage-stamp of ridge or valley, housing complex or suburban mall, bayou or mesa or barrio, issuing its own visas and requiring its own authoritarian pledges of allegiance--albeit to fewer and fewer natives or unwary tourists. Gender, race, region, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, ideological orthodoxy, genre--each group or hybridization (indeed, each proliferating subdivision of each group) designs its own menu for what it allows to be aesthetically valuable. To a degree that would have been unimaginable in even the most contentious periods of the past, literary reception has achieved a near-perfect state of adjectival determinism. And while desktop publishing in conjunction with computerized market research can seek out and isolate audiences measured in the dozens, the range of interests and the urge to adjudicate values diminish in each reader to smaller and smaller vanishing points. …

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