Fiction and Poetry
Writing a cultural history of a decade ultimately requires that a large amount of that decade’s cultural production be neglected. This is as true of accounts which try to deconstruct overarching narratives of decades as it is of the narratives which helped to consolidate such definitions in the first place. One of the critical commonplaces institutionalized in the 1980s – in theoretical approaches such as poststructuralism, new historicism and cultural materialism – was that cultures tend to produce not only sufficient feedback to upset the possibility of a settled vision of a period, but also that the range of voices and positions represented within that culture fractures the possibility of unity. In the field of literature, many of these critical debates were played out in the study of Shakespeare and Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the former treatment of which had long been dominated by a critical discourse emphasising what E. M. W. Tillyard famously described as the ‘Elizabethan world picture’. In the literature of the US, although no such explicit ‘world picture’ existed, by the 1980s it became apparent that the category ‘post-war American literature’ was insufficient as anything but a nominal descriptor of work published since 1945. Not only was the phrase being stretched temporally, but also the coherent project towards which it gestured, and the hegemony of an influential group of writers – many of whom were still publishing during the 1980s – was losing explanatory value.
This chapter, then, does not consider the work of some of these writers. Saul Bellow, winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1976, was productive during the 1980s, publishing two novels (The Dean’s December, 1982, and More Die of Heartbreak, 1987), two novellas (A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection, both 1989), along with a