Until recently, if you wanted to know all about contemporary American novels without actually having to read any of them, you went to the library and paged through a dozen or so critical studies, among them Tony Tanner’s City of Words, Leslie Fiedler’s Waiting for the End, and Ihab Hassan’s Radical Innocence. These were all nice, manageable books, tightly organized, neatly argued, their theses lucidly expressed in their opening sections and reasonably well developed thereafter, through the course of eight or ten chapters that dealt briefly and precisely with fifteen or twenty major novels. Some were better written than others, some more incisive or entertaining; but each had a clear reason for existing, for each had a somewhat different way of looking at things. These were civilized books, which co-existed peacefully in the same territory, and their authors nodded at...


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