We Are All Neoliberals Now: The New Genre of Plastic Realism in American Fiction

06/12/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

That's when he [Scotty] began singing the songs he'd been writing for years underground, songs no one had ever heard, or anything like them--"Eyes in My Head," "X's and O's," "Who's Watching Hardest"--ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you knew just by looking had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset, who was part of no one's data, a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched." -- Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

"He [Henry] skidded toward the foul line on grass still slick with dew. He scrambled to his feet, planted his back heel, felt a blister rip. Come on. Mist or sweat fogged his eyes so he couldn't really see the shovel head, just a kind of looming not-large grayness there in the middle distance. His fingers found the seams. He spun his hips and whipped his arm, feeling nothing, less than nothing, no sense of foreboding or anticipation, no liveliness, no weight, no itch or sentience in his fingertips, no fear, no hope." -- Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

"Almost every day of the school year, after class, for a few hours, she [Patty] gets to disappear and forget herself and be one of the girls again, be wedded by love to the cause of winning games, and yearn pureheartedly for her players to succeed. A universe that permits her to do this, at this relatively late point in her life, in spite of her not having been the best person, cannot be a wholly cruel one." -- Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

A curious phenomenon prevails in American fiction today, a trend that accelerated during the last decade to become all but dominant: major American literary novelists no longer address readers but each other, or to be more precise, their institutional patrons.

The dominant literary aesthetic is what I will call plastic realism, although a number of other labels also capture the tendency I'm talking about: neoliberal realism, market realism, commodified realism, mechanical realism, synthetic realism, textual realism, structured realism, formalized realism, anti-realism, pop realism, postmodern realism, fantastic realism, paranoid realism, sentimental realism, regressive realism, pedantic realism, and institutional realism.

I like plastic realism because of the genre's sheer artifice, its apparently infinite adaptation of neoliberal principles. I also like the term because the throwback narrative strategies signal an elastic rupture with the politically radical techniques of modernism and postmodernism, offering transparency as the greatest narratorial virtue.

Plastic realism has emerged due to an unprecedented nexus of institutional forces that sever the connection between writer and reader and instead deliver a house style that confirms and validates larger trends in neoliberal political economy.

How can we understand these institutional forces?

The MFA regime has all but taken over literary writing in America, the publishing conglomerates have given up any residual aesthetic independence, and readers themselves--because of cultural and economic trends--have become self-segregating. Postmodern fiction--innovative writing in general--has become a safe brand generally promoted by small presses without any expectation of shifting the larger literary conversation. The trend was sharpening over the preceding three decades, but finally erupted into full-blown hegemony over the last decade, so that dissident voices of any kind are being rigorously excluded and the final deliverance of literary fiction to corporatization is assuming completion.

Plastic realism takes its cues from nineteenth-century (Victorian) realism, relying on its narratorial authority, its bourgeois values, and its sedate rendering of the ordinary, as though there had been a slippage in time and the ensuing century and a half of literary innovation had not occurred. The entire weight of modernism and then postmodernism has been abandoned in favor of ontological and epistemological certainty.

Skipped over is the naturalism of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Richard Wright, as well as the modernist experimentation of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Also skipped over is the bulk of the postwar literary legacy, when writers like John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Yates, John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, and many others shed severe doubt over the American dream, the project of inexorable middle-class ascendancy. In the 1960s and 1970s American literature took a postmodern turn, as metafictionists like Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and John Barth foregrounded language and technique over plot and character. Plastic realism denies this whole history of skepticism.

The crucial turn came during the inauguration of neoliberalism under Ronald Reagan in the culturally repressive 1980s, when American fiction became dominated by the minimalist style, whose avatar was Raymond Carver, and whose other practitioners included Ann Beattie, Bobbie Anne Mason, Richard Ford, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff, and others generally grouped under the rubric of dirty realism. Minimalism, however, was a transitional style. Plastic realism, as it began to appear in the 1990s and finally ascended victorious in the 2000s, adopts many of the characteristics of 1980s minimalism.

But minimalism, from today's vantage point, seems to have been only a half-hearted response to the political economy of neoliberalism then beginning to be forcefully articulated. With the victory of the new politics of untrammeled corporate power, literary writers appeared to surrender romanticism, idealism, and utopia once and for all. Thus plastic realism can at times be full-throated or maximalist, or at times subdued and minimalist, but it always seems to emanate from the same cultural logic that gave birth to neoliberalism.

The current age is one of post-ideological pragmatics (the cover for neoliberal faith in the self-serving efficacy of markets as the end-all and be-all of political action) and the literary style adopted by the expositors of plastic realism accords very well with this outlook in political economy. Of course one cannot draw simplistic lines between political policy and rhetoric and the immediate output of literary writers, as though there were a necessary and inevitable one-on-one connection, but the lines of correlation are very strong indeed, aided by the smooth mechanisms of institutional transmission and reproduction that assure the continuity of this style.

Plastic realism is the new American mainstream style, and while there may be occasional exceptions to the rule--as there must be in any literary culture, no matter how rigorously enforced--ultimate recognition and prestige in the literary world accrue to the adherents of this hegemonic style. It's remarkable that even veteran writers like Don DeLillo began to give in to its lures in the last decade--the "with us or against us" era, when loyalties were forcefully clarified and identities demanded, as rarely happens in literary history.

What are the rules, the language, and the metanarrative of the new political economy?

Certainly, in the 2000s, neoconservatism--with its strains of cultural authoritarianism, unmitigated nationalism, and renewed militarism--was ascendant, but in the larger scheme of things neoliberalism is the broader philosophy in relation to which neoconservatism might be seen as a subsidiary trend. Even in neoliberalism, there are two varieties, one that leans toward the laissez-faire pole (Reagan/Romney), and the other toward government intervention in various forms (Clinton/Obama). Nonetheless, at the level of overarching rhetoric, we might identify the resurrection of the self-correcting market as the primary paradigm shift from the Keynesian/New Deal/social welfare consensus that prevailed until the economic crises of the 1970s.

To elevate abstract markets in the fashion that they have been is to nullify a great many humanistic impulses that at least at the level of rhetoric used to animate politics. This abstraction has served to break a number of previous links, those between the citizen and the state, the individual and the community, and the present and the past.

All of these abstractions begin to be reflected in a very noticeable way in the important American fiction of the 2000s, which would have to include texts by Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart, Mary Gaitskill, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, George Saunders, and newcomers like Adam Johnson, Nell Freudenberger, Chad Harbach, and Karen Russell.

Whereas 1980s minimalism presented generally depressing situations and characters because it was having a hard time coming to terms with lowered socioeconomic expectations following the early Reagan recession and the downscaling of government help to individuals, plastic realism fully accepts the ethic of unlimited individual responsibility, which is something that propels both neoliberalism and its subsidiary tendency neoconservatism.

For example, when it comes to the post-9/11 novel--in many respects much of the prominent fiction of the 2000s can be characterized as post-9/11 fiction--just as politics assumed the singular rhetoric of the war on terror to the near-exclusion of more humane considerations, so did American novelists accept the value imputed to the event (or the pseudo-event) and saturate their fiction with the "reality" of the official perspective. They didn't question the nature or causes or substance of the event, and the subsequent war on terror, they only charted out its ramifications for the solitary individual (or family) thrown back on his or her own resources. The dirty realists would have been a bit more depressed, put up more of a fight, at least in vaguely conveying the sadness and loss.

On the contrary, a new happiness--almost an ecstatic bubbling up of ferocious individualism, as though the country had been discovered anew, its raw energies as available for translation into personal success as ever before--has been a dominant factor in plastic realism, whether in Franzen, Egan, Eugenides, Lahiri, or any of the others. Protagonists in plastic realism certainly may suffer from illness, addiction, emotional inadequacy, and familial dysfunction--and indeed often suffer to ridiculous excess--but the therapeutic narrative ensures that individuals can only grow and learn from such experiences.

Because of the aforementioned institutional factors--literary writers credentialed and legitimized by a very selective process, parallel to the similar process of screening for "meritocratic" success on Wall Street--writers who do make it past the gatekeeping barriers are guaranteed a minimum level of income by way of teaching, and their role then becomes to represent the self-beliefs of the ruling class, the notions whereby this class validates its intellectual superiority over the masses.

The subject that comes into being as a result of the present discursive practice is a subject that fully conforms to the ideals of the neoliberal economy. Nineteenth-century realism is the most august posture plastic realism could have assumed--that particular antiquarianism being there for the taking, having vacated its actual historical relevancy long ago--and plastic realism pilfered it, outfitting itself in all the paraphernalia of an aesthetic that once upon a time supplied moral guidance.

What is being stolen from that era of classical realism (just as neoliberalism today steals from the verities of classical nineteenth-century liberalism to offer a more purified rhetoric) is the renewed authority of the author, in a world where post-structuralist theory, and the conditions of writing and reading, have actually eviscerated the traditional function of the author.

There can be many fruitful speculations with regard to the convergence between plastic realism and neoliberal political economy. Neoliberalism shuns (or pretends to shun) grand explanations; in fact, it does have a grand historical explanation, but it is not for general public consumption. In public, a shorthand equation of markets and virtues suffices. Similarly, plastic realism has gone farther than any previous tendency in American fiction in severing the public from the private, in separating the structures of society from the techniques of the self.

More than a decade after the first strong signals of the collapse (or at least the twilight) of the American empire, there is yet to be a melancholic reckoning with the decline of empire; this is astonishing in comparison with the historical record in Britain, where, either allegorically or directly, the end of empire was a major preoccupation of twentieth-century fiction.

Along the same lines, while we have recently lived through perhaps the second greatest crisis capitalism has suffered in the last hundred years, there has been no real fictional reckoning with this economic calamity. If an occasional writer does take on the financial crisis, it is with the same spirit as the post-9/11 novel: how is a particular family or group of people affected by the financial crisis, how may their domestic structure be returned to wholeness again? In other words, there is no pattern of historical explanation, without which realism is merely a code of established textual signals rather than an honest attempt to translate reality into language.

Continued in Part II...

Anis Shivani's recent books include Karachi Raj, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, and Anatolia and Other Stories. Forthcoming books include Soraya: Sonnets, Literature in an Age of Globalization, and Plastic Realism: The New Style in American Fiction, based on the ideas set forth in this essay.

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