For many serious readers, Robert Alter writes in his preface, the novel still matters, and I have tried here to suggest some reasons why that should be so. In his wide-ranging discussion, Alter examines the imitation of reality in fiction to find out why mimesis has become problematic yet continues to engage us deeply as readers.Alter explores very different sorts of novels, from the self-conscious artifices of Sterne and Nabokov to what seem to be more realistic texts, such as those of Dickens, Flaubert, John Fowles, and the early Norman Mailer. Attention is also given to such individual critics as Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin and to current critical schools. In Alter's essays, a particular book or movement or juxtaposition of writers provides the occasion for the exploration of a general intellectual issue. The scrutiny of well-chosen passages, the joining of images or themes or ideas, the associative and intuitive processes that lead to the right phrase and the right loop of syntax for the matter at hand-all these come together unexpectedly to illuminate both the text in question and the general issue.Recent discussions of mimesis in fiction generally proceed from a single thesis. By contrast, "Motives for Fiction" offers an empirical approach, attempting to define mimesis in its various guises by careful critical readings of a heterogeneous sampling of literary texts. Intelligent and good-humored, the book is also old-fashioned enough to wonder whether mimesis might not be a task or responsibility to which much contemporary fiction has not proved entirely adequate."
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Harvard University Press
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US Kirkus Review »
Alter, with his special gift for cross-linguistic knowledge, is a valuable biographer and critic; his Stendhal biography and his book on biblical narrative stand out. But in the present collection of essays - many of them roundup reviews or over-broad summaries ("History and the New American Novel," "Mimesis and the Motive for Fiction") - Alter seems less probing than peevish. He neatly devalues post-modernism as politically reckless, philosophically disingenuous, and literarily desperate. What he boosts in its stead, however, is an unappetizing academic orthodoxy, from the late 1970s, with Nabokov, Faulkner, and Wallace Stevens as exemplars of what literature should be - sophisticated, symbolic, preferably both. Not that Alter isn't insightful on these writers - but there's nothing here that hasn't been said by professorial critics for over two decades. Essays are also devoted to Dickens' Tale of Two Cities and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men - as two worthy political fictions that take into account history's human inconsistency. Yet an air of reaction and ill humor hangs about the discussion, making the analyses of these (questionably major) works less-than-convincing. From Commentary, further, come mealy-mouthed ad hominem attacks on Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson - shabby shots in the ongoing literary wars. Though Alter raises valuable points here and there, the grimace of distaste on which he depends - for lack of strong, fresh alternatives - all too often gets in the way. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Robert Alter
Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous critical works, the most recent of which is the prize-winning book The Art of Biblical Narrative.