TWENTY years ago in the black communities of Mississippi, at Woodstock, in Haight-Ashbury, in Chicago or Port Huron, on the Lower East Side or, refracted on TV, in images of antiwar protests or at Attica or on the steps of the library at Columbia, the message was “We are the people. We can do it (whatever it is), any one or any group of us. Nobody speaks for us or forbids us to do what we need to do, nobody out there is telling us the reliable truth… There is no one reliable truth, we are where it’s at and what it’s about and who it’s for.” No more Popes, no intermediaries, rather the droning cynical voice of Bob Dylan, his weary, grating refusals, his resistance to the luxury, even, of sweet melody.

This is where the “new journalism” began. Tom Wicker, writing about the prison riots at Attica,  repudiated the apparent neutrality of his experienced New York Times voice, its presumption of truth through transparency. Journalists had biases, he came to see; their sources were biased and so were their employers—this was the Realpolitik of the newsroom and it had better be acknowledged, finally. Thus his agonized book about the pain of not being trusted as a reporter, the difficulty of learning that all the news fit to print was deemed fit by someone other than its subjects, its victims. Thus Mailer, who without apology intruded upon and shaped what he saw and did not dissimulate his presence by calling it objective. Subjectivity was honest, objectivity a lie. Ego was everywhere; in Mailer’s case, so was Id. But it always had been, secretly, that was his point, and the time had come to dissociate power from the pretense of objectivity.

IN an apparent reaction to this intimate, unequivocally biased narrative voice, most postsixties fiction writers have embraced a style that is unabashedly impersonal and that attempts to defy the inevitability of point-of-view. They have flaunted a shrinkage of range, of fascination with the world at large; a concomitant reduction in emotional volume; and perhaps a super-refinement of taste that is  embarrassed by the sloppiness of passion and exuberance. It is as if Jack Webb stood over their word processors urging, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason—such “minimalist” writers do not presume to tell us what to think, or to evaluate their protagonists or their protagonists’ lives. Their efforts are all for self-effacement, a kind of trompe l’oeil of narrational nonpresence, as if it is enough that these characters live, speak, see; honesty and integrity demand that no one (not even the parental author) yank them around, tell us what to think or what any of it means.

There is an implied complicity between author and audience by which simply hearing a snatch of simple conversation or observing two characters involved in some action together will be enough to guarantee a shared response. This fiction is full of instants that seem to be freighted with meaning whose significance can’t be explained, though their effect on a given character is presumed to be self-evident. Such moments are what they are—like poems, only flatter than flat, they are simply themselves, untranslatable.

The author’s voice, were it individual or assertive or flavorful, would be an intrusion into the apparent factuality of the world as photographed, of bare banal “reality” as textless. These writers have withdrawn their trust in story-telling which presumes distance and perspective. (My graduate writing students, though adept and engaged readers of Carver and Beattie, reject the novels of Elizabeth Bowen out of hand: “Boring! Slow! Opinionated! Unreadable!”) “No voice-of-the-page, no commentator with the evaluative wisdom of a George Eliot and the social imperatives of a Jane Austen or a Henry James—no representative of judgment—is going to tell my readers how to feel about anything,” they seem to say. Their characters appear to be independent of influence. If their destinies are (or seem) shapeless and not “stories” with conventional beginnings and endings, and all they imply of shared values, that is their right; and tuning in for a few minutes is our privilege. Ann Beattie’s early stories are exemplars of this laissez-faire (to many, laissez-dormir) affectlessness—although beneath the apparent anomie of their characters is a nervous shiftiness cannily concealed.

THE newest advocates of minimalist fiction, yoked together by hype-sters more because of their youth than their craft (most are in their early and mid-twenties), are writers much favored by the New Yorker like Peter Cameron and Tama Janowitz. Cameron’s characters rarely commit themselves to an acknowledged emotion, Janowitz’s are slightly wacky but equally aimless, well but not wisely committed, i.e., disastrously in love but unpredictable in their actions. These writers, like their progenitors, give the impression that to comment on the lives of their protagonists or invite judgment on them, or to prod a story into any shape more complex than the simplest chronology (Cameron’s are all in the present tense, as if no event had a history), is to spoil the purity of their observation.

Ironically, such fiction actually does, in its laid-back fashion, aspire to a certain sociological information-bearing utility, and I have no doubt that its impression of unmodelled “accuracy” accounts for its popularity among young readers, who identify with it, and older readers, whose curiosity about the young is assuaged by it. Bret Easton Ellis (whose Less Than Zero, a sort of grandchild of Play It As It Lays, written at the age of 20, has made him an instant magazine spokesman for his generation) shows us, without a single comment or opinion, the numbed, tranqued-out kids of L.A. and Beverly Hills, who will swallow anything, sleep with anyone (and remember no names), empty to the point of an oblivion so total that the whole book reads like a battlefield report, the reporter himself one of the casualties. Readers of Less Than Zero are reduced to the position of voyeurs or horrified social workers who’d feel gratified to leap into the page if only they could, to pull these emotionally strafed children out of their burning houses, and distribute them to foster homes. Tama Janowitz herself says in a statement that accompanies early publicity for her Slaves of New York, “So it’s like this: for some time I’ve been hanging around at a lot of different places. And where I’ve been, it’s mostly downtown. The things I’ve seen while I was there, I kept my mouth shut. But later, when I got home, I wrote down what I saw. And this involved the action on the street, which most of the time was violent. And the interaction between people, which was also pretty violent…. Also, what people wore, what they said to each other, what they were interested in, how their houses and places of entertainment looked…. All this time, even though I was like an invisible fly upon the wall, I would send out my little observations, and what pleased me was that many places [magazines] were interested in what I had to say…. People do like to know what’s going on: that way they can figure out if they’re behaving correctly, or else feel superior, which is always pleasant…”

Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City appears to do the same, with more angst and less insouciant charm. He brings us into the dens of “big city” iniquity that we readers in the provinces might never otherwise penetrate. Then, even better, he scatters some secrets from the sanctum sanctorum, the New Yorker, whose fact-checking department exemplifies, is a very monument to, the scorned illusion that accuracy is all, that truth is verifiable. The book’s hero, insufficiently reverent in his service of precision, is all needy sensuality (most of it, the times being what they are, centered in his nostrils) until he wreaks a final petty prankster vengeance on the adult monolith. He tries with all his little wrath to shake it but, of course, fails: it is bigger than all of us, the New Yorker, and can be mocked but hardly injured. Meanwhile, the emotional breakdown of McInerney’s character feels quite beside the point—it is a return to the ordinary motivations of old-fashioned novels and for all his cynicism it turns out to be a rather sentimental secret that’s driven him: he loved his mother but she died. We read the book wholly for its unsanctioned glimpse of “contemporary life” and take the author’s bitter repudiation of it all, when it comes at the end, the way we take the antiwar message of blood-and-guts antiwar movies.

SIMILARLY, though its effect is far more bland and familiar, the very young Peter Cameron substantiates the precise place his characters occupy on the demographic scale, somewhere between old-style feckless hippies (people have jobs cutting hair or stencilling wicker furniture) and new-style well-turned-out yuppies. He tells us, for example, that a mother and son discuss her separation from his father while they drink “brewed decaffeinated coffee.” Every now and then a writer gives away his game by a single gesture. Cameron, who is very good at what he does (if you like to feel you’ve been somewhere very real but you don’t much care what it’s like there), tells us in that three-word phrase that he has been scrupulously bent on getting it right, showing as precisely as a poll-taker what these people would (of course) have to be drinking. Whether it matters—why it should matter—is a different question.

Janowitz gives us a perfect list of the arbitrary nonsense with which young, relatively affluent, clever  kids amuse themselves. A friend opens her presents at her thirtieth birthday party: “a Godzilla lighter (flames shoot out of Godzilla’s mouth); a record of Maria Callas singing Norma; a silk survival map of the Arctic Circle; a glue gun; a cassette tape of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks; a large black plastic  object with a pink pyramid-shaped cover (possibly made by the Memphis Design Collective) which might be a breadbox or an ice bucket; a ten-pound bag of Eukanuba health food for dogs; a book about wrestling; and a Statue of Liberty hat—a spikey helmet of flexible foam.” (The birthday girl may be turning thirty but it sounds as if she’s back in her dorm room.) Who would dare doubt the accuracy of such careful documentation? Beattie, ten years ago, had the same touch for the unconventional artifact (appropriate music in the background) with which young readers would identify but which would utterly bewilder anyone’s parents, separating them out by generation as surely as the smell of grass.

I think, though, that we are not meant to judge the worlds of these eighties characters. The fiction is cautionary only in the sense that it instructs us that what we see is what we get, and all we should  expect: this is what it’s like, being young, approve or not. Time bumps along, no one ever works, friends hang out, no one has anyplace in particular to go. Unlike Marty the butcher and his friend—if you’re old enough you’ll remember them—they don’t ask “Hey, whatcha wanna do tonight?” The  question implies that there’s an answer somewhere, a social norm that includes standard old sports like going to dances, meeting girls, getting on with it, as surely as Jane Austen’s world ever held such expectations. If we hold that norm in our minds as we read, then the stories become exercises in mild pathology: When are these kids going to put away the grass or pills or cocaine, turn off the tapes, and get down to business? Peter Cameron’s stories end, one after another, in emotional disengagement that does not quite acknowledge its poignance: young men and women approach each other, think about marriage, refuse and pull away. Tama Janowitz’s lovers stay together because it’s awfully hard to find your own apartment in New York. Commitment, for which these characters seem to yearn, but only intermittently, is the urgency of a parental generation; the shrug with which so much of this fiction ends is a very small movement of impatience with the trammelings and weight of conventional social demands.

DAVID Leavitt, unlike Cameron, Janowitz, Ellis, and McInerney, tends to focus on people who are deeply involved emotionally, on families and their fine adjustments to loss and damage. His stories are exemplars of the device that so many have learned so well, perhaps in writing classes which are the ideal place to perfect the miniature: the displacement of a large emotion by a modest one that we can encompass by having our eyes guided slightly to the side. In Family Dancing, Danny (“Danny in Transit,”) takes refuge in doing television acts—”singing a song about comedy and fun and musicality” —the more helpless he feels in the face of his parents’ dissolution. “Aliens” is a mother’s heartbroken account of her eleven-year-old daughter’s belief that she is from another planet.

This class of writers is extremely competent, which may make it seem unfair to see their fiction as mere exercises in disengagement. But no huge conflagrations can ignite their controlled surfaces. No matter how profound the pain, or how spectacular its cause—divorce, suicide, betrayal, cancer, brain damage, a parent’s need to accommodate a son’s homosexuality—these skillful writers, with the wisdom of psychoanalysis to help them on with it, can apparently manage to swallow it all down and ease it into neat metaphor, tersely and undemonstratively described in terms of sign and symptom. There is deep feeling, often an edge of the sentimental under there somewhere, but the language stays cool, the glimpse we get is brief, almost discreet, and we never linger to learn what happens later.

Take Susan Minot’s Monkeys, a connected series of stories in which the seven children of a loving, often desperate Irish-Catholic mother and a wealthy, drinking father grow up and away. Minot does  show us time passing, and we feel the gains and losses as various configurations are worked out in this Cheeveresque family. Minot’s laconic voice is that of a child, refracted in third person; thus its reserve, its fascination with trivia and its fragmentary allusions to profound emotions seem deserved. But it proceeds, as do so many of these stories, in tiny incremental moves, unassertive, understated. Monkeys is a small book, all ellipsis, silence and air predominating.

NOT surprisingly, what has all but disappeared from fiction that has put aside passion and hope for change is politics. If everything intimate is political—family, sex, illness, pleasure—then nothing need overtly concern the larger world and its hierarchies; the smaller one, close to home, will do. Alice Walker says it nicely in an essay in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: “White American writers (tend) to end their books and their characters’ lives as if there were no better existence for which to struggle.” To this she compares black writers who “seem always involved in a moral and/or physical struggle, the result of which is expected to be some kind of larger freedom.” But none of the writers at hand (especially since the women’s movement has eased off a bit on the excitement of “awakening”  consciousness à la Kate Chopin) has to concern himself with such basic problems as freedom and dire economic straits; they are at work healing private wounds.

Of the dozen or so novels by young writers that I’ve recently read, only one, Madison Smartt Bell’s Waiting for the End of the World, takes on a vision of a world beyond the subjective or an economy larger than that of a family or lovers’ unit. His novel concerns a handful of disaffected New York drifters who, impelled by personal furies, band together to bring a nuclear holocaust to Times Square. Whether the book actually has any political point of view, let alone any wisdom to impart other than the fear that our unjust society is at any moment breeding nests of uncompromising madmen who can wreak unspeakable havoc on the world, at least Bell has looked out beyond the tiny single self that beats at the heart of the rest of this fiction.

Meg Wolitzer’s quiet, limpidly written Hidden Pictures perhaps has political implications for being committedly antipolitical: it is the story of two lesbian women who want simply to live ordinary lives, and who achieve that modest wish like any couple in the suburbs, not as champions of the cause of gay rights but as individuals working at a private destiny. But if this is politics, it is so only by default; the book’s charm is literary, not programmatic or ideological. Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints is an irritatingly smug confection that gives fascinated and approving attention to the manners of the New Orleans rich and ends with the marginal admission that the charming object of the heroine’s affection turns out to be criminal. But, oh well, no one can be all things; some people just can’t seem to be honest. And Percival Everett’s Walk Me to the Distance, a graceful and more old-fashioned novel than  many of these in construction and in its refusal to be cynical, lures an emotionally distant Vietnam veteran into an accidentally created family where he finds an affection and engagement he can use to shore up his ruins. Yet Everett, who is black, does not choose to make race so much as a tacit subject, whereas ten years ago it would have been central. (The title character of his first novel, Suder, was a black baseball player.) This is surely not to dictate that every black writer must be continuously preoccupied by racial problems, but it does seem symptomatic of a moment when many young writers have stepped back from difficult confrontations of self and society.

FOR a more wide-ranging glimpse of younger writers, it is useful to turn to a very good anthology of stories called 20 Under 30, edited by Debra Spark. Of course this group is hardly a single generation—why should twenty-year-old writers, fresh from college (many writing in college, like David Leavitt) be expected to have more in common with twenty-nine-year-old writers who have been “out in the world” for nearly ten years, than with anyone else, their idols, their mentors, whomever? (David Updike, for example, has more in common with his father than with any of his contemporaries; his story is shamelessly, wonderfully wrought.) And should we presume that at the magic age of 30 they pass into another generation? In any case, there is some virtue in this sampler, despite its artificial premise: intimations of vitality in contemporary fiction.

Taken together, these 20 writers do not represent a single trustworthy “take” on the experience of  being young in America; the quality of the book rests on its variety. Spark has not limited herself to the  minimalists, who speak softly and carry no stick whatsoever. It is premature to guess whether the  disparate interests of the short-story writers here will ever issue in longer works similarly committed—perhaps one plays at stories but works at novels closer to the zeitgeist, or at least to the mainstream? —or whether in fact any publisher would be interested in a novel or a whole series of stories about Northern Ireland (Dean Albarelli’s “Honeymoon”) or about a formidable nineteenth-century German-Jewish ancestor (Marjorie Sandor’s “The Gittel”) or a novel with the feel of the American upper-West-side stories of Singer (Michelle Herman’s “Auslander”). But these few are unique stories in that their creators have returned in them to the broader possibilities of the imagination. They are throwbacks, really, to methods neatly packed in mothballs by most of their contemporaries: they have imagined lives they can barely know; they are concerned with a wider world than their own, one which sees its characters in history; and they speak in authoritative voices that seem almost ventriloqual, surrounded as they are by the studiedly uninflected “natural” voices of most of their compatriots, who do not want to be caught singing or dreaming.

Is 20 Under 30 the first augury of a new era in fiction? Or is it the product of publishing-house hype: here are the razzle-dazzle all-stars to whom we had better pay heed if we want to know where it’s at and where it’s going. Some of these young writers may possibly age into the stylistic variety that characterized previous generations. But the handwriting on the wall (or, more likely, the disc in the p.c.) suggests that minimalist fiction will predominate for some time to come. In that case, we superannuated “maximalists” will be an endangered species appealing to fewer and fewer readers. We’ll have to cherish each other till the wheel turns round again.