There of course is no real avant-garde in this country. There are writers who pretend to be avant-garde while recycling stale, outmoded ideas.
In truth, the so-called avant-garde captured the academy, and the literary establishment with it, decades ago. With this, however, rose a problem. How could a current self-designated "avant-garde" be the establishment, and at the same time pose as on the margins, as dissenters to that very same establishment? The contradiction doesn't register.
(This is reflected in the discussion I had with Kris Saknussemm at The Millions, as mentioned yesterday in a post below this one.)
We see the contradiction in play time and again, such as with the ULA's "Howl Protest" in 2006, when members of the Underground Literary Alliance-- genuine literary dissenters-- barged into a genteel reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" at Columbia University which included the most affluent, bourgie, conformist readers and audience you could possibly put together. Their lack of self-awareness, their own self-mythology, was palpable. Needless to say, the speakers and audience were outraged at us for shattering their illusion, or really, their self-delusion.
Real dissidence, of course, from those who criticize the literary establishment and the narrative of that establishment, is eliminated. Disconnected. Wiped out and pushed down the memory hole.
For background on this, see the chapter "The Avant-Garde Dies" in Eric Hobsbawm's massive historical work "The Age of Extremes." He outlines how the avant-garde devolved into parlor tricks, "desperate gimmicks" of the like Robbe-Grillet has gotten away with, as they and their art became more and more irrelevant.
The novel traditionally was an aid in understanding the world, and understanding ourselves. That it no longer does that may be why there's an absence of self-knowledge among the literary elite. (Harvard students and profs wearing Che t-shirts.)
How does that elite get away with its contradictions? Because they're part of the Dominant Narrative of literature, and control that narrative. It's how they perpetuate an Orwellian, totalitarian set-up where they're controllers and dissenters both, taking all the space, while defining anything done by real experimenters (from Wred Fright to Urban Hermitt to James Nowlan) as non-literature, the writers themselves, accordingly, as non-persons. Which is exactly how the dissent and threat of the ULA was handled.
This is a huge subject, too big to cover here. It's part of an intellectual contest that was happening in 1900 between literary populists and elitists, which ended in the 1950's and 60's with the populists demeaned in the academy, for political reasons, the elitists, including the culturally irrelevant pseudo-intellectual part of the avant-garde, fully in charge.
There's at the same time the cultural disaster that is postmodernism. Postmodernism was a symptom of the crazy philosophies of the Twentieth Century. In 2011 it's relevant only to the point of being harmful. If it was always out-of-date, as Hobsbawm pointed out fifteen years ago, it's moreso now. It preaches nonsense when young people-- young men especially-- are looking for real-world answers to the insanity around them, seeking certainties, character, credibility, truth, and strength, and not finding it in what passes today-- what is shit out at the public from the ivory towers and the conglomerates both-- as American culture.
Anyway, in the pop novel I'm writing I hope to bring in several clashing perspectives on this society, held by major characters. Art itself is the best place to address these questions.