Fiction once provided a stomping ground for the crazed or eccentric. When the ideal of civilized behavior combined decorum and good manners, books could offer an escape into the manias of Heathcliff, Ahab and Raskolnikov, or into the stubborn individualism of Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn. Heroes and heroines who would surely disrupt any public society could be avidly followed in private. But as daily life grows more clamorous and abrasive, as violence enters the home regularly by way of TV or flesh-and-blood carriers, serious fiction shows signs of moving in the opposite direction. Novels and story collections tumble off the presses,...

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