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.