In my most recent post, “Literary What, Literary Who?” (December 21), I spent an inordinate amount of space attempting to define literary fiction. My conclusion, not entirely unprecedented, was that a literary novel is one that approaches narrative in a more complex fashion than does commercial fiction.
It wasn’t until a few days later that a reader drew my attention to an article that appeared in The Atlantic back in 2001. In “A Reader’s Manifesto” B.R. Myers launched a sustained attack on the literary novel as currently practiced. Not on the concept of “the literary,” but on the pretentiousness of what the publishing industry considers to be literary fiction. Myers was in a sense attacking the issue from a viewpoint opposite to mine—he argues that literary fiction is wildly overrated, awarded a prestige it does not deserve. He proceeds to attack a number of writers much celebrated in the 1990s. Had he written the article today, he would perhaps have selected a slightly different set of works to attack, but I suspect his conclusion would have been the same.
The technique is to take passages out of context and dismantle the prose style. In this way, writers as diverse as Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and David Gutterson are found wanting. Several of these are writers I’ve read and enjoyed. Nevertheless, much of the writing Myers uncovers is simply bad, some of it laughable, nearly all of it stilted and pretentious. Now, it’s very easy to do this—one could similarly find passages in Henry James or Proust, take them out of context, and expose them to ridicule. I remember coming across a couple of volumes a number of years ago in the Gotham Book Mart, The Best of Bad Hemingway and The Best of Bad Faulkner. True, these were parodies written in the style of these authors. But they worked because the parodists knew the originals very well.
My complaint about contemporary literary fiction is somewhat different. There is a distinction between pretention and ambition. Most current fiction doesn’t aim very high. I am extremely tired of reading about characters I would not want to spend any time with. I’m not talking about Captain Hook, Dracula, or the Marquis de Sade, colorful but dangerous characters. No, I am driven to the point of violence by reading about characters who lead shallow lives and whom I would find frustrating and irritating in real life.
The writers Myers attacks are intelligent, sophisticated people. For the most part, their characters are not. This is a serious problem. When Dickens wrote about the poor and dispossessed, he did so with overwhelming humanity. When Sapphire writes about an illiterate girl, we feel sympathy for the character. But in clever, knowing literary fiction, how are we as readers supposed to view characters their author looks down upon, whether consciously or unconsciously?
My other major complaint is the lack of intellectual content in contemporary fiction. And by that, I mean subtle, fully integrated intellectual content, ideas that cannot otherwise be paraphrased (vide “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” by Cleanth Brooks). Dickens’ emotional content is more subtle and more highly nuanced than simply saying “Poverty is bad.” Proust says something infinitely more complex than “Time and memory are strange.”
Far too much literary fiction, particularly short stories, reads as if it was written in a writing workshop. Which is to say, written in an attempt to impress an audience of people who know a bit about writing, a bit about their own lives, but not much else beyond pop culture. There is a certain amount of cleverness, a very shallow cleverness. This does not wear well.
How did things get this way? Well, yes, perhaps we do live in a second-rate culture, the culture we as consumers have created. Writers who are a product of this culture cannot help but express it, even as they think they are providing criticism. And if the gatekeepers of literary culture have faulty, second-rate taste, the works they publish will be mediocre at best.
And so, dear reader, perhaps we get the literature we deserve.