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State Of the Art

Fighting words on the fiction front.



Often I'm asked what's new and worth reading. What I know never to answer is this: any book, read or unread by me, that is also: 1) award-winning, 2) American, and 3) fiction. Why is this? What is it that tells me that whoever's putting the question does not want to hear about a contemporary American novel (a collection of contemporary short stories? c'mon), even if reviewers are all over themselves getting their two cents in (and earning about that much), even if the author is not exactly an unproven nobody, and even if the friends I've got are going on about it? Maybe the thinking goes this way, and maybe the thinking's got something going for it:

"Award-winning": must mean "literary," which means "difficult." Sounds, hell, is pretentious. I'm outta here.

"American": must mean the book is: 1) disguised autobiography (ugh), 2) undisguised poetry (triple-ugh), or 3) a "meditation" on: A) loss (of what?) and B) redemption (from what? who knows? nevermind). Any which way, it's bound to be a savage indictment of the way we live now. Real obvious stuff, depressing. You're telling me?

"Fiction": must mean storytelling from a storyteller who cannot, will not tell a good story because 1) the storyteller is too busy hogging all the attention, 2) the characters are too busy behaving unlike any human being anyone but a writer ever met, and 3) the story isn't only not good, it's preposterous.

Why do I think others think this? Well, I don't first of all think all that much, nor do most readers who look to fiction to be first and foremost a source of pleasure, who want the pleasure of acknowledging that, you, dear storyteller, that sentence, phrase, word you wrote, there's truth in it, you got it right. And I'll remember you did a good job because the job you did, it was worth remembering, you got something across, something I recognize, but in no way I could've imagined.

And maybe this is what's got B.R. Myers (who is this guy?) in a real rant in a lengthy essay ("A Reader's Manifesto") in the July/August Atlantic Monthly about authors (plus reviewers) I have never read (I am not proud to say) but for every one of the reasons I've just mentioned. Myers' complaint: storytellers who cannot, will not tell a good story and a public hoodwinked into thinking they can and do. Literature, in other words, with a capital L. "Self-conscious, writerly prose." Literary versus genre fiction. In short: writing, in too much of what is taken to be exemplary American fiction, that is, on closer inspection, "gibberish that stops all thought dead in its tracks" by writers who either "don't make sense, or bore us to tears." Case studies and choice comments:

On the reigning member of the American school of "Evocative" Prose (aka pseudo-poetry), here's Myers on Annie Proulx (The Shipping News): "routinely incomprehensible," "demands to be read quickly," mistress of the mixed metaphor and the "standout" sentence. A writer incapable of butting out of the story she thinks she's telling.

On the American school of "Muscular" Prose and its chief exponent, Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses etc.): "pseudo-archaic formulations," "hit-and-miss verbiage," writing in which it is "a rare passage that can make you look up ... and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank." Horse-sense? Nonsense!

On Don DeLillo (White Noise etc.) and the "Edgy" school: "patronizing," "flat," "tiresome," "disjointed strings of elliptical statements," portentous in his depiction of Consumerland America and flat-out wrong on the important subject of Americans and their supermarkets. Get real. Get out!

On Paul Auster (City of Glass etc.) and the abundant market for "Spare" (aka minimalist, aka lean) prose: "laborious wordiness [that] signals that this is avant-garde stuff," whole chapters that "can be skimmed with impunity," but a crafty writer when it comes to "the prime rule of pseudo-intellectual writing: the harder it is to be pinned down on any idea, the easier it is to conceal that one has no ideas at all." But hey, anyone on the definition of "nominalism"?

And finally, "Generic 'Literary' Prose," David Guterson and his Snow Falling on Cedars, a "verbal rubble": an author who thinks it "more important to sound literary than to make sense," an anti-genre genre writer whose "determinedly slow tempo" and "accumulation of pedestrian phrases" hope to fool the reader into thinking he's achieved some "lyrical effect." The academy's verdict? Required reading in some sorry college classrooms. The verdict of "almost every fourth amateur reviewer on"? Repetitive. You say inmates are running the asylum?

Look here. Harold Bloom last year wrote a useful book called How to Read and Why and in it he told me to reread As I Lay Dying. I couldn't do it. I mean, reread it, because I'd never read it in the first place. But I read it. And out of roughly 50 books this past year, it's the one I think about still because it was great and I felt it was great from the moment I finished it, from the moment, in fact, I finished the opening sentence. Felt it, not thought it. Faulkner wrote it but Faulkner stayed out of it. How? Because it was a good story. It pleased me.

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