Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Modern Literary Fiction Stinks

Do you know what literary fiction is? Literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t fit into other genres and is somehow supposed to be above other forms of fiction. People believe this because literary fiction traces its roots through a line of authors like Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Updike, whose books did indeed change the world. Whether it was simply changing the way Americans saw each other, or sparking legislation to change the injustices identified in their books, these literary giants helped shape our country. But those days are over. . .

If modern literary fiction could be summed up in one word, that word would be pretentious: self-indulgent themes, a disdain for its audience and the public at large, the use of erudite sounding but actually quite poor analogies, and a continuing struggle to use larger-than-necessary words that don’t fit the meaning as well as they should. Those are the hallmarks of literary fiction today.

Though, in truth, I don’t think literary fiction can be entirely defined with one word. It takes two. And the second word is cliché. Most literary fiction offers little more than well-worn clichés masquerading as intellectual depth. Indeed, which of these stories isn’t about the repressed wife who puts on the happy facade as everyone around her dies of cancer?

The problem with modern literary fiction is that it has lost its focus. Old school literary fiction didn’t view the public as evil or corrupt and didn’t look down its nose at its audience. It wanted to elevate the audience. Today’s fiction wants you to wallow in the author’s imagined pain. Moreover, literary fiction used to look out at the world, hunting injustice and pointing accusing fingers at the indefensible. Today, literary fiction isn’t concerned with injustice, it’s concerned with the inner struggles of characters in the mistaken belief that this somehow tells us something about ourselves.

They even have an excuse to justify their own aim-low approach: “the American scene is just too complex -- and too aware of its own complexity” for the likes of an Updike to come along again. That’s loser speak.

Time magazine just did a story on the latest “greatest” in the field. His name is Jonathan Franzen and even the article about him is pretentious. His last novel “told the story of a Midwestern family that goes to pieces spectacularly as the father succumbs to Parkinson’s.” Uh huh. His new one is about a “superficially happy household” in the Midwest where everyone is really dissatisfied with their lives, especially the repressed housewife. Oh, and there’s an alcoholic father and a date-rape. Nope, no clichés there.

What really bugs me about the Time article, aside from horrible writing and the pointlessness of it all, is that the “journalist” completely buys into the rather stupid idea that this form of literature has any real meaning to us: “he shows us how we live” gushes the “journalist.” Really? Or does he show you how you coastal liberals want to think the rest of us live? Are we really all unhappy alcoholics in Hicksville just wishing we could be like you? Or is that just wishful thinking by liberals who tend to be horrified when they run into genuinely happy people in Mid-America?

The truth about fiction is that it’s fiction. It’s not real. To the extent that it includes facts, it can inform us. To the extent it teaches us reasoning or logic, it can educate us. But teaching us something about ourselves by looking at made up, clichéd characters? Nope. That it cannot do. All it can tell us in that regard is what the author thinks, nothing more.


CrispyRice said...

Nice summation. I gave up on modern fiction a few years back. Not intentionally at first, I just noticed that I was reading more and more non-fiction and when I went for fiction it was either something classic / literary or something fantasy that I could really escape with. Eventually I realized, "everyone" was talking about books I'd never heard of. I tried 'em, and couldn't get halfway through them. Blah.

Tennessee Jed said...

I understand where you are coming from. Somebody tries to take the ordinary and pretend it is "weighty." I am not saying it can't happen, but too often it just becomes "a cliche" as you point out.

What pisses me off most is that you would read Time Magazine. At least Newsweek, like MSNBC as become a parody of itself, but Time still pretends to be relevant. I stopped pissing my money away with them nearly a decade ago :)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Crispy. I have been slowly reading my way through the classic and I can tell you that nothing I see in modern literary fiction can hold a candle to any of those books. With a few exceptions, the classics are classic for a reason and you always feel like you've expanded your brain reading them. Modern literary fiction doesn't do that, it's like watching a soap opera.

AndrewPrice said...

Ok Jed.... I knew this would come up. In my defense, I did not pay for the magazine. I had expiring Airline points that I needed to use and it was this or Ebony. I think I chose poorly, to tell you the truth. Time is an awful magazine and I doubt I'll read anymore than I have. I literally felt my brain shrink as I read it.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Jed, even beyond just trying to make the banal into the weighty, it bothers me that they're so arrogant about it. "My story about the frustrated housewife (a cliche staple since the 1950s) is really a microcosm of America, and it's so original and insigthful. . . I have tapped into who you ignorant hicks are, whether you know it or not."

I should write literary fiction about snotty big-city people with self-aggrandizement syndrome. I've known more than my share. They really do think that the rest of America is full of incest and crazies, and they think all that "horrible happiness" you run into in the flyover states is faked.


JG said...

I'm having college flashbacks....the modern fiction we were assigned to read (as a person in the English - Creative Writing track, that was pretty much all we did) was horrible. In fact, I felt guilty reselling my books and inflicting that misery on others, but they needed to pass the class too, I guess. :/

The worst offender to me was Fight Club. I know, blasphemy. I can't sit through the movie, either. But really, a worse piece of writing you would be hard-pressed to find. From a technical perspective or content perspective or a stylistic perspective, nothing about that book works. By the end of the unit, the class was of one mind - "How the heck did this become a movie?" And yet it supposed to have this great metaphoric value. My opinion is, if the basic mechanics of the story don't work, the metaphor is irrelevant.

Another one we did probably closer to what you are describing is a novel called "The Slow Moon." It's about a small town. A girl gets raped, but she doesn't know by whom. And the town's rocks get turned over and the bugs come out (people who are secretly alcoholics, having affairs, religious hypocrites, all the stock characters), and 3/4 of the way in we find out whodunit, and then spend the last 1/4 of the book watching all the relationships implode - except with the victim and the guy she thought raped her, they wind up together in a typical rape fantasy.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, Believe it not, "The Slow Moon" sounds like it has too much plot to qualify. Usually these things involve literally nothing happening except the realization that life stinks.

I think somewhere along the way, the whole focus of these books changed. They went from being large in scope with something to say, to being written by petty people who just like writing nasty things about their characters and who hide behind the claim that their work is so incredible that average people just can't get it. But in this case, the emperor has no clothes.

I agree with you entirely about the mechanics of books (or any art form really). You really need to master the basics before you try to do anything beyond that. Unfortunately, too many people don't seem to think knowing the basics is necessary.

In fact, I'm amazed how often I find myself wondering why a particular author doesn't seem to have a firm grasp of the language, any real ability to manipulate words, any ear for how humans actually speak, any sense of how humans actually behave, or any gift for story telling. . . yet, they're published.

It makes you wonder how they are choosing books to be published?

Anonymous said...

Andrew: Tom Wolfe is probably the last great American writer of literary fiction. Yet most readers today think he actually wrote something as awful as the movie version of Bonfire of the Vanities. For God's sake, that was a moron Tom Hanks re-write.

Most of what passes for literary fiction today is boring, or pretentious, or unenlightening, or ludicrous, or just plain depressing, or all of the above. Ordinary people can be interesting if the writer tells their story in an extraordinary way. And from whom might we expect that extraordinariness? I can't think of anyone, but I'm willing to be enlightened.

Another trend I've noticed is that all Europeans are vibrant, interesting, or at least heroically-flawed. But Americans are just damaged goods. Euro-worship alternately bores me then gets my adrenalin flowing. I'd rather watch e-Harmony commercials than read this trash.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I see you have no strong feelings on this issue! LOL!

I agree with you. I love the written word, and I've found tremendous work in all kinds of genres, all kinds of styles and all kinds of stories. When you're reading something worth reading, you know it almost immediately -- its actually quite exciting. But I have yet to run into that with modern work. In fact, what they're passing off as the heavy, serious literature today is nothing more than unjustified anger and self-indulgent angst rammed into cliched characters.

I think you're right about the anti-Americanism in these books too. If you believed what you read in modern literary fiction, all Americans are drunk, repressed, child molesting monsters who are working hard to force everyone around them to be the same. It's like the liberal take on "Leave It Beaver" as oppression fantasy.

I can't think of anything since Hemingway that strikes me as having any staying power.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: The Old Man and the Sea is a perfect example of a writer who could make ordinary, otherwise unimportant people completely fascinating. It also proves that literary fiction can have a sad ending yet be ennobling rather than merely depressing. The loss of the marlin to the sharks was tragic after all the struggle, but not pointless. Unfortunately I think Hemingway had lost it by the time he did A Moveable Feast, though it wasn't actually fiction.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It took me years to appreciate Hemingway. When I read his stuff the first time in high school, it struck me as simple and annoying because he never got to the point.

But when I started reading for pleasure (rather than school), I quickly discovered the tremendous amount of genius in his work. Like Twain, he was able to pick the absolutely prefect word in every instance, and he was able to take something completely ordinary and make it compelling. He was also a master of "what not to say." I was particularly impressed with "The Old Man and The Sea" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

BUT, I think Hemingway is largely the reason modern writing has stagnated. He had the ability to make the brilliant seem simple. . . and that opened the door for simple without brilliant -- which is the style almost everyone uses today.

Joel Farnham said...

There is an author who has written a very good book. It could be literary fiction. A Painted House by John Grisham.

It's a slice of Americana circa 1952.

I didn't learn anything great from it. I just felt good after reading it.

John Grisham is well known for his slick lawyer/thriller books. This is something different. No lawyers. No PC message. Just a story of a family with a cotton farm.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Interesting. I haven't heard of it. I've read a couple of Grisham novels and I had a very hard time getting into them. He had a couple of clever ideas, but he would usually wrap them in such utter garbage that it was like reading a fantasy novel.

In terms of "learning" something, that phrase always bothers me because of how it gets used (not that you're using it that way). . .

** rant begins **

I completely agree that books can educate you and inform you. But people who say "we have so much to learn" from whatever book or movie it is (or they use its twisted cousin "it enriched my life") are idiots who can't tell the difference between fiction and reality but want to sound superior.

It's the same garbage Star Trek TNG used to spew out all the time: "Sure you're a primitive species that lives in caves and eats your own feces, but there is so much you can teach us." (wipes tear) Like what? How to make fire? How to decorate your cave with animal bones?


** rant ends **

Writer X said...

Interesting post, Andrew! Unfortunately the fiction that is deemed "literary fiction" today comes to us from a handful of pretentious, barely educated, self-absorbed NYC agents and editors. And Oprah.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Writer X. I think you're right about the source and that's really the problem. This stuff has a very insular view, which I think is the biproduct of these people being grouped together in Manhattan. It purports to study the rest of the country, but it doesn't really have a clue what the rest of the country is like. In fact, it seems more like the big-city cliche version of what America must be like in the scary hinterlands.

FYI, this guy Franzen apparently made it big when Oprah picked his last book. Then he promptly got into a fight with her by saying that most of what she picked was mindless garbage. Smart huh?

Ed said...

I don't like any modern "literary fiction." It reminds me of the worst stuff they made us read in school. Why in the world did they make us read the bad stuff when there is so much more good stuff out there to get kids interested in reading?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I fully understand exposing kids to things they wouldn't pick up themselves. That's part of education, to expand your mind and to get you to try new things and think new thoughts.

But I agree with you that they often pick a lot of trash, when they should be picking things that got kids interested in reading first. Once they realize that they like reading, then it's a good time to expose them to the harder (less pleasant) stuff -- not as a matter of course.

We read some read garbage in school. In fact, it wasn't until I started selecting what to read from the classics list myself that I even realized that most classics are pretty darn good.

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