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Gratuitous Violence About Fiction

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Louis Bouquet, La Mort d’Orphee, 1925-1939. Orpheus, torn to shreds by the Bacchantes, a sad symbol of what havoc jealousies and distractions can wreak on artists.

My apologies, readers: I had scheduled my next three posts to automatically appear while Bruce and I were visiting Germany, but, alas, something went wrong with my understanding of WordPress. I’ll try to catch up over the next few days. Maybe by now you all can bear another long post about clubby creative writing battles. I hope it doesn’t bore my non-writer readers. As this indicates, I am bored too, but my OCD side compels me to speak when readers of the New York Times have devolved into this kind of bickering. Friend Harold made me realize in a comment about last week’s manifesto about not restricting myself to creative writing that I nonetheless often do focus on these narrow issues. I promise to get away from this again soon, but it’s been an artsy month for me.

The New York Times is following in the footsteps of the tabloids, attempting to ratchet up controversy to get readers, at least that’s how it seems in this instance. The Times recently published a collection of articles in its Room for Debate series under the collective heading of “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” Six very short articles then assaulted us with their inevitably epigrammatic brevity in attempting to answer the headline question.

The writers of these answers—six men and one woman in the finest discriminatory tradition of the major publications—can’t possibly win. Answering this question in the 300 words each was apparently given is an impossibility. But they try, mostly intelligently with perhaps one or two notable exceptions that I’ll save for last. One or two of them even make interesting points, bless them.

Still, the entire atmosphere around these mini-essays is one of contention and rivalry, with a plethora of nastiness directed all over the place, including at the poor authors themselves. Here’s a sampling of the befuddling attacks and counter-attacks in their mini-essays and mostly in the online comments that follow [with my observations in brackets]:

Comments on Jane Smiley’s “An Exercise in Empathy”

“While the quantity of books has increased there is certainly a decrease in the percentage of great novels being written.” Chris Wilson, Boston [Um, has he read them all? How does he know this with such certainty? Did this comment have anything to do with what Smiley said? Um, no.]

In response to a commentator who noted (albeit incorrectly) the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the panel of writers, this diatribe: “Get over it… no wonder there is racism. Because people like you insert it into every possible situation, whether it belongs or not, which in this case it most certainly does not.” Kafen ebell, Los Angeles [Again, I marvel at this person’s prescience, in this case the ability to know whether or not racism influences this situation. It certainly seems to have influenced this remark.]

“Fiction creates empathy in a way that nonfiction cannot. It places the reader in the head of someone else, feeling their feelings.” Anniken Davenport, Harrisburg [What an odd way to characterize the supposed superiority of fiction—by attacking just the quality that memoir is known for.]

“Truth is, our present-day writers, most of them urban liberals, have effectively repelled the sort of readers who used to admire Steinbeck, Wolfe, Faulkner, Algren, et. al. Really, could anything be more objectionable than, for example, the sort of Manhattan-approved good thinker who confesses that while Iowa might be all right (barely) for children, yet it remains so horribly provincial, don’t you know, for more elevated souls.” Tito Perdue reactionary novelist, ‘Bama [Huh? Talk about a comment that comes not from the article but from a predetermined, always-present agenda. This is prime.]

Comments on Robin Sloan’s “Welcome ‘The Sopranos’ and Twitter”

“I checked out the excerpt from Mr. Sloan’s novel, and it expresses everything one needs to know about the current strain of reductive techno-cheerleading infesting our culture. I highly recommend he stick to ‘inventing media,’ whatever that might mean.” Ilya Leybovich, Brooklyn, NY [While I agree that I was not sucked into Mr. Sloan’s opening page, I’m not sure that Ilya’s position represents anything but some vague resentment at techies, even though he seems to be a news editor for an online PR magazine, hardly the purest or most art-obsessed role in life. Perhaps he is also a frustrated novelist.]

“Today’s ‘novel’ has become the pointless snippets people post of their daily lives on social networking sites.” Evan Lockport, IL [All of them?]

“Such slapdoodle, the very kind of thinking these superficial media encourage.” An Ordinary American, Prague [I don’t disagree with this person, just perhaps with his/her harshness. But I had to include this one because of the use of the wonderful word “slapdoodle” and because of the combination of “an ordinary American” and the location of Prague, where all ordinary Americans no doubt hang out.]

Comments on Matt de la Peña’s “Novels Have Become an Escape”

De la Peña’s piece is an anti-positive psychology note in itself, and was my favorite of the six for that very fact. Perhaps for that reason, he received by far the most commentary on his article. But, of course, the comments became an argument between those who insist life is indeed sad and those who insist it isn’t. Of course, it is both, and some commenters acknowledged that well, but I quote here some of the deniers and other nasties, my point being that discussions on the internet so often devolve into this oppositional absurdity.

“why are multiple posters quoting this same kafka phrase/ did the nytimes include a quote in their assignment? is this high school English class?” j, LIC, NY

“So far, the only living American novelist with anything to say is Corum McCarthy [whoever that is, or, I mean, sic]. The rest is filtered out by the agent-seeking-money people and the bean-counters-seeking-money from the publisher’s financial group headquarters. Most of your commenters sound like they recently got theit [sic] writing MFA which teaches lots about technique to those with not much to relate.” anonymot, CT [Another MFA basher, and I hope he/she does have something to say since there’s no expressed need here to say it well or to even give any evidence for claims. Some people just have to get the MFA-blame into whatever they say.]

“Although I disagree with Mr. de la Peña, I can forgive an intelligent young man who has enough intelligent-young-man arrogance to think his [sic] has enough perspective to judge his own time against what came before.” J, R [Funny, he never really says what he disagrees about per se. Oh, well, a put-down is always effective, right? The condescension blew me away.]

“only in genre fiction can the half-stereotypes we all rely on be explored safely, because lit fiction, which is supposed to be addressing these, is only interested in one side” John, Brooklyn, NY [I’m pretty sure this is not what Mr. de la Peña meant. In other words, John is always looking for an opportunity to say what is already on his mind, no matter what.]

“I think you mistake a few elites for an entire ‘audience.’ Jane Austin [sic] and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Oscar Wilde and others were popular because they were entertaining not because they were literary.” ro, nyc [Etc. etc. with “ro” and “anonymot” dissing the “elite” “decision-makers” who unfortunately promote “serious” writing. Totally incoherent, really, but the readers and writers of junk fiction are always aggrieved, by golly. They get all the money in wide sales, but that’s not enough for them. They want also the literary recognition that they trash so much.]

“A session with current fiction, even an extended one, turning thinly-worded [sic] post-modern pages requires that we reach for the next while the current one is coming to a close. They’re pills in paper back.” mm, albuquerque [Again, I think that the commenter is blaming books that de la Peña doesn’t mean to blame.]

“Life is not sad. It is what you make of it…. Yes, we are all going to die but that is not what is important here. What’s important is living a life that serves each one of us.” Susannah, France [I’m glad she knows what’s important for all of us.]

“People do care. They are not always hiding. I think this is a good thing and invite you into a positive world.” Jack R. Williams, Atlantic Beach, NC [Because, of course, this very successful young writer must be in a bad way just because he points out the contemporary aversion to life’s hard side. This private citizen would like to give him advice about his life. Does that seem fitting to anyone?]

“What a load of waffle.” TV, CT

“Agree that intellectual challenge has downshifted, but strongly disagree regarding sadness and self reflection, the preoccupation with which seems to have become pandemic. Also, the memoir, an exaltation of self if ever there was one, may be supplanting the novel as a popular idyll.” marymary, Washington, DC [OMG, let’s beat up the memoir again. Who cares that the subject here is the novel, some people just have to bash the memoir.]

“as a person who suffers from clinical depression, the idea that bouts of melancholy can be ‘beneficial’ makes me want to throw my laptop through the window. Where does the Times find these people?” gobot90, new york [De la Peña distinguished what he was talking about from clinical depression, but this person just missed it, I guess.]

“The idea that the novel should be ‘serious’ is a 20th century invention, as James Gunn points out. Mr. de la Peña needs to study his literary history.” gobot90, new york [Above, he notes that the Times gets unqualified people to write these, but only after he has here cited one of the other panelists—with far fewer credentials as a writer—as a better expert. In other words, the popular fiction folks are angry again. I can just never figure out why.]

Comments on Thomas Glave’s “Stories and Readers Change Together”

This piece garnered only 3 comments, all rather disconnected from what he wrote.

“A well crafted novel has the potential to tell far more truth than non-fiction and, in an aesthetic manner. Art goes farther than imitating life—it can capture its essence.” David Chowes, New York City [Another hobbyhorse inserted willy-nilly: the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. Boring, boring, boring.]

The next two articles I found in themselves objectionable. As scholar-critics rather than writers, they felt a need to pass judgments that seemed to me ill-founded.

Objectionable quotes from William Deresiewicz’s “New Forms, but People Will Always Read”

* “As for political fiction, Sozhenitsyn and Steinbeck were important figures, but they weren’t necessarily good novelists.” [At least he talks about specific novels, but this is ill-advised in a column where you have no space to define exactly what you mean.]

* “’The Jungle’ may have sparked reform, but I daresay ‘Mrs. Dalloway has changed more people’s lives.” [Unfounded speculation.]

* “Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of modernist greats: the novel’s facing headwinds, as it surely always has.” [Deresiewicz is, of course, a former literature professor at Yale and Columbia, now turned essayist, but basically a scholar and critic, so, of course, he has to slip in that the influence of writing programs is “questionable.” The MFA canard again.]

Comments on Deresiewicz

“To suggest that Mrs. Dalloway ‘changed more lives’ than The Jungle is wishful thinking at best. The Jungle resulted in reform that affected millions of people over decades whereas if Mrs. Dalloway was read even by 20,000 people I would be surprised. The market for Lit Fic is miniscule and supported mostly by libraries without which, the ‘genre’ of Lit Fic would collapse. ECW, Forreston, IL [The scholars hate the creative writers, even those of a literary bent, but the popular fiction aficionados hate both the scholars and the literary writers. Go figure.]

“[H]is conclusion is pure evidence-avoiding pollyanna.” Dudley, Saunders [I don’t disagree, but, still, the invective.]

“In the cities, on public transportation, in parks and restaurants, people can read what they really like without the fear of public censure once they abandon the lurid covers of conventional publishing and enjoy the anonymity of e-readers. Unless one is right on top of the e-reader, they can read whatever crap they want without having to suffer the smirk of social critics. On the other hand, it’s hard to attract that special someone on the bus when they can’t see the pretentious tome you are pretending to read.” richard kopperdahl, new york city [This one wins the award for a paranoid sense of aggrievement. I mean, really, since when did people hide their popular fiction? Really, it’s a funny thought.]

Objectionable quotes from James Gunn’s “Look to the Fringes of Fiction”

Another critic, who must pass judgment, but this time it’s a former English professor who no doubt felt that his research on science fiction wasn’t taken seriously enough in the academy. So he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has a huge axe to grind. I should just paste his whole little diatribe here, but I will select only a portion.

* “A century ago H. G. Wells had a public debate with Henry James about the uses of the novel. Wells, ever the pragmatist, thought the novel was a device to make an emphatic point about life or society or human nature. James, ever the esthete, maintained that the only purpose of the novel was aesthetic. James prevailed, according to the critics, and the literary novel has been judged ever since on aesthetic grounds…. Wells is still read…; James, not so much.” [Of course, he has to set this up in oppositional fashion, and he has to base his entire argument on something he can’t prove. The greatest novels, of course, both make a point about “life or society or human nature” and also pay attention to aesthetic issues. It’s not as though The Turn of the Screw says nothing about human nature. Yeesh.]

* “[T]he literary novel has never been a place to look for social or political protest, and the writers who dealt in such matters—Dickens, Sinclair, Wells, Stowe, Zola, Orwell—were never considered ‘serious’ writers in their own times.” [Really? And what about Morrison, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Gaskell, etc. etc.?]

* “The most effective social documents these days are genre novels—crime novels, for instance, but particularly science-fiction novels.” [I know the stupid 300-word form creates a tendency for the unsupported generalization, but isn’t this just an example of self-justification? It’s just so easy to trot out numerous counter-examples on every side of this issue—“serious literary” fiction that does take up social issues and science-fiction that doesn’t question the status quo at all. Just another angry devotee of popular fiction, wanting what he ostensibly despises.]

Comments on Gunn

Thus ensued in the comments a debate about the relative merits of Wells and James more than anything else, with the added current of “science-fiction is underappreciated.” Um-hm, yup, that’s why so many people read it and almost all university English departments teach it. Um-hm.

I couldn’t agree more with one commenter on Gunn’s post who referred to the entire endeavor this way:

“So wrongheaded! But what can one expect? These Room for Debate features seem to parade ‘experts’ who have bizarrely random claims to the title—you’d want to say they therefore spoke for an interestingly random sampling of views if they didn’t mostly seem to have some very particular axe to grind. – So this guy was chosen as the pro-sci-fi, non-canonical view? But why should that view be helpful or interesting (especially when he makes such blatantly incorrect factual assertions, as if James has been relegated to the dustheap while Wells has become widely embraced and beloved)? The topics for these Debates are so large, and the response pieces so frustratingly narrow, brief, and thin (based on opinion or assertion rather than fact), that the whole thing just becomes an exercise in head scratching rather than debate.” sd, ct

George Cruikshank, Old Blucher Beating the Corsican Big Drum, 1814. Gebhard von Blucher, a Prussian field marshal, carried an irrational degree of hatred for the French and over and over again flogged the populace and its leaders to go to war.

In fact, I find that these four childish battles are a large part of what’s wrong with writing and reading these days:

* MFA vs. no academic support for writers

* popular and genre fiction vs. literary fiction

* entertainment vs. “serious” fiction

* fiction vs. non-fiction, especially memoir

These are indeed shibboleths and hackneyed distractions, and I am sick of them. I wish we could move our discussions of literature and writing beyond them. Surely, there is something more interesting about what we do than these hobbyhorses that repeat themselves ad infinitum in the press. In spite of the fact that bifurcation is almost never a smart way of thinking, people keep these oppositions alive, perhaps because they are easy and draw “controversy.”

I hereby declare that there is no controversy on these topics. In spite of the continuing echoes of irrationality, the jury is in:

* The MFA does not harm writers. It has its pros and its cons, and it is not all things to all people. But it helps some writers find a way, and it supports many others. This is a good thing. That so many people want to study writing is also our best hope for a continuing culture of reading and writing and our best hope against an illiterate society.

* Neither the genre aficionados nor the literary aficionados should trash the other. There should be room for both in the world. That the publishing industry is shutting off the oxygen to literary writers is true, and I decry this, but other opportunities in small press publishing and inexpensive online literary venues are going to keep the literary alive. The fucking genre people have no complaint, and they need to give up feeling discriminated against. Once upon a time they might have had a legitimate issue, having been subject to the disdain of critics, but they don’t any more, and truly great work in science-fiction and other genres regularly is attended to with literary awe. People read it, too, and its popularity is secure. So, what’s the problem?

* Serious fiction, however, is indeed different from a lot of popular fiction. Some of us are even “entertained” by something more serious than formulaic fare. But there is no hard and fast line between them. We need to get used to this and debate only the merits of individual texts, not entire categories. The categories do not serve writers, and barely serve readers—they are largely enforced by the publishing companies, bookstores, reviewers, and critics, who are all classifiers at heart. Their classifications are convenient for all of us sometimes, but they are not sacrosanct.

* Likewise with the ridiculous claim that fiction is always and necessarily superior to non-fiction and that memoir is a degraded form. This is just patently false and almost always asserted out of self-promotion or some other slightly less obvious self-serving belief. There are bad novels just as there are bad memoirs. And there are good in both genres. If you want to start a tally list and go through all of literature to demonstrate otherwise in any convincing way, then, as my mother used to say, “Go ahead, gourd head.”

Would that the squabblers would hear my song.

Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus, 1894. Orpheus before everyone started fighting over him. Better days, no doubt.

2 responses »

  1. matt de la pena

    This is brilliant! Great post!

    Reply

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