While toying with the theme of Literature and Society, I found myself in lower Manhattan shouldered amongst a people best known by aliases both kind — the creative class, knowledge workers, the gifted and talented — and cruel — northern elites, specific whites, the jet-set, the ivory-caste. How apt, I thought, counting copies of the Financial Times tucked in responsibly dressed underarms and opened on intelligent laps. A phrase once on enough lips to have earned the abbreviation Lit & Soc now dead. It writes itself.
And that proved the problem: In my initial draft, I lamented declining fiction sales, found the devil in technology, bemoaned marketing, and called the office the soul’s igloo. Next I resorted to pronouncements about the death of spontaneity. I eulogized imagination. Lit a candle for empathy. And I framed it all, as precedent would dictate, in quotes by Roth and Amis and Wilde. I called the end of serious fiction the end of the self. I blamed 9/11 on not enough translated Middle-Eastern fiction. Crossed that out, kept going. In a word, I turned elitist: Fiction readers are better people. If you’ve read this far, it’s a fair guess that at least part of you agrees.
But if fiction is so great shouldn’t the work be its own argument?
It struck me then that the slow asphyxiation of everything literary in America — not to mention everything scientific, secular, gentle and sustainable — might have more to do with a particularly compromised, weak style of criticism than it does with modern technology, changing consumer values, poor fiction-writing or anything else.
As Jonathan Franzen has noted, the New York Times Book Review now includes as few as two works of fiction per week, when the ratio used to be one-to-one with nonfiction. The bestseller lists and matching advertising spectacles are cluttered with journalistic exposés, celebrity memoirs, ideological rants and self-help books. New fiction is portable television drama (See: James Patterson), daytime soaps (See: Mary Higgins Clark), pornography (See: Zane’s Sex Chronicles), the early script of the next Hollywood world-beater (Grisham, Crichton, and Co.), or officially important books (any young author with a story (or social connections) that cracks The. New Yorker). Nobody reads fiction for the news; the social novel has been dead since 1960; Roth performed the autopsy and, in Franzen’s fine turn of phrase, modern society checks with Google, not Gaddis, to understand itself.
Yet the problem isn’t literary fiction writers. It’s literary critics who have failed to resist the professional middle-road.
The contemporary book review, even in a long reputable place like the New Yorker, is more often journalism than commentary on art. Instead of poetics we get politics and references to the “real” world. Plausibility has become the yardstick that matters. Does it resemble something tangible? Can we point to the world and say, “That’s just like in the book”? It was not long ago that when we talked about literature we talked about all the things pushed from common sight: Race, Class, Violence. Now we talk about current events. I think Gore Vidal said somewhere that literature is worthless if not timeless. Why then do we pretend to be bankrupt?
In DBC Pierre’s 2003 Booker Prize winner Vernon God Little, for example, the stateside hoopla was about the book’s dark horse author and his supposed anti-Americanism. The mental mechanics went something like, 1) it’s about a school shooting, 2) it’s a parody of Columbine, and 3) it disgraces American tragedy. Lost in the scrum for immediate context and meaning was that the narrator, Vernon, was a disguised St. Peter, and the story was that of Christ. Not that this mattered except to the handful of professional middle-roaders who prefer Booker Prize winners to The Da Vinci Code, which continues to double as Random House’s bank and Southwest’s in-flight movie.
Once again, the problem isn’t a lack of worthy fiction. As Jacob Siegel has written about on these pages, Jonathan Lethem’s The Invention of Solitude is the most important book on race since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, yet good luck finding a review where “race” appears outside of quotes. Likewise, Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday is a rebuke of the Christian suggestion that God has gifted us with forgiveness, love and compassion. There is a warm version of materialism, there is a warm version of atheism, both are embodied by my protagonist Henry Perowne, McEwan seems to say. But all the critics have noticed is the background war in Iraq.
Perhaps worse than critics tethering fiction to current events, is the uniform denial of what Sven Birkerts calls “the sublime.” It is the moment in reading when we are at once in the clutches something confected and abstract — a fictional story, words — and yet aware of a certain unity to human reality. Not that the critic leaves sensory experience altogether on the roadside. There are the obligatory adjectives to declare this state: Mesmerizing and Haunting, perfectly good words, but ones that leave a canyon for the review reader to hurdle between the critic’s experience and his description of that experience.
Former New York Times literary editor Charles McGrath recently wrote an indicative piece for his old paper in which he surveyed contemporary fiction and declared the novel “a full-service entertainment center.” Mostly because, well, Franzen’s book has talking feces and Wallace’s a talking dog. But what of these talking things? McGrath is content merely to observed that they talk.
I have a theory. The absurdity of adulthood can be total. It appears to ridicule analysis. It takes the insider beyond anger and despair to neutrality, and neutrality is where fiction goes to die.
I also have a solution: appoint a public editor, grant him or her diplomatic impunity, tenure, the works and let them loose. The moment a fearless pen flashes from its scabbard just might be the moment fiction gets good again. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue shoulder-tapping underemployed MFAs shelving books part-time in Barnes & Noble and hope what they say is true: Hell hath no fury like an underemployed writer.