Originally appeared in Pleiades
Why is American Fiction in Its Current Dismal State?
Contemporary American fiction has become cheap counseling to the bereaved bourgeois. Its scope is restricted too much to the trivial domestic sphere. It promotes grief, paralysis, inaction: a determinism for the post-politics society, where ideology has no place. Mired in appreciation of beautiful (or rather prettified) language for its own sake, without connection to ideology – although that is an ideology of its own, and perhaps the most corrosive and debilitating ideology of all – serious fiction writing today has lost any connection with a wide, appreciative readership. There are no more writer-oracles in America, nor even writer-visionaries, or writer-sages. There is only small writing, with small concerns, and small ambitions. Very little fiction today aims for a universal audience: the market segmentation of specific niches of writing forces writers to address discrete audiences, those who already read their particular brand of writing, while great possibilities of disrupting the fixed manners of reading go ignored.
The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change. Then there must be full accounting of motives and intentions, causes and effects, actions and consequences, in a step-by-step, gradually unfolding manner, all in the aim of achieving psychological credibility – as if humans were predictable voting machines, as if all that happens lies within the boundaries of explicability; and the result is not explanation, but unintended mystification, not psychological profundity but sheer tiresome exposure, unwanted nakedness. The culture of confession – expose in the interest of integrity – rescues the bewildered fiction writer; time after time, the hope triumphs that there is something in the muck of memory that might after all salvage the writer from his struggles with telling a good, full-blooded story packed with real people and real events.
The generation of writers now coming up is frightening in its moral austerity. Can one imagine an O’Connor or Yates or Cheever among them? Can one imagine them grappling with the paradoxes of civilization: Why is there a repetitive decline into desperate fascism? Why are enlightenment principles so frail? How does evil defeat good more often than not? Where does evil come from, if we all claim to be good? If there are any hints of connection in contemporary fiction with the marked trends of the day – fascism, globalization, corporatization, surveillance, dehumanization – they tend to come from older writers, those who didn’t come up through the current establishment process for breeding writers, or from writers rooted in East European or South Asian or East Asian or Latin American cultures, those not yet fully assimilated into the seamless fiction writing matrices of postindustrial America, but on their way already. Can one see a Schnitzler or Kafka, a Musil or Broch, a Bely or Bulgakov, a Waugh or Greene, among all of today’s puny, humorless writer-souls?
The younger fiction writers today, Mr. K.’s all, are themselves entirely self-constructed as bourgeois citizens, playing by the rules of the publishing game, pursuing their grants and promotions and accolades from wherever they might come, hungry for any scrap of attention from the limited sources each niche is likely to offer them. Writers today are polite, sociable, inoffensive, wanting to spark no controversy, staying clear of any dangerous, big, meaningful ideas, even at the cost of their own increased commercial viability. To win the game by making a large statement, and thus causing discomfort within one’s established social zone, is not worth winning the game at all.
Obscurity, in this sense, is self-earned, self-desired – not an entirely unhappy outcome for the cowed writer. There is not a rebel amongst this homogenous crowd. They mean to antagonize no one, let alone the powerful state in its many tentacular manifestations, or the men and women who make the rules of the social game. Watch them at readings and conferences, making eye contact, acting like team players, uttering only banalities, and creating an atmosphere of good feeling, routines with which they’ve had great success since grade school onwards. If it weren’t for their pleasing personalities – the ultimately “sympathetic” characters? – one wonders if they’d ever have succeeded in the publishing business.
There is no magic in contemporary literary fiction. And the players go on celebrating their own death.
The critical and review establishment is enslaved to the dominant modes of fiction writing. There is hardly any criticism – if we mean by the word skeptical investigation of the quality of writing – in America today. Different branches of established criticism each have their hobbyhorses to ride on, but on the whole the tendency is to go along with what’s already out there, rather than think of alternatives. The sacred cows are extremely untouchable; lucrative careers are at stake, after all, and one must be ever so careful these days.
The establishment liberal organs dutifully endorse the heavy hitters, offering only the mildest of critiques of the latest Tyler, Munro, Hoffman. The preference is for strict realism, neither too carried away by language nor too intimidated by it, produced in formulaic manners by various mass-producing factories (when a writer becomes big enough, he becomes a factory of his own). The quality and gloss of finish, apparent mastery of so-called “technique” and “craft,” and conformity to the rules and regulations of realistic fiction are always to be preferred over boldness, risk-taking, flouting of rules toward principled objectives, or the glimmer of a challenging metaphysical orientation on the part of the struggling, surfacing writer.
An acerbic – self-hating? – reviewer like Michiko Kakutani is the prototypical gatekeeper. The slayer of many a frightening, aggressive, precocious fictional dragon, she is the Alan Greenspan of the literary establishment: the very hint of inflation is to be fought off at all costs, including the risk of inducing a self-fulfilling recession; critical policy must be conservative in the extreme, favoring the account balances of the already well-heeled; and the markets must be soothed at the first signs of genuine rebellion among the have-nots, distracting the conversation toward productivity and growth increases.
European fiction, because it accepts politics and ideology as inescapable, is typically scorned for being “polemical,” as is any fiction that has any point to make (the supply chain must be validated, the leading American houses must always be accorded prime status as incomparable producers, even if the situation in fiction might be akin to the clunky American gas-guzzlers of the seventies, out of tune with the realities of means and resources). The piling up of irrelevant details for their own sake is appreciated as indispensable grounding in reality (for the liberal critical establishment, the postmodern revolution in epistemology has not yet occurred; they’re still going by the rules of Locke and Hume). Mediocre new writers, whose only talent seems to be to have understood the rules of the marketing game, are lauded week after week as brilliant. Old favorites mired in repetitive self-imitation are still offered as awesome masters.
Liberal guilt disallows critical appraisal of the many forms of victim fiction produced today. American grown South Asian writers can today do no wrong, just as East Asians were the hottest thing a few years ago. Of course, they must not be overtly political, must not have any detectable ambition, or they’d be violating the stereotype of the grateful minority. But as long as they act obedient and obsequious, their fiction gets the liberal seal of approval.
The reviewing establishment has little trouble with the blurring of lines among memoir, autobiography, and fiction. The rise of the memoir as a popular form is coincident with the decline of the novel: both suggest a failure of imagination. Boldly imaginative works, not rooted in memoir, are increasingly disappearing from the marketplace, to no establishment reviewer’s consternation.
The little magazines have their own constituencies to serve. The writing teachers who produce most of the fiction the literary journals cover are almost never subjected to criticism. The quality of the reviews in most journals is embarrassingly thin; the idea is to use the flash and glint of erudite language to puff up the writer, who may some day turn out to be the granter of favors in return. With a handful of exceptions, the journals are engaged only in the mutual flattery business.
The few deviants among the reviewing establishment, those who seem to work from a critical apparatus that might have existed before the populism of the sixties put paid to objective standards, are the crusty, white, “elitist” old fogies, who lament the end of print culture and the associated disappearance of heroism of any sort. This outnumbered species will soon pass on.
In an ideal world, the specialized production of fiction writing in an academic setting wouldn’t dominate. The connection between the writer and the culture would be reestablished. This was more or less the model until the late twentieth century, and it worked well. But today fiction writers are really academics, in thrall to heavy teaching workloads, enamored of conferences and colonies, committed to correcting grammar in composition classes and putting up with undergraduate writing, in love with distractions, domesticity, family values, self-restraint, and linearity. They are university employees who happen to have a slight talent for writing. Tens of thousands of well-meaning middle-class individuals believe they can be writers; while India and China produce software engineers and material physicists, this is our venue of creativity.
There is too much writing, so overwhelming in volume that the most committed reader can’t keep up. The little good writing gets drowned out. The response is that this flood will get sifted out in due course anyway – perhaps a hundred years’ time – so why worry? In the meantime, let everyone do their thing (everyone has to make a living, and since we don’t have the aptitude to be computer programmers…). But we can already tell who the very good writers of the age are. Why do we need the rest? Accepting the existence of bad writing, being casual about its profusion, dulls the critical sense. Writing is now an industry, with precisely the economics informing any industry, like microprocessors or automobiles. Supply creates its own demand (obscure literary journals that even graduate writing students don’t read, but use as credits to land jobs teaching other illiterates how to become writing teachers), brand identification is promoted, market slots get increasingly more arbitrary and narrowed, and there are legions of publicity and advertising executives (the award-givers honoring their own students, or people who could have been their students) to legitimize the whole venture.
No amount of thinking about alternative solutions can alter anything. Fiction writing is the way it is because America has turned it into the last great Fordist model of production. Can one imagine, in this age of fascistization, a loosening of the monopoly of the gigantic media corporations, which have absorbed nearly all of publishing? Can one imagine a situation in which aimless college graduates, who twenty years ago would have prolonged their removal from the skunk hour by enrolling in law school, suddenly acquiring a civic consciousness, or an appreciation for the life lived outside the academic spotlight? No, they’re used to monitoring and being monitored, inhabiting a world where health insurance is a given and a steady paycheck expected, and where indices of measurement of success proliferate.
Without much experience of the real world – other than family matters, like divorce or abandonment, or personal incidentals like menstruation, abortion, or mental illness – fiction writers publish stories often from the child’s point of view, itself a highly suggestive fact. Open up any current leading journal, and the typical story starts off with these phrasal bits: “My mother…my father…I was in the sixth grade…my friend Ellie…in the backseat of my parents’ car…” There is no plot, no bildungsroman (pointless little epiphanies don’t count), no larger purpose to the minor childhood incident being recounted (this easily turns into the memoir form). These writers haven’t progressed to the adult stage enough to write from the adult’s sensibility.
Romanticism, existentialism, stoicism, nihilism, all are forbidden modes of perception; only a constricted bourgeois realism, steeped in paralysis and grief, is accepted. If writers lived in proximity with real people – even when they live in exciting places like New York, they thrive in self-enclosed circles – they might produce a different kind of fiction: adult fiction for adult minds, who have moved beyond paralyzed disbelief at the big, bad world’s intolerable cruelty.
The romantic notion was of a genius, who sprouts spontaneously, and produces great works and does heroic things (dying early helps too); now we have the peculiar American notion of health-conscious, sexually abstemious, profoundly earnest writers teaching other writers “craft” in workshops over many years. At the leading conferences, drunkenness and ribaldry have been banished; now the presentable, charming, well-behaved writers get together to plot their next career moves (in a parallel universe, their brothers and sisters are acting similarly at sales conferences in Wichita and Omaha). No great writer of the past is conceivable in this model.
The decline of American fiction is a sign of the decline of elite liberal consensus. The vacuum in political ideology is being filled today by an anti-politics, of personality and charisma, leading to gradual submission to authoritarianism among all potential sources of resistance. Without a vibrant class politics, without a political ideology arousing passions, there is no vibrant fiction. This doesn’t mean that the writer must have a political agenda of his own, and must use his fiction to promote that agenda. But try to imagine a Twain or Dreiser or Baldwin coming out of today’s pacifying video culture, beholden to no great minds of the past, attached to no inspiring tradition, unmoored and free-floating in a world with only bits and pieces of political (il)logic: no coherent narrative is possible in such circumstances, except the narrative of the private self, cut off from external nourishment.
The MFA programs are killing writing in this country. It is not so much that new media are sapping the appeal of the novel, reducing our attention spans, leading to forms of perception that can only be fragmented and disjunctive. Dos Passos rose above the challenge of movies, integrated the new perceptual apparatus into fiction, enlivened literature with his relish for the increase in methods of processing reality. It is not that there are now too many competing media to take in reality, but that reality itself has vanished into the ether of too much reality. Fiction writers, bred through the democratic process, are told that their every insight is valid (no, it’s not); that there can be no judgment banishing them to the ghetto of the failed and uninspired (yes, there must). Expectations are set so low that to meet them all one has to do is dig into the finitude of the self and crown oneself king or queen for the day.
The greatest concern is that the astute reader of fiction will disappear altogether – again, not because movies or the Internet or cable television are working in a zero-sum game, but because writers are too small-minded to understand that with every acceleration in the profusion and vitality of media comes a reduction in the word-for-word quality of production, which is the gap the writer must rush to fill in. Each addition to media is potentially life-giving to written narrative. There is no replacement for the use of print to tell a convincing story. But today’s writers, so humble in their self-presentation, don’t believe this. They grew up drawing nourishment from other media; at bottom they think that perhaps Steven Spielberg can work magic of a kind denied them. They underestimate the reader, they underestimate reading itself. By persisting in this mistaken belief, they make the prophecy self-fulfilling. Why doesn’t Richard Powers have the same popular following as Neal Stephenson? Why can there not be a Hemingway or Highsmith to take advantage of the narrative possibilities offered by new media? Dave Eggers is the best we have? He is the embodiment of a director’s lifetime banishments on the cutting room floor.
Competing with new media on their terms – by reorganizing the structure of narrative to meet the requirements of the presumed illiterate reader – diminishes writing. The very notion of competition suggests defensiveness. Defensiveness means a lost game.
The individual fiction writer would have to be strong enough to take the moral offensive against writing that deludes the reader into thinking that his private ignominies are worth celebration and memorialization. He must buck the trend by going against the monopoly on career rewards currently held by the writing industry (which for all intents and purposes blacklists and boycotts real outsiders, although of course the terms of the game can’t be framed so bluntly), and by fighting the herd mentality of publishers whose interest it no longer is to discover great fiction and build writers’ careers, but who only want to replicate the last great sensation.
How many individual fiction writers are that stubborn, Promethean, Nietzschean? The current setup works fine for the bottom line of the publishing industry. No one has any self-interest in elevating the quality of fiction. The future is a world only of chick lit (this genre is the epitome of all fiction today; it is where serious fiction draws its motivation from). To come to writing from a strong moral position, some belief in universal values that makes one sleepless and distraught, will be like a fat, bald, ugly man crashing in on a slumber party of blonde supermodels.
Contemporary literary fiction has chosen to marginalize itself from mainstream culture. It has its own niche, like specialized Foucauldian sociology or Derridean philosophy, catering to the sensibilities of other experts in the field. The writer adopts a politics-neutral stance, excluding any sense that characters’ lives are influenced by politics. The fear is of being branded politicized, in which case no serious reviewer will want to deal with the writer anymore, and of being called preachy or moralistic or sermonizing by the reviewing community.
The typical fiction writer tends to be vaguely liberal about women’s or gays’ or minorities’ rights. He is ultra-sensitive about not writing anything offensive to any constituency, and mortally fearful of painting with broad brushstrokes. He takes care to mark down any budding writer who might want to speak truthfully about minority or majority groups (it’s open season, however, on white males, in the teacher’s own writing). Beyond that, he doesn’t have a grasp of politics.
Interact with him and you sense someone permanently in fug, a brown haze of depression and worry perpetually hovering over him, reducing him to a man politic and deferential in the extreme. He dare not take on the cruel monsters who threaten to take away social security and biometrically identify us at every point. Oh, most are against Christian theocracy, but who wouldn’t be? It’s a safe gesture, and it never intrudes in the fiction anyway. As long as one writes about blameless (flawed but lovable) characters in “beautiful” language, one’s aesthetic position is secure.
Has any of them – with the exception of older writers like Roth – had to say anything about our traditional liberties being suspended? Has any of them written substantially about this dark night of the nation? (Just now, Susan Choi and Neil Gordon and Russell Banks are beginning to turn to early seventies radicalism, the safely removed Weather Underground being a favorite theme.) Then what is fiction for? To write one more time about the sister who suffered abuse at the hands of the father, the mother who goes not gently into the night of Alzheimer’s disease, the husband who philanders and the wife who refuses emotion? One more time, in the same toneless, placid, paternalizing style, dotted with little points of light that threaten to emerge as dire epiphanies?
The Vonnegut lovers aren’t going to go near these domestic tales of patient grief. They want plot, action, resolution, character, while the workshop trend is to write plotless stories, where nothing happens (to have characters in interaction with the outside world, leading to actual events, would be to be as bad as those terrible genre writers, wouldn’t it?), where the reader isn’t granted the intelligence to pick up the characters’ situation from our common, universal fate as human beings, and where the language is uniformly unimpressive, without flourish, decoration, fancy, imaginative leap, unpredictable flow, as if the same writer were behind every single novel and story in America.
The denial of language’s possibilities is the most significant political statement by the contemporary fiction writer. In workshop, the process is of subtraction (just as in focus groups run by dumb politicians appealing to the dumbest among the electorate): let’s take away everything that can’t be agreed on as ruffling no feathers, daring into no unpredictable verbal territory. Let’s reduce the fiction down to its barest minimum (all American fiction is minimalist in a sense – there is no European or Asian or Latin American style maximalist pursuit of the indefinable). What about David Foster Wallace? Who can actually read Wallace, or at a lesser level Moody or Antrim? The possibilities of the English language these days seem to be available mostly to writers not homegrown, while those who take the pledge of allegiance pledge also to hunt down every last adjective from their prose, every last embellishment of language that might take us deeper into the heart of darkness.
This sunny American fiction is politically conservative, because it reduces language to silly putty, shaped and reshaped at the will of the writing instructor, or his ghost hovering over the writer (is today’s American fiction writer ever in love with solitude? It appears not; one imagines him writing at a noisy Barnes and Noble, not in an ancient, noble library). All the politically charged events of the day are left to the genre writers to manipulate for their ends; the serious writer is trained to look down on politically aware fiction: that’s just journalism. There are no AWP awards there.