The blogosphere’s literary elite are up in arms because things are changing at the New York Times Book Review, and they don’t like it. The paper is talking about more non-fiction reviews, fewer reviews of novels, and a shift in focus.
Here’s what I don’t like: first, the leaning toward more non-fiction (they had too much to start with, in my humble opinion). Mostly I don’t like the way this discussion feeds into the frenzy over that old four letter word PLOT and the idea of serious fiction.
Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition has this entry for serious:
1. Not easy to do, achieve, or master: arduous, difficult, hard, laborious, tall,tough, uphill. See EASY. 2. Full of or marked by dignity and seriousness: earnest, grave, sedate, sober, solemn, somber, staid. See ATTITUDE, HEAVY. 3. Having great consequence or weight: earnest, grave, heavy, momentous,severe, weighty. See IMPORTANT. 4. Causing or marked by danger or pain, for example: dangerous, grave, grievous, severe. See HELP. 5. Marked by sober sincerity: businesslike, earnest, no-nonsense, sobersided. Idioms: in earnest. See HEAVY, WORK.
The wider debate has been framed something like this: “what’s happened to the relevance of the serious novel, and how can we restore it? Or can it be restored at all?” [emphasis added]
So the distinction here seems to be between people who write fiction that is serious and those of us who opt for the easy. The question can also be put this way: why does Stephen King sell, and John Updike languish on the shelves? The answer is (and they don’t want to hear this): you can’t. People want a story; it’s a part of the way the human psyche works. Give them a great story and they’ll come, even if the novel is otherwise deficient (and I’m not going to get specific here, not just now).
There are a few litbloggers who do see some of the bigger issues here, ala The Literary Saloon. [correction follows; wrong attribution in original post] And there’s this lovely little bit (also from The Elegant Variation):
But the other, more serious issue for me is the insularity of the contemporary fiction landscape. I find too many novels that feel like MFA projects that are little more than auditions for teaching posts to grind out more MFA students. Now, this is my own personal bugbear, but if I read one more novel about an academic or a writer I’m going to blow my brains out. Are you all so bereft of invention that this is the best you can cobble up? These arch, self-indulgent self-portraits? My question to all of you is why do you think that any reader would care? What do you offer them to connect to? How are you speaking to them? And that, in my opinion, is why it’s easy for the NYTBR to cut you – and the rest of us, by association – off. You have no constituency, no one who will not only defend the need for your work but who will back it up with their pocketbooks.
I appreciate anybody who takes on the MFA elite (also known as the MaFiA). Because they are powerful, even if they aren’t very big. Is this sour grapes on my part? Good question.
I’ve been in both camps — the elite MFA and the PLOT crowd (this may be an overly simple way to draw the distinction, I admit); I gave up the first for the second. My proof is that my first novel (written under my real name) won the PEN/Hemingway award, which is pretty much a “you’ve arrived, welcome” pass from the MFA crowd. But then I went off and concentrated on this series of big, plot driven historicals, and by doing that, distanced myself. I’m a good girl gone bad. Or at least, gone easy.
Bottom line: If the NYTBR wants to give up literary gatekeeping and widen the scope of fiction it reviews, I’m pleased. But I’ll believe it when I see it.