more literary pretension

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.

8 Replies to “more literary pretension”

  1. Your attributions are skewed. The large chunk you excerpt does not come Literary Saloon, it comes from my posting.

    By the way, Updike hardly “languishes” on the shelves – though he certainly doesn’t approach King’s sales. Nor does an episode of Six Feet Under draw the same numbers as an episode of Fear Factor. But I suspect you’d concede there’s a difference between them. Or perhaps not.

    Serious fiction in this context, by the way, is generally agreed to be fiction that’s a bit more challenging, makes you work a little harder, go a little deeper. King may be perfectly entertaining but I doubt you’d characterize him especially challenging.

    Delighted, by the way, to have graduated to the “elite.” My mamma will be proud.

  2. Thanks for bringing the mistake to my attention, I’ll fix it immediately.

    Is this the equation: Updike=Six Feet Under; King=Fear Factor? In which case, I don’t agree, you’re right.

    Finally, I have found that a discussion that starts “it is generally agreed” tends to chase its own tail. If you’d like to rephrase, I’d be happy to respond.

    Say hey to your mama.

  3. “Serious fiction in this context, by the way, can best be defined as fiction that’s a bit more challenging, makes you work a little harder, go a little deeper. King may be perfectly entertaining but I doubt you’d characterize him especially challenging.”

    Well see, the problem is that I don’t agree with your definition of serious fiction. You like challenging fiction. What does that mean? A teenager told me recently that The DaVinci Code is the best book ever because it made him interested in history, and made him reconsider some things he held to be true. Obviously that novel (which I disliked, intensely) worked for him as challenging, and it made him dig deeper. So for him it was successful and — you can’t avoid the word — serious.

    Here’s my contention: a good novel will be thought provoking (but not necessarily challenging); it will also have a good story to tell. The average reader ranks Good Story above all else. Most of the literary elite continue to act as if story and plot are to be (at best) tolerated, and more usually, disdained.

  4. By the way, these are exactly the kind of conversations I hoped my post would inspire, so I’m delighted at the back and forth.

    You say much that I agree with, and I’ll get to that in a sec. But to use your example of the DaVinci Code, the book may have inspired interest in this kid’s case, but it’s still not serious fiction. It’s a yarn, a page turner, a good time. But it doesn’t really do much to illuminate The Human Condition (an overworked phrase but one I’ll use here). The effect of that title is secondary, and owes more to the reader’s own traits.

    Where we do agree completely is in the notion of disdain of plot. I think (and I argue this elsewhere, at greater length) that what happened in fiction is comparable to what happened in the visual arts. The camera doomed realist painting and forced artists to explore other realms, abstraction, cubism, etc. I personally love the modern art movement and think that despite the abstract, there is still meaningful content there. It’s only when we get to postmodernism and contemporary art where it becomes (in my opinion) empty, ironic, self-referential and purely about form.

    Form questions are interesting and I like seeing the form played with. But let’s face it, after Ulysses, the form of the novel was totally up for grabs. Creative people want to push the form, to see how much it can take, how far it can bend. One of the ways to do that is to subvert traditional ideas of narrative.

    And I think that’s all fine and good and acceptable – as an intellectual exercise. But when it becomes the bread and butter or novel writing, intellectual exercises that don’t connect to anything recognizably human, that’s when you lose audiences. I think the most subversive thing you can do today is write a traditional novel.

    BTW, the found DaVinci completely unreadable. Could not get past the first chapter.

    And my mama sends her best.

  5. “And I think that’s all fine and good and acceptable – as an intellectual exercise. But when it becomes the bread and butter or novel writing, intellectual exercises that don’t connect to anything recognizably human, that’s when you lose audiences. I think the most subversive thing you can do today is write a traditional novel.”

    Very well put. A.S. Byatt (in her essays on writing) explores this theme quite fruitfully, I think. She’s also an author who (usually) manages to challenge form and still tell a cohesive story. I think of her Possession as a mixed-media novel.

    But I’m still at odds with what seems to me a fairly narrow definition of what you’ve been calling serious fiction. I agree that The DaVinci Code is a poorly put-together novel, but it has caused a lot of discussion among readers, sometimes very deep discussion of complex themes, and in that way it fulfills one of your criteria. It fulfills one of my personal criteria in that there’s a plot that engages the reader (or at least, most readers; I was highly irritated by it).

    Or to put that novel aside, what about something like King’s Pet Sematary, which does address a particular aspect of the Human Condition (to use that term again) and explores it in an unflinching way? I’m choosing a King novel here only because he’s a touchstone in these discussions generally.

    My point is, the distinction between “a yarn, a page-turner, a good time” and “serious literature” is an artifical one that has more to do with dogma than a real examination of what makes fiction work. I would call most of Austen and Dickens page-turners, and certainly I have a good time when I’m reading them. They are also thematically rich, highly plotted and full of interesting characters. The no-pain-no-gain approach to reading strikes me as perverse, and truly unnecessary.

  6. As a daily reader of the New York Times National Edition I must admit I have been dissatisfied with their book review selections for years but have never complained. The columns reviewing multiple sci-fi or mystery novels and ‘Books in Brief’ are merely adequate. BTW: They also review books during the week which you will miss if you only read Sunday paper. Perhaps this sort of complaint would be considered by their new ‘Public Editor’ Daniel Okrent who may be contacted at:

  7. Deborah, I fear Mr. Okrent has been hearing a lot about this topic lately, given the controversy about the shakeup in the editorial staff. In fact, in one blog or another I read a long essay by him about this. I think. I’ll see if I can find it.

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