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August 29, 2009

Is Lit-Fic Past Its Prime?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Kudos to Arts & Letters Daily for calling attention to a piece in today's Wall Street Journal titled Good Novels Don't Have to Be Hard Work by Time magazine's Lev Grossman.

This is one of Michael's favorite subject areas, so I'll excerpt the article and stand back while he and the rest of you have at it in Comments.

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It's what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it's also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.

It's not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it's something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.

Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. ...

[He then mentions a number of still-famous novels from the 1920s.]

... The 20th century had a full century's worth of masterpieces before it was half over.

But let's look back for a second at where the Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel. They drew a tough hand, historically speaking. All the bad news of the modern era had just arrived more or less at the same time: mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion had turned their world into a noisy, reeking travesty of the gas-lit, horse-drawn world they grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did.

One of the things they broke was plot. To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don't tie up neatly. Events don't line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. ...

This brought with it another, related development: difficulty. It's hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who's talking, and when, and what they're talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters. ...

[We have our own problems and perspectives on the world that differ at least in part from what the modernists faced.]

... Should we still be writing difficult novels? Isn't it time we made our peace with plot?

After all, the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world. If you're having too much fun, you're doing it wrong. ...

[He mentions that writers such as Cormac ­McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon are now edging into popular genres such as detective fiction. He concludes:]

This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.

From a hieratic, hermetic art object the novel is blooming into something more casual and open: a literature of pleasure. The critics will have to catch up. This new breed of novel resists interpretation, but not the way the Modernists did. These books require a different set of tools, and a basic belief that plot and literary intelligence aren't mutually exclusive.

In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven't noticed it because we're looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure. Difficult, in a word. This is different. It's a revolution from below, up from the supermarket racks.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at August 29, 2009




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