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September 30, 2009

Ferdinand Bardamu Guest Post

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Several people have expressed interest in guest-blogging at 2Blowhards to help fill the huge gap created when Michael decided to retire from full-time posting.

Today guest-blogging begins with an article by Ferdinand Bardamu, who blogs at In Mala Fide and is a contributing writer for The Spearhead. Not long ago Michael linked to Ferdinand in this posting.

What Ferdinard has to say might be provocative in some quarters; comments no doubt will tell that tale. Over to you, Ferdinand:

* * * * *

The Provincialism of Modern Novelists

A few years back, I was waiting at the dentist's office, thumbing through a copy of Time magazine, when I came across an article entitled "Who's the Voice of this Generation?" The author was lamenting the fact that not one of the "young novelists" writing today is representative of the attitudes and neuroses of this generation. As is the nature of modern journalism, this reporter was trained to ignore the truth in front of her face. The reason that not one of these "young novelists" can claim to be the voice of this generation is because all of them are nauseatingly parochial in thought and style.

Anyone involved in the world of literature is aware of the old cliché, "Write what you know." There's an unstated implication in that phrase; make sure what you know is interesting. The best novelists had no trouble grasping this concept. Ernest Hemingway only wrote what he knew, but the breadth and depth of his life experiences - fighting in World War I, living in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, reporting on the Spanish Civil War - was a large part of what made his novels compelling. Louis-Ferdinand Cé:line's Journey to the End of the Night (as well as his other works) was a glorified retelling of his experiences during WWI and later working in colonial French West Africa and the U.S. The list of great novelists who infused their writing with their varied life experiences is endless: F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Tim O'Brien, etc.

No more. Today's crop of popular novelists, having missed the subtext, are "writing what they know," the likes of which is small enough to fit into a shot glass. Let's take Jhumpa Lahiri as an example. Lahiri has been widely acclaimed for her depiction of Bengali immigrants in the U.S. in her works. Beyond the fact that the "immigrant adjusting to life in a new land" trope is so burned out at this point its unbearable, Lahiri is incapable of writing anything beyond her dull life as an American of Bengali descent. Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, was about Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. Lahiri's novel, The Namesake, beyond being poorly written and having improbable plot elements (Indians nicknaming their child "Gogol"? Uh-huh), was about the exact same thing - Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. Her most recent short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is about - you guessed it - Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. The cherry on top of Lahiri's solipsism sundae is that she has zero desire to write about anything else:

But Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon. Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England, and so is the novel she’s working on. “ ‘Is that all you’ve got in there?’ I get asked the question all the time,” says Lahiri. “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”

This narcissism affects even the good writers. Take Gary Shteyngart, one of the best satirists working today. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, was hilarious and riveting, as was his more recent Absurdistan. Unfortunately, Shteyngart is afflicted with the same myopia that wrecks Lahiri's writing. Shteyngart is a Jew of Russian descent who grew up in New York City. The Russian Debutante's Handbook is about Vladimir Girshkin, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York who later visits a fictional ex-Soviet republic. Absurdistan concerns Misha Vainberg, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York who later visits a fictional ex-Soviet republic. Shteyngart's forthcoming third novel will revolve around Absurdistan character Jerry Shteynfarb (har har har), a nebbish Russian Jew living in - wait for it - Albany. In the year 2040. No word on whether a fictional ex-Soviet republic will be involved, but I wouldn't doubt it.

There are other examples of unbearable self-absorption among the novelist class (I'm looking at you, Jonathan Safran Foer), but the question here is this: why are today's writers so unwilling to expand their horizons? At least part of it is outright laziness, as Robert Stacy McCain explains in this article on the fall of Culture11:

These young wannabes can’t write gonzo because they’re too cowardly to live gonzo. They want to do their internships and their fellowships and sit on seminar panels while they suck the milk from the non-profit teat. God forbid they should ever actually have to work.

But that's not the whole story. The acquisition of publishing houses by larger media corporations has worked to kill innovation and make everything safe and marketable. Novelists themselves have to remain safe and marketable if they want to be published. There's no room for the characters of yesteryear who made writing interesting. If the womanizing spendthrift Lord Byron was writing today, for instance, no editor would touch him. Truly talented writers who upset popular shibboleths such as Maddox and Tucker Max had to go the indie route in order to get their books published at all. The Nobel literature prize judge Horace Engdahl accurately described [in a London Telegraph article ... link apparently lost] American writers as too "insular" and "isolated," and the controversy-free nature of modern publishing has done its best to ensure this.

Fortunately, there ARE good up-and-coming writers who understand the true meaning of "write what you know." I recently reviewed Roosh Vörek's new memoir, A Dead Bat in Paraguay. The book is a travelogue of a six-month trip through South America that Roosh took after becoming dissatisfied with his middle-class lifestyle. But then again, Roosh is a guy who bucked the system and expatriated to Colombia - a show of courage that the Jhumpa Lahiris, Jonathan Safran Foers, and Gary Shteyngarts are incapable of managing.

* * * * *

Thank you, Ferdinand.

More guest articles will be appearing from time to time. If you are interested and have something Blowhardy to say, drop me a line (email address on left-hand panel).



posted by Donald at September 30, 2009


The "write what you know" dictum fails when one considers fantasy, science fiction and most crime and mystery fiction. That hasn't precluded excellent writing in those genres.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 30, 2009 12:40 PM

Excellent point. On my latest trip to the bookstore I was thinking, "they could replace all these titles and authors with: 'NYC Jew who's read too much Chekhov does something quirky.'"

Posted by: symeon on September 30, 2009 12:48 PM

Wait -- Tucker Max is "upsetting popular shibboleths"? I thought he wrote stories about sorority girls shitting during anal sex while he threw up.

Posted by: Bryan on September 30, 2009 5:44 PM

I don't agree with Mr. Bardamu. What counts in writing is its necessity. Does a reader sense as he's reading that what he's reading HAD to be written? If so the writing stands a chance at being memorable and lasting. I don't care if a writer's canvas is narrow. The important thing is if it's life to get it down on canvas and death not to.

Mr. Bardamu says that Hemingway is an example of a writer who lived and wrote about a big life. Well, yes. But what always strikes me about Hemingway's writing is how much of a high wire act it is. Why does the day's fishing the trout stream have to be perfect; or the bullfighter's kill perfect; or even the young couple living the bohemian life in Paris have to live it perfectly? Because failing perfect a great yawning chasm opens -- for Hemingway. In that sense he is a johnny one note narrow writer. But a very great one. Because he NEEDED to write that dilemma. Over and over again.

It's all about need.

Posted by: ricpic on September 30, 2009 7:22 PM

I suspect the market has changed in the last few decades. I don't think that there are necessarily fewer writers who would meet Ferdinand's standard of good writing, it's just that there are thousands of other books (including Lahiri's and Shteyngart's) that are out there pleasing their respective audiences as well.

The one thing about having 10-20x more books being published than before is the 'fragmenting' of reading tastes. The notable books of today pick up a much smaller share of the market simply because there is no common taste that matches most of the market.

The current market is more like an internet radio environment where you have 1,000,000 radio stations, each playing one song on a continuous loop. You don't depend on one station to provide you with all or even most of the music you want, instead you jump through a 100 different stations (but known quantities) in a day to get the mix that *you* want.

More to the point, readers who like a book usually want more of the same. Woe betide the author (and his or her career) if he or she decides to disappoint his or her readers by moving too far from previous works. After all, if they wanted something different, *they would have bought a different author*.

(It's why most genre authors only get one successful series.)

Posted by: Tom West on September 30, 2009 8:44 PM

Good post.

I wrote something along these lines about booooooring beta writers here.

Posted by: Master Dogen on October 1, 2009 4:50 AM

As Lahiri points out, Updike generally doesn't (or didn't, rather) get asked that question much, even though his canvas was EXTREMELY narrow. She's absolutely right, it's simply an ethnic thing. I'm not saying Lahiri is a great writer, I honestly haven't read any of her work. But there have always been writers mining provincial subject matter, and the ones that do it well are very rewarding to read, mostly for the attention to detail they bring.

I will agree that the current trend among younger writers/readers is the urban Jewish thing, but so what? It's a trend. Some of the stuff within this trend is quite good and will last, I think. The rest will not.

Posted by: JV on October 1, 2009 11:34 AM

I humbly propose the term for this narrowness of mind among the elites be called "reverse provincialism."

Posted by: Fredösphere on October 1, 2009 10:34 PM

Urban Jewish?

Man, that's so tired. Time to take it to the next extreme. Urban Manichean. Straight out of ancient Soghdia and into the 'hood. Can Central Asian dualists following long dead religions get by in modern America? You will be surprised.

Also in the works, a novel inspired by the kind of people who hang around 4chan. Hey, gotta write what you know, right?

Posted by: Spike Gomes on October 2, 2009 1:29 AM

fredo, that's getting close to what I call "London parochialism".

Posted by: dearieme on October 2, 2009 4:50 AM

The great 1930s novelists tended to look for adventures to turn first into travel articles, then travel books, then into novels. Evelyn Waugh's two trips to Ethiopia eventuated two classic novels in Black Mischief and Scoop.

Maybe the whole world's too similar, too Starbucksy today for young writers to get similar inspiration from travel?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 2, 2009 10:19 PM

Not poorly written, it's pretty dumb to suggest that Tucker Max and Rooshv are writers worthy of celebrating. Someone's been reading too many PUA blogs.

Posted by: James on October 3, 2009 11:40 AM

I'm with James -- Tucker Max, RooshV, and Maddox? I actually enjoy those guys as a diversion, but come on now. That sort of discredits everything else in that otherwise well written piece. Celine is spinning in his grave. At least cite Houllebecq or something.

Posted by: MQ on October 5, 2009 1:50 PM

Surprisingly, I don't disagree with most of what you've said here (except Lahiri; she's a great short story writer).

I've currently writing an essay to ponder the consequences of this. How do you decide which author's self-absorption is more interesting than another's? At some point pyrotechnics of style matter less than choice of subject matter and other vanities like glamor and prestige and power and political correctness. I'm sure the Oprah's authors are talented and interesting, and yet the topics of their fiction tend to be too portentous and proper (with a lot of victimhood).

To be fair, a lot of Oprah readers would find my own fiction self-absorbed and dull too.

Style and imagery can make me endure everything, but I think all of us have predispositions about the kinds of subject matters a novel should have.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 5, 2009 10:40 PM

Regarding Michael retiring: I missed that post. And it is a pain in the butt to find it because you don't have a "See older posts" link at the bottom of your blogs like most blogs do.

Posted by: Noumenon on October 6, 2009 9:40 AM

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