Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Now Fiction Must Fly

Part 2 of "Saving Literary Fiction (Post-Frey)," Little Big Man Darin Strauss's essay is up at PowellsBook for those who were engaged in yesterday's debate about Part 1. For a moment, I thought he was forgetting the finer half of our gendered world, but he pulled out Harper Lee and (your friend) Zadie Smith at the last.  (Not to mention the nice use of the female pronoun, as in this sentence: "A good writer knows that, if her style and perceptions are really cooking, she can bring anything off.")

Here's a highlight:

"For fiction to do what it can do better than non-fiction books — better than reality TV, video games, and comic books, for that matter — it can't give up its attention to psychological detail and subtlety — the pervading receptivity that Wolfe would call navel-gazing. Big stories that excite up the American subject, and writers who bring in the satisfactions of drama through style, that sensitivity to the aesthetic faculties that Flaubert called "an absolute manner of seeing things" — that's what's needed. Narratives, as James said, "on which nothing is lost." Call it full-dress fiction."

Now what do you think of his theory?


rmellis said...

He's contradicting what he said yesterday, though. Now he says that what makes books great is "psychological detail and subtlety." I agree with that. Without it, Madame Bovary would be a soap opera, a tedious domestic drama. What makes it great isn't "bigness" but its humanity. (The list of books he mentions as being perennial best-sellers are all there because they're taught in schools -- and they're taught in schools because they have easy-to-grasp moral messages, not because they're The Best or even people's favorites. Though school books often end up on favorites lists because those are the only books some people have read.)

I still think what he really means to say, more succintly, is: Chick lit is boring and bad.

But now he's got me thinking I should write a great, dramatic, Important American Novel about a PTA chairwoman...

Writer, Rejected said...

Yes! And now you must write that book!
I agree with you about his contradiction.
I don't think a novel has to be huge to be hugely important.

John said...

I think Darin Straus is another poster child for B.R.Myers's approach to American Lit. Just a few minutes ago I got this spam from OneStory: This month One Story shines the spotlight on Darin Strauss, whose short story, "Smoking Inside," was One Story issue #15 and has completely sold out here at One Story. Darin's third novel, More Than It Hurts You, was recently released on June 19th. More Than It Hurts You has already received great reviews, and has been called "the summer's hot new novel," by GQ and one of the top twenty beach reads of the summer by Time Out New York.

Darin Strauss will be blogging about his book tour for He is the international bestselling author of the New York Times Notable books Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy. Also a screenwriter, he is adapting Chang and Eng with Gary Oldman, for Disney. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU's Graduate school.

Says enough.

Anonymous said...

I see a lack of humanity in Madame Bovary. Flaubert had no feeling for her. It's an arid novel.
A Sentimental Education, however, cynical as it is (the ending is as cynical as any), has a main character who is Flaubert, so it has feeling. I cared for Frederic. (Note that author and character have 8-letter names that begin with "F.")
Flaubert knew he was seen as cold. In a letter about his story, "A Simple Heart," he wrote: "I want to move tender hearts to pity and tears, for I am tender-hearted myself." He added, "Now, surely, no one will accuse me of being inhuman anymore."
Flaubert wrote "Heart" when he was old, dying.

John, what point are you making about Myers/Strauss? You would have to have read Strauss' work to know whether it delivers what Myers wants to see more of in literary fiction. Have you?
I see a writer who has made all the right career moves. And he's cute too.

John said...

I'm saying that I agree with you, he's made all the right career moves. I can't see someone who's an associate prof of anything doing anything creative.

Cute, well, if you like that particular kind of self-satisfied smirk.

Ignacio said...

in looking at the amazon summations of his novels, they all seem like "gimmick novels" to me, which i'm not interested in. hollywood is, because they're high-concept.

but in working seven years in a busy emergency room, we knew about munchausen's syndrome but i never heard of this "by proxy" business and i'm skeptical. true munchausen's is rare enough.

it looks like strauss is just looking for a "hook" and when several reviews agree that he's "not subtle" each of his projects begins to sound pretty sleazy... which is okay, there's always room for more disposable trashy lit it's always been around.

John said...

One thing I think you can extrapolate from Myers's points is that creative writing instructors are good at coming up with hooks and gimmicks and then following through with sheer volume. Add a certain political savvy, and you've got a winner.

Writer, Rejected said...

Munchausen by Proxy Disorder is a totally fascinating diagnosis. A real thing in the world, also called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, and Factitious Disorder by Proxy. It's that thing where caretakers deliberately exaggerate and/or fabricate and/or induce physical and/or psychological-behavioral-mental health problems in others. Usually parents. Totally freaky.

Writer, Rejected said...

He is pretty smirky.

joey said...

in looking at the amazon summations of his novels, they all seem like "gimmick novels" to me, which i'm not interested in. hollywood is, because they're high-concept.

So much of literary novels today are exactly that. There are lots of names for the style, post-modernism being the most common. In the end, though, it's just another genre. It's edgy, it's dramatic, it's on the cusp and full of hooks! But it's pushed by the right people, so it isn't panned as genre.

Joey said...

Furthermore, we cannot outvulgar the television through fiction. It will always be easier to get off to the many kinds of porn (violence, death, disaster, breaking news, voyeurism, and the old-fashioned sexual kind) through media that engages both the eyes and the ears (ie, television and cinem) than it ever will be through literature, which taxes the imagination (and by extension, brain) to a greater extent.

The publishers realize this, of course. This is why voyeuristic non-fiction (pop culture) fills magazines instead of stories and poetry. Where fiction is required, vulgarity (or more euphemistically, edginess) is of the essence. So all you Fitzgeralds and Bellows and so ons out there aren't going to place your stories or novels unless you add the sex scene, the shoot-out, the bizarre but catchy /thing/ that turns on the repressed parts of our brains the way TV and cinema have been doing since they rendered subtlety obsolete.

So in a nutshell, written porn is playing catchup with audio/visual porn, and the written kind is losing. But it's still far ahead of the regular, written down non-porn, which means if you want any piece of the pie at all, you'll try TV first, cinema second, non-fiction third, litporn fourth, and that boring sort of writing about the things people do when not screwing, shooting, or shitting last.

Anonymous said...

Does the smirkiness indicate self-satisfaction or being stoned?

Either way, I agree he's cute. Cute in the same way that young guy Melissa from Thirty-Something was sleeping with before she became a 50-something lesbian. Highbrow enough for ya?

Totally agree about the hidden genre fiction being passed off as literary. Gimick-lit! Totally.

darinstrauss said...

you guys are quite mean. And you certainly have your set opinions, without having read a word of my novels.

Why bother reading something, when you can trash it out-of-hand instead.

But my point is that genre fiction is not the way to go; that Melville united the two great steams in American Literature: that of Drieser and James.

Thanks, though, for your thoughtful critiques. It's more fun, I guess, trashing someone without having read him....

darinstrauss said...


I'm sorry you all found my author photo smirky.

But I was cheered to see everyone dismiss my work based on "looking at the amazon summations of [my] novels." Seems like a sound reviewing strategy. That, plus a critique of the author photo.

Writer, Rejected said...

Dude, if I were a fraction as a successful and lauded as you are in the literary world at large, I would smirk and be happy and smile like the devil!

And I wouldn't worry about a bunch of jealous bitter-bobs like we rejected writers at LROD.

Seriously, you shouldn't take it to heart.

As you rightly pointed out, none of us have read your novels (only your author photo). But here's a good thing. I'm sure some of us are going to purchase your novels, and that just means more sales for you.

You totally get the last laugh, while we simply remain bitter.

Anonymous said...

I won't read his novel. I ocassionally read a much-touted literary novelist, and am disappointed 97% of the time. Plus I was in a group that read the Best American anthologies, year after year (against my protests; I quit). So I have an idea of what's out there.
I mostly read dead people. Any reader who stays in the literature of the present day is not well read.
Melville Schmellville. A windbag who deserved the bad reviews and poor sales Moby Dick and Pierre got upon publication. These writers of today, fresh out of classes where certain icons are idolized (Chekhov, etc.), can't think for themselves.
I see that Chuck Palahniuk's latest piece of excrement (Snuff) has hit the best seller list.
Pass the Trollope, please.

Anonymous said...

Darin's (understandably) huffy comments make me want to see a photo of him angry. I'll bet he looks even hotter than when smirking. Seriously, though, I want to see another photo, I mean read his novels.

darinstrauss said...


What is your beef with me? It's a little ironic that a place where (I assume) people come to support eac other, a place where the homepage kindly reminds you that "Remember this: Someone out there will always say no" keeps saying "No" to me, in thunder. And again, rejection based on .... my author photo.

Anonymous said...

Which Anonymous? I'm the last one and I was just being silly. You seem like a really nice, hot, successful writer dude and I am now interested in reading your work. Honestly, I'm not saying "no" to you, I'm saying "yes please" in every way! In fact I would be happy to offer you endless emotional support, especially if you can help me get published before I turn 40 tomorrow (I'm broke, otherwise I'd offer you some cash too).

Writer, Rejected said...

Maybe you'd better identify yourself better: Anony40. Or Birthdaynon? Anyway Happy Birthday tomorrow.

Poor Struggler said...

Hey, Annony40 or Birthdayanon: I, too am turning 40 tomorrow! I have had 3 novels published, but am still considered a failure by industry standards. And nobody wants to publish my fourth novel now, either. Happy fuckin' birthday to me.

joey said...

^ Perhaps we should take some time to define "industry standards". And then some more to analyze if they should or shouldn't matter, and why.

Minnie Mouse said...

Excellent point, Joey!

Writer, Rejected said...

Happy Birthday, Poor Struggler. We are pulling for you.

Poor Struggler said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, friends. I agree about the "industry standards," and of course you know I mean, "I have a lousy sales record." It matters in that, because of said record, nobody wants to publish me anymore.