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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Thinking Big(ger)

Darin Strauss (of Chang and Eng fame) is a guest blogger at PowellsBooks today.  He's come up with a fine little essay called "Saving Literary Fiction (Post-Frey), Part I." Here's a highlight:

"Too much contemporary fiction seems purposefully to address small things in small ways. And yet why not try for the all-inclusive, the gripping, for the audacious? For the masterly, high-wrought, and the beautiful? How better to tempt readers than with the thick steak of Dreiser or the rich cream of James? Or, best yet, with both?"

It's worth a click.


John Bruce said...

Well, I clicked over and read dutifully until I got to this: "Dreiser — who understood the advantages of thrill-ride storylines — was also the first post–Civil War writer really to show poverty and the everyday defeat of American morals." Umm, huh? Not Stephen Crane? Not, in fact, Mark Twain?

But there's another question here. Melville, Henry James, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and many others are still in print. It's not as though there's no market for literary fiction. It's simply that something happened between the deaths of Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck whereby people stopped writing good literary fiction (this guy then quotes John Updike on Melville, which is a little like quoting Elton John on Beethoven). Take it all for what it's worth.

I think the point is that good writers have to believe in themselves and capture some of this territory back. That means writing. I don't see that in many web-based discussions.

Anonymous said...

What are "American morals"?

rmellis said...

It's a nice essay, but -- really? I don't see many literary novels that address "small" issues, at all. On the new fiction table at my bookstore are: JC Oates's new one, which is a fictionalized JonBenet Ramsey story (very like Dreiser to take a scandal and fictionalize it); Andre Dubus III's, which is about strippers and Muslims on 9-11 (another news-story-influenced novel); "Say You're One of Them," stories about war-torn Africa; "Netherland," another 9-11 novel; Rushdie's latest; etc. etc.

Most literary novels these days are actually "big issue" books. The single novel he uses to prove his point was written in 2002 and is hardly at the forefront of a terrible trend.

Now, if he wants to condemn the whole quasi-genre of "women's fiction," -- which largely takes on domestic issues -- he should feel free. But those books are far more market-driven than other literary fiction and probably sell better, so the idea that they're ruining literary fiction because no one wants to read about "small stuff" is pretty dubious.

Anonymous said...

Forest, trees, etc.

Litfic today isn't the way it is because people are writing about issue-type X vs. issue-type Y; the issue has to do with the relentless profit-driven motives of publishers who take fewer and fewer risks on new things while perpetuating existing market trends. It's sort of the way one fad (like Survivor) becomes the template for a decade of imitations (generic reality shows) on TV until public interest sufficiently wanes for another fad to rise to power.

John Bruce said...

I think risk goes several ways. Henry James, mentioned several times here, was noted early in his career as someone who would have to build his own audience, which he then proceeded to do, though not always as successfully as he would have liked. Melville got his popularity as an author who published double-entendre books about bare-breasted ladies in the south seas and totally lost it with Moby Dick (whose reputation is probably a little more than it really deserves anyhow). Moby Dick never sold out its first printing in Melville's lifetime.

One thing I see on all the agent-scam publisher-rejection type blogs is a certain sense that if a young writer does things exactly right, everything will fall into place. To some extent, there's a lot of complaining about having to pay dues, which I don't agree with.

I don't think you can blame things on publishers or agents or the lit biz. A big problem is that we haven't had enough good writers to keep the reading public focused on what a good writer is.

Writer, Rejected said...

I'm with Joey...LitFic MacNovels.

John Bruce said...

So what's an example of a MacNovel? rmellis seems to be suggesting that all novels intend to cover great things -- but many fail.