Mar 8 2010

American Fiction’s Calling: Semper Fi to Simplify

Anthony S. Maulucci of Red Room writes in “What’s Missing from Modern American Fiction?“:

What is missing from today’s fiction I asked myself once again, and the answer I came up with is the power of simplicity and passion.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Maulucci’s judgment; still, it would have been nice if he provided specific examples and name some currently read authors who are neither practicing simplicity or exhibiting passion in their writings. These qualifications, according to Maulucci, are absent in most modern American fiction, and if taken as truth, an the underlying question now emerges: What is wrong with or “missing from” modern American fiction? Maulucci doesn’t list any specific examples, but perhaps Bookbread can assume he is referring to the David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon side of the shelf.

Along these lines comes a post entitled “Of Course Everyone Knows That There’s No Experimental Writing in America“, at Conversational Reading, which makes the claim:

True, as Hemon [editor of the Best in European Fiction] says there’s a lot of adventurous fiction languishing on the fringes, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s also a lot of it getting published by the mainest of the mainstream. There’s a lot of fragmented, meta, crazy-type fiction going on out there in the U.S., and it’s getting published because American readers are pretty comfortable with it now, comfortable enough that it’ll sell in large enough volumes to make it profitable.

Really? Is there a metafiction best-seller’s list put out by Amazon? How many movies are being optioned by experimental American novelists? Is there a metafiction convention soon to be held around the corner, because I haven’t heard about it yet. Where is the experimental fiction booth at the National Book Fair? Where’s the SNL skit making fun of metafiction as a result of its apparent mainstreamness? Is Jon Stewart’s staff overly swamped trying to book experimental novelists on the show? Or are they confined to any CSPAN’s BookTV? Admittedly, Bookbread came across some minimal metafiction chatter on Twitter, but these kinds of questions are pretty much meaningless, when, according to the blogger at Conversational Reading:

After all, have you taken a look at life in the U.S. recently? I’d say it’s getting to the point that people I know are more familiar with fragmentation, multiple worlds, meta, etc than the other stuff that’s supposedly our bread and butter.

Yes, a majority of Americans may be quite “familiar with fragmentation,” but that familiarity doesn’t correlate with a claim that the majority of bookish Americans are buying and reading metafiction.

At the blog for the New York Review of Books, a post by Tim Parks headlined “The Dull New Global Novel” reports on the plight of twenty-first century non-American authors who must write in English, or in ways that can be translated into English. But this assumes all modern novelists seek a global audience. Are readers of the Review to accept that there is no such thing as niche marketing? Does no demographic segmentation of readership exist in the twenty-first century? Thankfully, a comment on Parks’ post by Patricia Wilson gets it right when she observes:

Too many think that the small audiences prior to the Victorian Era were [small] only because so few had the literacy and the money to purchase books. To a point it is true but even in the 20th and 21st centuries people having literacy skills and money prefer to read for enjoyment and entertainment, not only educational. It’s not so much that the reader knows it all but after working an 8-hour shift, working with one’s children with or without a spouse’s assistance, making dinner and cleaning the kitchen, there’s not much mental or physical energy left . Many of those that are highly educated have little or no interest in reading anything. But they are busy with their hands or in helping others do what the others can’t do. Be thankful the world is getting more literate. There are more readersthere are 6.3 BILLION people now in contrast to the short 2 billion in 1900. That means 2.1 billion now are reading in contrast to the 900 million in 1900. That keeps some bookstores, publishers and used bookstore still going. I know— I use them.

Many of those that are highly educated have little or no interest in reading anythingthis is readicideand it is not limited to modern children; it can afflict even those who formerly enjoyed reading. And regardless of Wilson’s accuracy, sources, and methods behind the statistics she providesher point that there are exponentially more literate people with access to more printed and electronic reading material than ever before must be remembered amid the doom and gloom that blankets the current economics around publishing. Witness these recent findings in The Guardian about “India’s new middle class for English novels ” :

In the next decade, publishers forecast that India will become the biggest English language book-buying market in the world.

Parks may claim that global English fiction is “dulling down,” but Bookbread must reciprocate from Parks and ask: Is there a case to be made that American Fiction is too simple, that is, too drunk on Hemingway’s style? Perhaps the solution is an American rendering of Finnegans Wake. Are there instances where modern American fiction was too passionate, in Maulucci’s terms, too “involved”? (None according to Genoways, or at least none nowadays).


Feb 9 2010

The Death of Fiction (and the Livelihood of Talking About It)

Back to Ted Genoways’s “Death of Fiction?” article in Mother Jones, which has, apparently, generated chatter among book bloggers. Bookbread noted earlier that Genoways concluded his piece with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with Rebecca West’s call for abusive criticism, and equally applicable to our country’s book critics:

I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

Several book bloggers, however, don’t like what they’ve read recently from Ted Genoways, as he argues over the decrease of readership for literary magazines (or is it America’s decrease for things literary?).

George at Bookninja posts “The Death of Fiction” and notes:

[Even] as fiction has become a common pastime pursuit for the vocationally undecided idly rich (re MFA prgs), its viability as a commercial venture has fallen further than ever.

Tolmsted of Booksexy comments on George’s Bookninja post (and thereby Genoways’) and wonders:

Realistically, what were the actual circulation numbers [for literary magazines] to begin with? How much of an impact did they really have? With or without those magazines, catching a break in the literary world will always be a crap shoot.

On the other hand, over at The Reading Experience, in a post entitled “Rescuing Public Discourse,” Daniel Green confesses:

I actually agree with Genoways that there are too many litmags publishing too much perfunctory work, but that these magazines have proliferated because the demand for postmodernism is so insistent seems to me patently absurd….

The connection Genoways sees between issues-focused fiction and larger audiences for literary magazines remains, to say the least, unexplored. Unless he’s suggesting that litmags convert themselves into outlets for journalism rather than fiction: “With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere.” This concern for “public discourse” seems more immediate to Genoways than his ostensible concern for fiction or for literary magazines and their loss of audience.

Lastly, “How Many Times Can We Kill Fiction?” by Brian Ray contains much blather and froth but still manages to recognize:

Genoways bewails how in “the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction.” But that’s only because the world has yet to see my retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which instead of sailing along the Congo will follow the mission of a lieutenant sent to whack a colonel gone mad on power who’s established himself as a demagogue among Taliban chieftains. Don’t worry, Ted. I’m going to show America that plenty remains to be said about foolish wars run by colonial powers. It’s not the same story told over and over again.


Jan 29 2010

The Book Blogger’s Scepter of Censure

“Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority; men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. And the pleasure of wantoning in common topics is so tempting to a writer, that he cannot easily resign it; a train of sentiments generally received enables him to shine without labour, and to conquer without a contest.”

—Samuel Johnson

“It is a truthful sublimity which elevates the mind, and flatters it into believing such sublimity to be its own offspring and production.”

—Longinus

Being new, this blog is still coming into its own with providing a suitable style and proper form. Bookbread strives to provide and participate in “elevated conversations”: elevated in Longinus’ sense of the sublime—and conversations that concern books, literature, and language. But when online in the twenty-first century, the temptation is exponentially greater to “willingly indulge” in criticism on the views of others, or “censure” whatever one happens to come across while reading/browsing.

It can certainly be confessed that Bookbread still experiences moments of pleasure when imagining that [Bookbread has] made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. Such pleasures are reserved for those who bear the scepter of censure.  Those bearers are called book bloggers.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 2).

Longinus, Dionysius. An Essay on the Sublime. (~100 C.E.). trans. by Herbert A. Giles. (1870). J. Cornish & Sons, London. (§ VII, pp. 17–18).


Jan 18 2010

Blind Book Reviewing

Bookbread strives for honesty and transparency in its conversations about books and literature, which is why it abides by the NYR tag.  But Rob Walker over at murketing explores the implications of reviewing books without ever having to make contact with the text itself:

[Physical] books will continue to have covers, front matter, blurbs, and other elements of the “framework” Talyor describes. In my (limited) experience, publishers dothink of these things as something like a movie trailer or advertisement. That is, they think about the cover design and title and so on in terms of potential readers: How to attract them, get their attention, hook them, reel them in. Will a shorter subtitle grab more people? What snappy language on the flap is most likely to lead to a sale? Is the cover bold enough to stand out from the pile at Barnes & Noble? Etc.

This idea of blind book reviewing is not quite what Bookbread had in mind in endorsing Rebecca West’s proposal for an abusive criticism.