Sep 3 2010

Concerning “Contemporary American Fiction”

Jenn at American Short Fiction blog made some great observations in an Aug 24th post:

“everybody’s been making their own lists so that everyone else can refute them flatly, and loudly.”

Exactly, Jenn–it’s on this very issue that Bookbread finds himself perplexed.  What is this compulsion to refute, to dismiss, to accuse, to ignore which infests the landscape of book conversation?

“The books we’re arguing over—even the supposedly overrated ones, or the ones dubbed critical successes—are not the books people are buying in droves.”

Aye.  Contrary to the Apostles of Joyce, unbought authors are neither the most read nor those best remembered.

“I think people should keep talking about the divide between popular literature and serious works—and especially the way the two are lately striving to imitate each other to stay afloat in the struggling publishing economy.”

And here Jenn reminds Bookbread of some words from Dylan: “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose,”—so that in American fiction, when you’re going broke (apparently) you go for baroque.

“For whatever reason, books that bridge the seriousness divide from either side, no matter how superficially, seem to sell the absolute best.”

Yes, but which books bridge that divide?—that is the question.  Certainly not Ulysses or Infinite Jest [NYR].


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 8 2010

Photo Experiment – Lawrence’s “Revolt in the Desert”

. . . Here Bookbread experiments with the idea of transferring books into a new medium—in this case, beginning with the physical and the visual.  This first experiment comes from an American printing of T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert (1926):

NYR: T. E. Lawrence, Revolt in the Desert


Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.

UPDATE:

D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6


Jan 24 2010

The Stagnation of American Book Reviewers, Critics, and Short Fiction Outlets

Mark Athitakis at American Fiction writes:

Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

Athitakis seems to suggest (by Bookbreads reading at least) that readers are responsible for their knowledge of critics as people, even though it is getting harder to do so nowadays. But by this logic, apparently the critic never need know of the reader. Readers subsequently face an ever-increasing “knowledge gap” concerning critics.

The Solution:  Readers must fortify their wits with additional biographical data of the critic in question in order to understand that critic in order to understand the writer/text the critic is discussing.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that critics are writing for a single readership.  But who are those readers? People possibly interested in books? (In that case we should call them pre-readers.) Is the critic’s readership other experts in criticism? Is the critic’s readership book readers? Then how much recommending is needed?

Can it not be possible that one reason newspapers and magazines are cutting their book sections is that those particular sections are no longer profitable? And are they not profitable because an ever-decreasing readership is interested in the specific information the book sections and their critic-reviewers have to offer? Athitakis certainly highlights how mere reviewing has evolved online into a shopping decision involving “Consumer Reports” kinds of data—and it is evident that even before the internet, customers wanted to hear what other customers had to say about the products they shared an interest in. Currently the analysis, teaching, and educating of others about books are products that book critics can still offer readers without stretching a simple “thumbs up or down” on a book into five paragraphs.

Bookbread has never come across a critic as somebody you know well enough. I may feel that Harold Bloom is one of the most influential teachers in my life, but I have never met him, and I don’t feel that I “know” him. Athitakis, (or my reading of him) seems to be confusing knowing a person with knowing their writing—as with primary sources so with secondary.

Bookbread is interested in the critic’s critical texts, not critical moments of the critic’s biography.  There is no gnosis needed for the reader when it comes to critics.  Or to reverse the argument:  Just because I empathize with someone’s life story doesn’t mean I sympathize with their writing.

Athitakis links to John Fox, who comments that for critics:

They have an inverse relationship, it seems—as word-of-mouth finds more avenues of dissemination, book reviews tank in relevance and power.

“Power”?  Where are the all-powerful book reviews?  Where is the definitive THIS BOOK REVIEW CHANGED LITERATURE AS WE KNOW IT among American critics? (Henry James and T.S. Eliot were too ashamed of their roots to be called “American” critics.)

Fox continues:

I do know that book reviews should have more importance than merely telling me whether or not I should read a book. They also perform the critical role of judging books. But to survive in this new media landscape, book reviews need to do what only they can do: describe the book well, connect the book to current books, the canon, trends, and make insightful interpretations that many readers might have otherwise have missed.

The issue seems to be the role critics play in their interactions with readers.  An example of the current role of the critic might be to comment on what writers are not writing about rather than vise versa, as a recent example from Ted Genoways at Mother Jones shows:

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq.

Genoways concludes with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with the 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.

[NYRNicholson Baker, Brian Turner]


Jan 18 2010

Mere List Making

At American Fiction Notes, Mark Athitakis lists five reasons for not posting lists of “best books of the year” or any other such lists on his book blog. Bookbread fully supports Athitakis’s proactive approach towards list containment in the book blogosphere even if he has to create lists to do it.

Athitakis also includes some ideas of list making as a potential kind of art form and even spirituality:

Lists contribute to a culture of filthy linkbait whoring that just plays into Arianna Huffington’s greedy goddamn hands. Every person who gets access to a Web site’s stats knows that lists bring in traffic. This is naturally seductive, but ultimately contributes to an online hivemind of short attention spans, which is death on sustained commentary.

All of which is to say that I was a tad cranky.

I might’ve calmed down a little had I read Albert Mobilio’s consideration of Umberto Eco’s book The Infinity of Lists before the holidays. Lists can, he argues, have a kind of art to them, if approached in the right way.

A list is an intimation of totality, a simulacrum of knowing much, of knowing the right much. We select our ten best big-band recordings, all-time basketball starting fives, mysteries to read this summer; add up the people we’ve slept with or people we wish we had; index our movie-memorabilia collection; count our blessings; list reasons for not getting out of bed. We jot these accounts on envelopes, store them on hard drives, murmur them under our breath as we ride home from work—it’s no accident that many prayers are really nothing more than lists.

Bookbread can’t vouch for lists existing as types of art forms — though the listing of statements in Wittgenstein is rather elegant — but when it comes to mental nutrition, there is no doubt that certain lists (in the form of that dreaded c-word “canon”) carry a practicality that cannot be denied. As Harold Bloom observes in The Western Canon (1995), “An Elegy for the Canon”:

Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read.

The question them becomes: what is the difference between the reader’s choice and mere list making?

[NYR: Umberto Eco]


Jan 14 2010

The Library of Topless Misfits

Something’s rotten in the mental state of Danzig:

Danzig mentions The Lost Books of the Bible (1928), which Bookbread has somewhat read.

[NYR: Montague Summers, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Gustav Davidson]


Jan 12 2010

Tagging & Indexing for Books

Over at the University of Rochester’s Three Percent, Chad W. Post suggests:

I could be completely wrong, but it seems like it would be incredibly helpful for recommendations and the like if people more actively created interesting tags and sub-categories for books.

Post proposes that a transition towards tagging for books (a proliferation of genre fragmentation for fiction) offers potential benefits to readers and publishers. Basically he claims that because the status for fiction genres allows ambiguity to run rampant–and this is despite the Gospel of Niche-Marketing we’ve heard all our lives–surely some dusting up is in order when it comes to categorizing works of fiction.

On the other hand, as Post points out, this metastasizing of product labels leads only to more meaninglessness:

None of these [tags] are useful. (“Sex”? Seriously? Like theres a book out there thats not about sex?)

Clearly Post, and most readers, desire “useful tags.” But doesn’t Amazon already do this? Absolutely. Readers and customers create their own product indexes for the world’s largest online retailer, yet even Amazon’s system is subject to abuse, as these tags for a book by Beth Ostrosky Stern demonstrate.

Post concludes:

it seems to me that readers would be the first group of people to be inventing interesting and creative neologisms to define what it is that they’re into. Shouldn’t there be some catchy tag that links Antunes to Cortazar to Calvino?

But wouldn’t a proliferation of tags more or less give readers what it gave the music industry: a clownish cycle of exclusivity, tired ideals bent on listening with “virgin ears,” staid arguments over first-discoveries accompanied by belated mainstream-ness? No doubt this country’s universities would approve.

[NYR: Antunes, Calvino, Cortazar]