The Contemporary and the Terrible
I don’t know who J.Robert Lennon is, but he made a lot of my Facebook friends see red last week with a Salon.com article entitled “Most contemporary literary fiction is terrible.” A moderately well-known contemporary lit fiction author who I happen to know was so offended he posted a status asking his friends to post one of their favorite books written in the past 10 years. And I now have to admit something which is a bit awkward for a book-reviewer-come-lately to admit. As deliberately provoking as his article was, I have to admit, I agree with J. Robert Lennon.
I don’t know exactly when it started, and I can’t and I’m not going to name names. OK, fine, I’ll name a few. Life of Pi. God, I hate that book. I think it made a whole generation of people think they could away with nothing happening in a plot as long as they were sufficiently profound. And honestly, what is the likelihood that a devout believer of multiple religions would be trapped on a boat with a tiger? A totally contrived situation. Yes, I know fiction doesn’t have to be realistic. But it has to be believable. Then, I don’t know, it seemed like there were a bunch of white people who authors forced to have marginally terrible lives for the sake of art. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen was a good example of that. If that was the next great American novel, when can I get a visa to Canada? The privilege dripping off that book was obscene, and even better, nothing actually happened.
There were some books who I thought did things in incredibly innovative and fresh ways: Then We Came To the End by Joshua Ferris had strong characters and a brilliant use of collective voice. Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps told a complex, fantastical story in multiple voices with distinct style and dreaminess. These were books with strong characters carrying them, and even flirted with genres at times, all things that made them stand out. But they were rare exceptions, and slowly, slowly I backed away from the current fiction and dove into memoir. There, a story might be totally fantastical, contrived-sounding and off the wall, but at least it (hopefully) actually happened. The focus was more on the writing, since the story itself was not in doubt.
So there, you know what I think. Have other people felt that way, or is just Lennon and I? Could it be we’ve all been reading crap for years and only two of us have the guts to say anything about it? Do we like to read things of similar, bland quality that all sound the same?
J.Robert Lennon thinks he knows the answer for the homogenous quality. “Fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs…have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.” If anyone knows this, it’s me. I too was a fiction writing student. I took classes with the brilliant and the mediocre. No matter if you started out brilliant, everyone sounded better by the end. And while that sounds like an amazing success rate, in practice that is is not actually a good thing. I read the pieces submitted to the college magazine. The best pieces didn’t sound like any others. They took risks, had strong characters, a unique voice. Sometimes this was ignored in favor of the competent and boring.
Lennon wrote his piece in response to author Dan Chaon’s call for his students to read more contemporary works. But as much as I agree with Lennon’s take on today’s fiction, I can’t disagree with Chaon. Reading what gets published helps you know how the world works, getting familiar with the players and the process. Unfortunately, it may teach you that the contrived and privileged sells, but I beseech you, ignore that. Write the story in the way you want to tell it, the best way, and it almost always will be fresh and interesting.
If all else fails, another Facebook friend pointed out to me that Sturgeon’s Law has not gone off the books. 90% of everything in every era is crap. Read it, but perhaps don’t take it seriously. And above all, never stick a character on a boat with a tiger in the middle of the ocean. That almost never happens, and you’d be surprised by how truly boring that can be.
– Liz Baudler, Blogger