I just read an excellent, I'll say again excellent article by Walter Benn Michaels in Bookforum. I would repeat it all, but I've been doing that a lot lately, so I'll just summarize it, and leave it up to you. The reason the article is so great, is because it is short, and yet says in no uncertain terms that it is time for American fiction writers to wake up.
Basically, authors have been writing about certain tropes of history rather than the present day's problems because:
"[...] although it’s true that books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans, are more or less definitionally sad, it’s also true that the logic by which they are produced and that makes them so attractive is an optimistic one.
Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering effects of slavery doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and, in case we start to forget, A Mercy reminds us again), we’re effectively being told that our problem is lingering racism—not burgeoning capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not there yet."
What an amazing incite. I hate to say I have been realizing this since the time period between 6th and 10th grade, when I was assigned no less than 10-or so Holocaust themed novels, and another 5-or so "African-American" novels. Yes, I get it--now, what about everything else?
Here are some other tropes Michaels thinks we would do well to leave behind:
Individualizing Memoirs - "So maybe another upside of the collapse of a Thatcherite economy will be the disappearance of this entirely Thatcherite genre. Maybe people will lose all interest in the moving stories of the struggles of other people to overcome destructive (although sometimes seductive) parents and seductive (although always destructive) addictions, and no one will want to read memoirs. Maybe people will even lose interest in their own struggles, thus conceived, and no one will want to write them, either."
Oprah Books - "For sure, no more books like The Corrections, or any of Oprah’s other choices." (enuff zed!)
The American Liberal Dream - "And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages. But they don’t."
Look, we don't have to get all Eagleton over here, and politicize the hell out of the novel (though would we be any worse off?) but for goodness sakes, let's think about what we're writing. Think of the subject of your work in progress. Is the plot, any character in it, the moral (if for some horrible reason there is one), or the narrating voice ANYTHING like anything you've seen on TV or at the movies since 2000? If it is, then burn your notes, and eat your pencil.
Here are some key words and phrases to run away from while immolating oneself:
Coming of Age
Dealing with Violence
Best Friends Since _____
___ Things to ____ Before You _____ (unless it is... well, okay, I'll keep it civil & blank)
What? But those are key components to the human drama? Fuck the human drama! Everything is the human drama! You want human drama--fine, here are some possible choices.
A list of words and phrases to run towards while desperately grabbing at oneself and salivating:
Poisonous Sea Life
Driving Cars Into Things
Toe Nail Clippings
Guns Guns Guns
The Stuff on the Night Club Floor
Hardcore Japanese Pornography
The Dry Taste in the Back of My Mouth That Makes Me Spit Without Stopping
Any of these are good, by themselves or in combination. But don't go thinking, "Oh yeah, I can see that--a race car driver who gets in a wreck and has to abandon his dream to work in a brewery and succumbs to an addiction to japanese pornography until he gets a dog and re-unites with his father so they can resolve their differences and overcome the violence between them..."
No No NO! This is precisely the point. We can take any random situation, and have the Hallmark channel imbue it with their dirty, smelling plot machine. Is there truely nothing going on in a Race Car that is not a family re-appraisal story? Or an overcoming addiction? Or a high-stakes drama? Or a murder mystery? Is there nothing? Nothing?!?!
Do we really rely on such boring tropes to make sense of the world? Is this all there is left to talk about? There are no more great stories of the world, only the same ones within a different middle-America state, with main character named Pete or Dave, Sarah or Betty? Oh, now they have cell phones, whereas they didn't ten years ago? Come on!
You know what I think the problem is? You know why I think all our fiction is boring, neoliberal, conformist pap? Because all our authors are boring, neoliberal, conformist pap. And luckily, there are still enough of their ilk with credit cards to keep buying the books from the supermarket. Me? I spend my money on beer, and I get my books from the library, because most of the authors I admire are dead.
Gogol--now there is a man who can fucking tell a story. You know what I like about Dead Souls? Not once, not ever, does Chichikov feel any sort of angst about his prescription drugs. He does not have neighbors with which he either idolizes, hates, or fanticizes about. And, thank goodness, he never once feels like maybe he had failed as a father. All those bullshit bourgeois problems of the late twentieth century don't exist, and he can get down to buying and selling human souls in peace. America--learn something from the Russian estate system: it is not boring as hell.
I know books aren't dead. Despite the fact that the vast majority of American writers are stuck in a rut, there are still people out there who can write a good, original, interesting and entertaining story, and do so. There are just damn few of them. This shows that it isn't writing that is broken; its the writers, stuck in an ideology of suck. The question will be, will I have to go meet these surviving authors in person to get a copy of their books, because we can't send them back and forth without someone intercepting them to use as firewood or toilet paper before they arrive?
Predictions for 2012
5 years ago