Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The End of an Era?

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Lev Grossman's article, "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard," from the Wall Street Journal yesterday. On the one hand, nothing that he writes is very far from how I feel personally about the books I want to read. On the other hand, however, I think he takes it one step too far by arguing that anything that is difficult is too hard for modern readers and will therefore be killed by the Market-with-a-capital-M.

For example, he argues that "storyline" and "plot" were destroyed by Modern literature and are now only present in genre fiction. According to Grossman, "If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot." My problem with this argument is that (a) I don't recall ever hearing before that Modern literature destroyed plot, and (b) Grossman provides no evidence to support this argument. Instead, he points out that Modern literature moved away from the Romantic period which generally consisted of happy endings and no loose ends. This does not mean, however, that the Modern era lacked plot altogether.

Grossman also argues that Modern literature made reading "difficult":

"The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters. The motto of Ezra Pound's 'Little Review,' which published the first chapters of Joyce's 'Ulysses,' was 'Making no compromise with the public taste.' Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up 'The Waste Land' and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over."

While I don't disagree with his point, I think it should also be remembered that Pound and Eliot were poets, and poetry has traditionally occupied a radically different sphere than that of fiction. (For example, other Modern writers included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, neither of whom are particularly difficult to read.) Pick up poetry today and you'll still find that it is difficult. Instead, "literary" fiction has picked up some of the characteristics of poetry (lyricism in particular), which is what has set it apart from the rest of the publishing world.

Grossman's final argument, then, is this:
"The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century."
Frankly, I can't help but hope he's correct--I've always found Eliot and Pound insufferable and don't generally enjoy "literary fiction." Unfortunately, I cannot judge the validity of his argument because I've never read any of the authors he provides as evidence: "Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few." Technically, I've read Neil Gaiman, but I didn't enjoy him enough to argue that he's one of the pioneers who are "busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance."

One thing is for sure, however: the demand for literary fiction is waning. Thank God.

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