Part I: A Deep Malaise
It is bad writing, but we readers are expected (and accede readily) to be cowed and silenced by the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prizes, the Fellowships and the rest of the Emperor's New Wardrobe.
In the course of the past several years, this critic has reviewed a tremendous amount of what is termed "literature." And, I cannot help but be impressed by the generally lousy quality of American Literature. It is, generally, pretentiously (often poorly) written, is obsessed with "freakish characters and situations, and evinces a near-pathological fear and denial of technology. There is something deeply wrong with American Letters. Why is this? What has gone so terribly wrong?
There can be no doubt that much of this is attributable to one fact: To make a living as a writer in the US, at present, one is almost required to hold down a teaching position at a college or university. Why is this?
The economics of writing have changed radically in the past few decades. It used to be that there were plenty of lucrative venues for fiction; no longer. And, of those few periodicals that publish fiction, most are non-paying "literary" reviews, often connected with a university. Formerly, it was possible to crank out enough commercial fiction (genre stories, confessions, anonymous erotica and the rest) to make a living. This is simply not possible anymore, and the writer is forced to garner an English degree (or, more popularly these days, an MFA in Creative Writing), seek tenure and write on the side. Believe me, it shows.
But, while this need not be a fatal condition for good writing, it generally is. Last year's [1994's] Best American Short Stories bears witness to this farce: most of the stories included are so fanatically concerned with "stylization" and "experimental" fiction that there is hardly a single "story" included. And, nearly every contributor teaches "Creative Writing" somewhere. You'd think they'd hire someone who could actually write creatively to teach the subject. The evidence says 'no'; they hire themselves.
Characters tend to be bizarre humans involved in even more bizarre situations--and this cartooning usually replaces characterization. The language is generally shoddy; the wrong words, too many words, glitzy and slang words are used incessantly. Often (in the name, no doubt, of "experimentation") the formal structure of language disappears altogether, a hodge-podge, written in the present tense (a favorite "trick" of university authors), of poor and obscure prose. Paragraphs disappear; dialogue is unreal and description often veers into auctorial soliloquy. It is bad writing, but we readers are expected (and accede readily) to be cowed and silenced by the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prizes, the Fellowships and the rest of the Emperor's New Wardrobe.
It is understandable, though not forgivable. Authors who are constantly immersed in student prose tend to write like students, ultimately; and, within the Ivory Tower, great "theoretical" issues are bound to take precedence over bothering to write well; the rationalizations are easy to slip into. But it is not right. And, it is not writing.
Frank Herbert--author of Dune--once confided to me that when he visited the universities (which was often, and lucrative), he was asked all sorts of abstruse and obscure questions about fictional theory. "I don't know anything about that," he said. "I just nod and smile and take their money."
The single salient philosophy that the pulp writers of a previous generation (who trained me) subscribed to, universally, was that the writer wrote, and didn't bother with parts of speech or foreshadowing or any "technical" fictional devices. Story was learned by writing, and the "tricks" were only noticed afterward. That more practical age now seems gone entirely.
The characters in current "literary" fiction tend to be freaks. Listen: "The story of a Bombay-born surgeon living in Toronto, a transsexual serial killer, and the dwarfs (sic) and other members of the traveling Great Blue Nile Circus ...." This is a synopsis of John Irving's latest novel. Larry McMurtry's latest tome similarly features Bengali taxi drivers, obscene phone callers in Oklahoma, a black pimp living in a dumpster and an aging Las Vegas showgirl. The list goes on and on: It is as though our new academic writers consider cartoonishness and bizarre situations to be a substitute for understanding what makes people live and breathe and tick on the page.
But, worse, technology is more than missing: it is all but overtly rejected. The single characterizing feature of our century is technology--from the factory mass slaughter of humans, to the televisions and cellular phones which have altered our consciousness and our conception of space utterly beyond the ken of the 19th Century mind. We live in an age of miracles, both good and bad, but it is astonishing that so much of 20th Century literature takes no note of the fact! Characters live in a 19th Century world, often surrounded by the 20th Century's technology, but unaffected by it.
A character needs to go from point A to point B? They take a plane. But the overwhelming future shock of technology has been strenuously ignored. In the '50s, it seemed quaint. In the '60s, it was, perhaps, a bit unreal, but in the '70s, '80s and '90s, it is ostrich-like. It is a form of denial that borders on the psychotic, but our bizarre characters stumble through a Victorian landscape (at least technologically) mouthing their bad prose. And no one seems to notice.
There is something deeply wrong with our national literature, and unless we face up to it, it seems that literacy, per se, will be the first victim. We have writers who cannot write writing about people who are not people for readers who, increasingly, cannot read. The quality of the prose of our "literature" is no inducement back to reading, which seems odd. It is as though the current crop of authors doesn't want to be read.
But, not to worry: if this continues, they won't be. The sad and simple truth is this: Until writers can make a decent living writing (not teaching), American literature will continue to be its own worst enemy.
And that's the saddest part of all.
Notes: This piece originally appeared in the Santa Fe Sun, June 1995 issue.