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Songs of Themselves

Literary fiction is thought to defy classification, but thanks to decades of workshopping and inbreeding, litfic's got as many trademark tics as mystery or sci-fi.

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"Don't write genre fiction" is the first rule you learn in a creative writing program. I heard this from a friend with an MFA, who told his own students that beginners should learn fundamentals like character development rather than lean on the codified tropes of their favorite junk books to churn out plots. But in workshopping his own work he found that though he wasn't writing anything like genre fiction, his plotless and ruminative stories didn't sit well with a majority of his peers. In the face of feedback such as "this isn't teaching me how to read it," he wound up grousing after every class with a couple of like-minded mates, talking one another out of stomping away from school altogether. "There was an orthodoxy in place that did not respect what we did and didn't even recognize itself as an orthodoxy," he says. "I didn't think my writing was all that weird."

Literary fiction--or "litfic"--is descended from the late-19th-century realism that Grecophiles like Oscar Wilde enjoyed making fun of. Realist plots are limited to possible and usually ordinary occurrences, the narratives driven by nonidealized characters who tend to wind up learning a lesson about life.

Wilde called such stories "teacup tragedies," as they revolved around traumas as petty as broken heirlooms. The form is fairly young, but it requires less abstract inspiration than religious, fantastical, or mythological art does, and fast came to overwhelming favor among fine-art fiction writers--after all, learning to write prose at a high level is hard enough without conjuring a mythology to boot.

Litfic and "workshop fiction" are not identical, but they're closely related and have supported each other's ascent. After the founding of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1936, university creative writing programs began to embrace litfictional realism as paradigmatic. By the mid-20th century allegories seemed experimental, religious art reactionary, social realism boring and polemical. The specter of the ubermensch that hung over the West after World War II understandably made idealized characters a bit scary. But if the hero is generous rather than xenophobic, isn't it possible for an ideal vision to make people better?

Ever read anything like this before? She looked down her chest, then surveyed her paint-stained palms as though seeing them for the first time, seeing what hands can do.

No? How about this? "Your father's been a little depressed lately," [my mother] whispered quietly. Previous conversation forgotten. Erased. Next topic....

"What's going on?," I asked.

"He still has dreams about Hitler, you know. Almost every night."

Sound familiar? Kind of?

OK, OK, both are quotes from a new novel, Some of the Parts, the literary fiction debut of New York resident T. Cooper, a drag king and zinester with a terrible haircut and an MFA from Columbia University. The combination punches of familial self-absorption and insulting prose (it's pretty hard to whisper deafeningly) are standard issue in the litfic game. So is quasiautobiography. Some of the Parts is the coming-of-age tale of a sexually ambivalent 30-ish drag king.

Though there's not a sharp, adept, original, or intentionally funny line in the text, Cooper's dopey play with gender is entertaining--barely--and there's some pleasure to be had in watching her shadow characters go through the motions. Halfway through the thing a light went on in my head: Cooper is close enough to conscious of the fact that litfic is just another genre to make its cliches work the way they're supposed to--pulling the reader along from plot point A to plot point B with a minimum of fuss. As there are squads of writers out there mining the same vein as she is, I should cop to the fact that my singling her out for abuse is as solipsistic as litfic itself. Her book simply happened to be in my lap when the notion congealed in my melon that we could be witnessing the birth of a generation of readable litfic pulp.

Any genre has its predecessors and progenitors, its great books, its great failures, its hackwork good and bad. Cooper's the good hack. She's not as skilled as, say, Douglas Coupland, who writes catchy prose, but in her way she's so likable I want to think her determination to see the extraordinary in the ordinary is some sort of elaborate Alice Munro-inspired spoof.

Many litfic writers--even the talented ones--appear to be so terrified by the thought that they might not be geniuses that they labor sloppily to create "style," shooting off the most far-fetched metaphors and images they can concoct without regard to taste, logic, or their own story lines. Take the example of master obfuscator Dave Eggers. Here's an overworked description from his second book, a novel called You Shall Know Our Velocity: "With the face of a shovel and the eyes of a wolf, he worked at a law firm." I don't know about you, but I would run for cover if one of my coworkers were a talking garden tool and a pair of squishy eyeballs. Recast the sentence as a line from classic pulp: "He had a hard face and steel-colored eyes, and he worked at a law firm." It would have been a lot more straightforward, and no more cliched than the observation Eggers is trying to make.

(A note to writers: If you think you've stumbled on a brilliant new technique, chances are that people don't write things that way because it doesn't make sense. If it's not worth writing something that won't make you immortal, you're not going to be able to force it; for God's sake either live with your humanity or go do something else. The book market's cluttered anyway.)

The great 19th-century realists, like Dickens, tried to broaden the form by rendering portraits of society on a grand scale. Aside from changes in the middle-class mores it examines (teacup tragedians would have had their stockings shocked off by Erica Jong) and the addition of modernist language-hating tricks, litfic differs from classic realism in that the scope of even the good works has collapsed. Modern practitioners tend to fix the point of view in a single character--a character who too often reads as an airbrushed self-portrait. Disdain Eggers for his fashionably illogical prose, but at least he admitted his first book was an autobiography. The second, while clearly an attempt to emotionally process his wealth and fortune, is disappointing in part because it's hypocritical. His protagonist travels the world trying to give away a wad of cash he feels he doesn't deserve--or rather, he feels everyone else suspects he doesn't deserve. T. Cooper's self-absorption is less egregious--her story does rattle around among multiple narrators--but the book's still basically about her struggle to resolve her gender confusion. Litfic is "I've got this friend who has a problem..." writ large.

Any decent science fiction writer attempts to disappear from his work. He's assembling it for the pleasure of his readers, a pleasure he can't have because he knows every bit of cobbling that holds together his effects. His work is generous by nature. Realist literature can show empathy--see Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Hardy, even Bridget Jones's Diary--but it's too easy to invest too much of yourself in the main character. For a solipsistic story to be as much fun to read as it is to write, the author must be not only such a wreck or an asshole that he's fascinating, but honest and a straightforward prose stylist, like Martin Amis or Denis Johnson. Single-perspective realism encourages every worst tendency of the writerly personality: the urge to self-justify, the paranoid suspicion that you're being treated unfairly because you're misunderstood or "different," the siren song of your own voice, the self-pity, and the eternal temptation to hole up in your studio, close the curtains, and leave but a middle finger sticking out at the world from under the covers. Bukowski's good, but he should've read a few romance novels.

Before the mid-20th century, universities accidentally produced writers by introducing lots of English literature students to the canon of greats and showing them how literature works. Litfic stole into the universities when, borrowing ideas from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, English departments got the bright idea of teaching undergrads to write "creatively" by giving them a set of rules for doing so--while reserving the discipline of composition for remedial students. Sounds counterintuitive and silly (c'mon, show me one 19-year-old master composer), but it caught on. Creative writing departments have sprouted like warts on English departments all over the country--many positing Raymond Carver, of all the downtrodden drunks to push on neophytes, as ur-writer.

Worse yet, in the 1980s and '90s many English departments replaced the dread old "dead white European male" canon with reading lists stacked toward multicultural and women's lit. Fairness GOOD, but the frustrating truth is that some civilizations developed written literature earlier than others, and men have been better educated than women in most societies until recently; thus the DWEM got a greater pool of years in which to accumulate published works for his filthy oppressive canon than the rest of us. No, it ain't fair--but since when does the distribution of raw talent get put to a plebiscite, either? The wrongness of so heavily weighting the most recent couple of centuries--thus sticking to novels and short stories at the expense of their sources--when reforming reading lists should be obvious, and it's an insult to a student's intelligence to tell her that Joyce Carol Oates is as good or as much fun as Milton.

In the October 7 Reader, I wrote about Mark Swartz, a writer who got his master's degree in art history. He balked at the suggestion that his first novel, Instant Karma, was reminiscent of Benjamin Anastas's Diary of an Underachiever. Both novels take the form of their heroes' diaries, perhaps a relative or one-note mutation of the epistolary genre. "No doubt that my book could be grouped with books by David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Anastas, even Eggers," Swartz said, as part of a broader discussion of litfic as a genre. "But for many years I have strenuously avoided reading my contemporaries, if only to preserve the illusion that I'm not part of a genre." The interview was via E-mail, but hear the gears turn before he types the next line: "Perhaps that's a hallmark of the litfic genre--pretending it's not one." Ho ho! My thoughts exactly.

If litfic's ever going to make an honest living as a genre (and its nonwealthy devotees, toting student-loan debt, need it to do so but fast) it had best fess up and play catch-up. Point as it likes to its roots in great novels of earlier centuries, the categories litfic runs from are still kicking. Many writers who began reading genres in youth, then grew up to read classic novels but avoided the litfic trap, are bringing older traditions to bear on their childhood favorites; A.D. Nauman, author of last year's dystopian novel Scorch, for example, says she's deeply indebted to Aldous Huxley.

"The jump from the pile of mainstream books I've read would kill you if you jumped from it to the pile T. Cooper's read," claims Nick Mamatas, whose 2001 novel, Northern Gothic, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for achievement in horror fiction. His favorite genre to read is sci-fi, but he lifted a device from fantasy novels to power his book: a wrinkle in time, given no technical rationalization but used allegorically to let the ghosts of New York City's past hover over the present. The book is funny and historically instructive whilst scary as hell.

Mamatas recently wrote an article proclaiming the resurgence of horror ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Evil," July 10) for the Village Voice. There, he conceded that horror fiction's too often "cheap and lazy, but it is also expansive, a genre named after its effect on readers rather than its content." Literary fiction, on the other hand, he wrote later in an E-mail, is "the fiction of the emergent middle class--about their thoughts, feelings and conditions."

Readers tend to wallow in their favorites--litfic's consumers just seem the least likely to explore. "Books are expensive and time-consuming," says Mamatas. "Most of them are awful. Who wouldn't play conservatively in such a marketplace? Also, books tend to console and reinforce--they make us feel better about bad things and offer some validation to what we already believe, as long as we pick the books that are marketed to us."

Most genres facilitate mental masturbation with fantasy; with litfic one explores the joys of self-love with the big pink dildo of memory. Genre fiction's often dismissed as escapist--its readers stand accused of temporarily smearing out the mess of their laughable little lives with ridiculous fantasies of power, lust, and intrigue. But any reading is to some degree escapist. Jane Eyre (not a "feminist" novel, you twits, but the prototype of romance fiction) just happens to get me out of my personal hell more effectively than Danielle Steele. The relief of reading is not so much that it provides an escape from pain as that it provides an escape from oneself, and litfic's obsessions aren't necessarily escapist. If the trouble in your existence isn't sustenance or even the struggle to get ahead, but simply the fact that you must get married then die, a genre whose hazy characters' reminiscences could be those of any chronically comfortable person might prove sufficient distraction. It keeps you smiling into your past, working out issues with your parents as you go--it's as good for you as therapy!

Litfic also functions, as Mamatas has pointed out, as an escape for other, less secure readers, though in a different way: Rick Moody's lower-class fans can vicariously thrill to a money-cushioned drama of leisure in the bits of free time they have to read The Ice Storm. But litfic's protagonists aren't necessarily more psychologically true and engaging than a fictional detective. I have the feeling that, for example, if stuck in the same room with John Updike's Rabbit and George Simenon's Inspector Maigret, I'd probably be able to converse only with the latter without fearing I'd laugh rudely at his improbability.

"Realism is just about a very small sliver of the universe," says Mamatas, "whether it's written by wealthy folks like Rick Moody or poor folks like some zinester. I don't care whether someone is sad and thus gets drunk on martinis or cheap beer. It's all nonsense. I'm interested in exploring the rest of the universe, in creating new categories and metaphors for understanding history, the physical world, notions of philosophy and ethics within these new categories. Realism is all about the individual--the middle-class individual, whether white or 'third world'-- as the measure of all things, and that is a notion that the size of the universe and the pull of history contradicts pretty transparently. Even the most conventional space opera or monster novel or Tolkien rip-off undermines the conventions of the standard adventure plot as it goes along, as adding elements to the human experience brings with it a set of implications that have to be tangled with, implications that realism ignores."

Litfic has had some interesting ancestors: Twain, Orwell, Faulkner, O'Connor. And just as V.C. Andrews stole her crazy ladies in the attic from Jane Eyre's Bertha and romance novelists stole their charming bastards from Heathcliff, it looks like modern litfic writers have swiped stylistic tics from their sources and turned them into cliches. Take the habit of narrating in the second person: yanked from the pages of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. Writing lists of possessions or pocket contents rather than working details into the narrative: somebody's trying to use Tim O'Brien's oppressive metaphor from his 'Nam-vet chronicle The Things They Carried, where it worked (grafting it onto stories where nothing happens to anybody is often unintentionally funny). Condescendingly loving portraiture of white trash, usually drunks: somebody's been reading too much Faulkner, or O'Connor if they're female hicks. Self-avowed and unapologetic well-heeled sots: blame Fitzgerald.

Speaking of blame, the old axiom says every plot needs conflict (or at least complaint), and many genres lean on politicized strife. In fantasy, the conflict is manifested in wars between peoples or races (Lord of the Rings), while sci-fi tends to universalize one political model, exaggerating modern real-world classes into an allegorical caste system. Where the politics of fantasy strive for nobility and those of sci-fi for intelligent anger, litfic--being all about the personal--politicizes gender and generation, and while it's every bit as facile to drape a narrative around space monsters as it is to write about a failed marriage, an eating disorder, a castrating mother, or even a roamy-pawed uncle, the less fantastic conceits are more likely to produce thin, claustrophobic metaphors that rarely resonate beyond the level of the sentence. Preoccupation with the battle of the sexes is better handled by comic novelists, who try to stare down on the champs de bataille without taking sides; Martin Amis, son of Kingsley--the poet and 20th-century master of the comic novel--says (in his memoir) that his father's worst books were produced when Kingsley had an ax to grind.

Should Cooper, Eggers, or Updike feel insulted if readers decide their work is genre fiction? Of course not. Being a genre writer doesn't mean you're in uniformly bad company. Sweet curiosity's called the best British writers thither for ages. Kingsley Amis wrote a James Bond novel and a fine specimen of science fiction, The Alteration, along with a book-length essay on sci-fi and a good deal of restaurant criticism. Huxley, best remembered for his work in the utopia/dystopia field, also wrote a delicious novel of ideas, Point Counterpoint. He made that form sing by opening it up: Instead of starring his own ideas (his stand-in came off as vaguely evil), he lived in every character's head and let them have at one another. If litfic belongs to those ideologically camped in the middle class, the novel of ideas belongs to the slummers and the bounders, people who are tired of their own neuroses and prejudices and want to see what happens when they learn how the other half thinks. As unique as Huxley's approach seems even now, when you really get going it's hard to think of any work of literature that can't be given a pigeonhole.

So why are Americans so terrified of writing derivative novels when they're all we produce? The Brits don't flog themselves so over categories. Not only could Amis write a Bond novel, he could speechify fuddy-duddily about preserving the canon of high English and DWEMs without losing his public. It may be because England's class system has been entrenched longer--because they're more comfortable with their positions, less nervously pretentious--but I don't think class insecurity's the only thing that scares American artistes away from the genre label. Americans have always been obsessed with novelty and originality. In the pioneer days, you needed new ideas because of their problem-solving utility. On the frontier you couldn't cling to traditional ways of doing things just because you liked them; necessity's the mother of invention, and in uncharted territory innovation's just more practical than stubbornness. But even on the frontier some traditions worked just fine, and there are always lousy new ideas. As our civilization matured and grew more comfortable I think we forgot why originality was good--we turned it into a moral instead of a tool. Now we're stubbornly, clumsily innovative, even in such hopelessly impractical realms as art, and even when it makes the art worse instead of better.

Also, American literature didn't really pick up speed until the age of the bourgeois novel--we missed the golden examples of early elite fantasists and mythmakers like Milton. Chalk up another one for the DWEM, I guess: No stream of American writing has had time to get terribly deep. Perhaps our scribes are snobs for the same reason our businessmen, seeing no venerable cathedrals around, put up imposing skyscrapers. Whereas H.G. Wells, Huxley, and Jules Verne were printed by respectable houses, Mamatas notes, "in the U.S. this stuff was born in pulps, except for Poe, and there was a realist end run around Poe too, to make sure that Lovecraft was obscured as his heir."

Oh, those rotten bourgeois with their sneaking and their end runs! They've murdered culture again! Pray don't let such observations inspire some dork at State U to shun clothing till the administration institutes a sci-fi workshop. Homer help us. If you've scraped up any degree of literacy you're not all that screwed; books aren't bread, and besides, you don't fight false pedants tit for tat. You laugh at them. Then you learn your work, put your ass in the chair, and spin your shining yarn.

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