Tuesday, February 18, 2014


As a footnote to my last post on mental illness, I would like to mention that one of my frustrations with contemporary literary fiction is that it tends to exclude the psychological and sociological aspects that would better explain the behavior of fictional characters. For example, some of the stories I've read focus on male-female relationships that have gone awry, with no description that allows the reader to see how a relationship went off course. A couple breaks up, and you never find out why.  There may be innuendos about the man seeing other women, a child may be causing tension, etc., but the schism is a given, and the text doesn't give you a chance to understand it in any depth.

I'll speculate here that this style is partly due to the infiltration of political correctness into American literature: the author is not allowed to state explicitly that any character has made bad choices or engages in unacceptable behavior.  Political correctness demands that everyone remain neutral on cultural background, race, religion, personal habits, etc., and maintain silence on these aspects of a person.  In my opinion, this drains the life from writing. Paradoxically, I am left with the impression that the author is not qualified to write about people, yet she is held up by the literary community as a paragon of fiction.

My favorite novel, Middlemarch, has been criticized because of its authorial intrusion.  I think many of the best parts of the book are provided by the voice of the narrator, and I wish more writers did that now.  In the context of my comments on mental illness, I find that kind of information essential for understanding characters and their motivations.  A good novel would ideally cover multiple generations of families, with all their psychological quirks and reactions to social changes.  Writing without that tends to be imperceptive and trivial and serves no purpose beyond following the mandates of the reigning literary establishment.


  1. Paul 2 comments. I only recently watched Silver Linings Playbook and the main characters (he) had bi-polar and (she) had some unnamed issue. I have not read the book (by same name) but certainly cinema handled mental health equally as poorly as what you are describing. While not completely ham-fisted you had no clue what was motivating the characters or why and as can be guessed you eventually did not care. Second item is if you would like to look through a book that you consider a 'good novel' with criteria as above I will recommend The Way of all Flesh by Samuel Butler.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, though I may never get to it. I hardly read fiction at all now. I read a few pages a month of Proust and recently bought "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley but don't know when I'll get to it. I recently got a David Sedaris book as a gift and am already tired of him (his personal readings are better).

    When I say "mental illness," I'm referring to a wide spectrum that includes what many would consider to be normal behavior. It bothers be that people can be quite destructive and still pass for normal and never be held accountable. In literary fiction it bothers me when lauded writers get away with purely superficial portrayals of characters.


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