Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Literary Preferences

One of conflicts that arise for me occasionally on the Internet is disagreement over the merits of a particular author. Everyone seems to have favorites, and I can never find a way of convincing them that their pet author is seriously lacking in some important quality. In my case, there are a few novelists whom I think are better than most, but even then I see their limitations. Sometimes the defects are related to the historical epoch and the state of the novel when they wrote. Thus, while Emily Brontë is a supremely talented novelist of the romantic period, she wrote before realism or modernism had become prominent, and therefore those elements are beyond her purview. One also might say that more recent novelists are trapped by the fact that they are writing after realism reached a peak in the nineteenth century, and if they are adventurous - and wish to sell their work - they may be reluctant to dredge up that style again.  Since realism is my favorite form, I have more or less given up on reading contemporary novels, which I usually find lacking.

Because I prefer realism, I place a lot of emphasis on how penetrating the author's gaze is and how he or she sizes up the state of affairs. Very few novelists of any style do this well. Middlemarch was written before modern psychology had entered popular fiction, but in other respects it is a nearly perfect synthesis of life in the English Midlands of the 1830's. I attribute much of the success of the novel to the fact that George Eliot knew her subject intimately from firsthand experience. Of course, she also had a fine mind and had been at the forefront of the English literary world as the editor of The Westminster Review.

I've had disagreements about Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady wasn't bad, though it seemed derivative, and I thought The Aspern Papers was pretty good, perhaps because it was based on real people who had interesting lives. Everything he wrote that I read is tedious to read, and The Wings of the Dove put me to sleep. There is a plodding, unobservant, internalized quality to the work of Henry James that has been recast by some literary critics as masterful. My guess is that James had an inherent inability to excel at realism because he never lived. If he was heterosexual, he never married; if he was gay, so far as we know, he never had homosexual relationships. A writer without life experiences is of little value to me. He came from an eccentric wealthy American family, and by my standards he never figured anything out.

Another writer who irritates me is Lorrie Moore. In this case what bothers me is the professionalization of literary fiction, and the underlying delusion bordering on dishonesty that pervades the field. To be sure, I think she exhibited a talent at the beginning of her career, but what followed is of greater interest sociologically than literarily. She received an M.F.A. degree from Cornell, got a job at the University of Wisconsin in 1984, and published the short story collection, Self-Help, comprised mostly of her M.F.A. work, in 1985. Self-Help, I think, contains one good short story, and the rest is at best precocious adolescent writing, but the book was enough to launch her career. She became a darling of M.F.A. students, some of whom refer to her as a "goddess."  Through the 1990's she used a formula in which the protagonist was an unhappy, introverted woman who had a relationship problem. The nature of the problem was never explored, and the stories usually ended on a down note, with the protagonist depressed and sometimes suicidal. Then, perhaps based in part on a real-life experience with her adoptive son, she wrote a popular story about child cancer that won her the O. Henry Award in 1998. On the whole I have found her short stories formulaic and unperceptive. Her novels are poorly constructed, badly edited and of little interest to serious readers. Her work is issued in the tiniest of trickles, and even then seems injudiciously released.

What irks me is that, although Lorrie Moore is ostensibly a failed writer, she is at the top of her game in the alternate reality of contemporary American literary fiction, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. She is basking in adoration and doors are opening to her everywhere, when by all rights she should have given up and found another job in a different field. If I bring up any criticisms of her on the Internet, I am instantly rebuffed by people who are incapable of articulating why I should change my mind. I must be silenced immediately.

These and similar experiences incline me to refrain from discussing literature on the Internet. Unless you happen to be communicating with a like-minded person, discussion is invariably a waste of time. You can write it off as human nature, but on some topics I simply conclude that I have better taste than many others do. In the case of Lorrie Moore, it's obvious to me that her admirers are brainwashed literary fiction junkies or an undiscerning general readership that has been sold a bill of goods. You can't talk to people like that.


  1. You're right in general, I think, but on Lorrie Moore in particular it may be that the literary crowd is coming slowly around, without admitting it, to your way of thinking. Interest in the latest whatever it was--a collection of stories, I think--seems to have waned very quickly, despite the reviews in the usual (suspect) outlets.

    1. It's hard to say how the Lorrie Moore phenomenon will play out, in part because of uncertainty about the ongoing evolution of the American literary fiction subculture. At the moment she seems to have a following of students who have been studying her writing for nearly thirty years. Many of them hoped to have career trajectories like hers, but almost none of them will. Her fame won't dissipate quickly, because she is still well-connected at major writing programs, The New Yorker and the NYRB. She could fade into the sunset and still be considered one of the major American writers of her era without doing anything different.

      From the standpoint of literary justice it would take a prominent literary figure to come out and say that most of her work is crap, but that is unlikely to happen because her cohort is self-protective. Anyone who said that publicly would probably be ostracized by the club.

      What gets me is that she seems to put very little effort into her work or care about the consequences. In the past I mistakenly thought of her as a public intellectual who wasn't living up to her potential. I now think of her as a lazy typist who doesn't like to work and doesn't give a crap about anything.

      Anyway, my main point was that in practice it is a waste of time to discuss a writer's merits on the Internet, where critical thinking is usually discouraged. If you dislike or disagree with something, I guess you're supposed to quietly slink off to a different website.

  2. To tell the truth, I haven't read a lot of Lorrie Moore (three or four stories, maybe), but nothing I read of hers really wanted made me want to read more of it. For me, Moore--the poor thing, it's not really even her fault--is just the embodiment of all that is wrong with celebrity in the American literary fiction subculture, where, as a rule, a writer's fame is inversely proportional to his talent.

    But I thought you had a good post or two at WLF about Moore and the reception of her work. It seemed to me you had even managed to give another poster there pause. You're also quite right that initiates don't criticize fellow initiates. If they do, as you say, they'll be ostracized.

  3. I probably place too much emphasis on Moore because I followed her career closely, had high expectations and was disappointed. You are right that she is to some extent a victim of the system - she is in way over her head and dealing with it badly. She has no business writing articles for the same publication that has featured Tony Judt, Isaiah Berlin, John Kenneth Galbraith and Steven Weinberg. The NYRB eventually gave her the easiest of assignments imaginable: reviewing TV shows.

    I just read another review of "Bark" that points out a glaring historical inaccuracy in her last novel that wasn't mentioned by any reviewers at the time of its publication. She has recently moved into more political themes, but has no factual accountability, apparently because literary fiction gets a free pass on that.

    WLF was fun for a while, but it wasn't a good place to get into detail on anything because of the diversity among the posters. Eric was enjoyable to read, but far more conservative than I am. I liked Marcel even though he was a cantankerous overgrown brat. Whenever I get hits on this blog from Germany and Sweden I think of them.


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