Sunday, February 15, 2015

Swearing Off American Fiction

All in good faith I recently took yet another stab at American fiction. If there is one illness that I have it is evident in my continued belief that some American fiction might actually be worth reading. This time around, in a discussion I had about Michel Houellebecq on 3 Quarks Daily, people recommended Tom Perrotta and George Saunders. I got about two thirds of the way through Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher before deciding that I was being aesthetically and intellectually abused. At first I withheld judgment, because I noticed that Perrotta made a compelling case for born-again types by showing how they are weak individuals who can find no other way to be functional adults. However, by the time I had quit reading it, I recognized that both of the protagonists, Ruth and Tim, are simply too uninteresting to warrant my continued attention. Ruth is a politically correct schoolteacher and mother who overreacts to the evangelicals who encroach on her suburban town and Tim is a dysfunctional rock musician and addict who requires externally imposed discipline in order to prevent implosion. At this point the novel was already too protracted and Perrotta, who at least seems to have done his homework, apparently has intentionally created a topical novel that will sell well and perhaps also become a movie based on his screenplay. I couldn't face finishing it and don't care about the denouement.

More surprising than this disappointment was the collection by George Saunders. He has been called one of "the 100 most influential people in the world" by TIME and received a MacArthur Fellowship. The book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was described by Thomas Pynchon as presenting "An astoundingly tuned voice–graceful, dark, authentic, and funny–telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times." I found the title story childish, implausible and poorly-written, containing none of the characteristics that I believe are worthwhile in fiction. I skimmed the rest of the book and then permanently set it aside. Saunders is somewhat reminiscent of other American authors whom I dislike: Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O'Connor and John Kennedy Toole. I also detected a note of Bob Dylan in his phraseology.

I had high hopes for Saunders, because he had actual real-world experience and spent his formative years outside the American literary community working as an engineer. A few years ago I had a similar disappointment when I read The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran whose book was also critically acclaimed. My thinking was that people who spend significant portions of their lives in non-literary environments may have outlooks or insights that will breathe life into their fictional work, in contrast to what typically emerges from creative writing programs and the publishing industry. My interpretation now is that writers like Saunders and O'Brien do in fact have richer backgrounds than most literary people, but there are so few of them and they face so little competition within the literary sphere that it is relatively easy for them to succeed. This situation is exacerbated by what I think of as a shocking lack of discernment or willingness to challenge the status quo among members of the American literary establishment. They even use static formulas for "stunning new voices."

If you have been following my writings about my literary preferences, you will have noticed that I don't think much of most American writers. This has also been corroborated by my reaction to another book I'm reading, New York Diaries, edited by Teresa Carpenter. The anthology is comprised of diary entries made by miscellaneous people who happened to be in New York when they wrote them, covering the period from 1609 to 2009. I'm most of the way through the book and can tell you that I have not found the entries by Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allan Poe or Mark Twain the least bit interesting. In comparison, the entries by Alexis de Tocqueville and Simone de Beauvoir stand out as perceptive and well-written.

Often I have been misled by positive, uncritical reviews of new fiction that have been written by people who ought to know better. Almost any review that you come across is likely to be suspect. For example, I recently read a review of a new novel by Miranda July, The First Bad Man, in which the reviewer admits that the author "doesn't know that much about narrative structure" yet goes on in the next and final sentence to praise her. In my framework this is coded language for "the book is crap, but my job is to sell it." My guess is that Miranda July's work can be summed up by three facts: she is too young to remember life before PCs and Macs, too old to have grown up using handheld devices, and she was raised by parents who taught at Goddard College. All else follows from that.

If you get the impression that I'm displeased by certain aspects of American life, you're right. It is no coincidence that I live in the state with the lowest number of Americans other than the one in which Dick Cheney resides. As a bonus, it borders Canada, handy for hasty retreats. Regarding American fiction, my nights are better spent seeking intelligent life beyond the solar system whenever the skies are clear and the temperature is above zero.


  1. I have been in a book club for years and we have read so many wonderful books, Middlemarch, The Death of Ivan Ilych, all Faulkner, many G.Greene, The Iceman Cometh, Camus the Plague & The Stranger current fiction Z. Smith, Franzen, David Mitchell. The last 2 months have been compete busts doing Ulysses and now a Brief History of Time, Hawking (did not understand but 10 words). Next month is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (my pick). Anyway all to say I use to feel compelled to read the book through and even twice so I could contribute somewhat intelligently. Not any more. If the book sucks I give up as it is merely a slow form of aesthetic torture. I have on hold at the library Denis Johnson, Laughing Monsters and wondered if you have ever read him.

  2. Denis Johnson is supposed to be good, but, as I said in my post, I'm not taking any more chances on American writers for the time being. I'm about to try "Texaco," by Patrick Chamoiseau, which won the Prix Goncourt, and that will probably be it until Houellebecq's new book comes out in English.

    Now back to clearing the driveway. It's cold here!

  3. I think when one chooses to read books by the likes of George Saunders (ugh) or Marilynne Robinson (double ugh), one would probably do well to consider that at least part of the supposed problem with American fiction may reside not so much in American fiction itself as in one's choice of reading material. It's true that Saunders and Robinson are among the most celebrated contemporary American writers. So is Denis Johnson, whose books I have absolutely no use for. In that connection, a sickeningly obsequious feature article on Saunders from the New York Times Magazine is worth taking a quick look at. It is, to me, highly revealing of the ways certain (always unworthy) writers are anointed in the U.S. My rule of thumb is simply to avoid all contemporary American writers hailed by NYC-based publications.

    As you probably know, I generally prefer foreign literature to American literature. Even so, off the top of my head I can think of several Americans whose work I've enjoyed tremendously: Nathaniel Hawthorne ("The Minister's Black Veil," "The Gentle Boy"), Willa Cather (it seems to me unlikely you'd dislike, say, The Professor's House), Walker Percy (Lancelot, for instance), Hemingway (the stories), Edward Abbey, Charles Portis, and George Garrett (mostly the stories).

    I'd take almost anything by those writers over anything I've ever read by Houellebecq, who is more interesting as a provocateur than as a novelist. The only novel of his I have enjoyed unreservedly is his first, L'Extension du domaine de la lutte.

    I don't mean to suggest that you would necessarily like what I do, but surely by choosing your American novels a bit more judiciously (that you should have attempted a Robinson novel is to your credit, though; never would I myself make a similar attempt) you could find something you admired and enjoyed.


    1. Your recommendation last year of another Cather story was good. I'm sure there is a lot out there that I might like. However, my goal in selecting American fiction is somewhat different from yours. Since I live here it serves a quasi-social function for me, and I am simply reading things that my peers (albeit digital) think are good. What usually ends up happening is that I find out that my tastes are completely different from theirs. I was struck by the quote from Kenneth Tynan, because it is exactly what I think, yet it is heresy here in the U.S.

      Your interest in fiction is different from mine. Possibly, as a translator, you are more attuned to the nuances of language than I am. You also have far more exposure to Spanish language and Italian literature than I do, and I can't honestly say that I have a great thirst for multicultural exploration. I am more interested in ideas, and fiction is not the best format for them. Thus, I am more forgiving of Houellebecq than you are - even though his ideas aren't particularly original. For me he is something like the theater of the absurd, a style that many people here don't get. Aesthetically Proust is a much better writer than Houellebecq, but from my point of view Proust is more than a little self-indulgent and often boring.

      Keep in mind, too, that it is disturbing to me just how bad the American literary establishment is. You can be easygoing about this because you live far away, but for me it is like witnessing crimes against humanity every day. I feel as if these people should be in jail along with George W. Bush.

  4. You're the easygoing one. I'd strap them into a gurney and give them a lethal injection.

    1. That would be a little extreme. A little justice is all I'd like to see. This is another case of The Emperor's New Clothes: you have a cabal of self-serving, intellectually bankrupt, flatulent old hacks strutting around with drooping breasts and paunches while brainwashing an entire generation about what constitutes good writing. If people could see them for what they are, that would suffice.


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