Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Lauren Groff

Although I have generally stopped reading fiction, American fiction in particular, I still have a residual interest in it, because there is always the possibility that I will come across something that I will find interesting. I am about to start reading Submission by the French author, Michel Houellebecq, which I will probably enjoy. This novel became unusually controversial because it was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo on the day that their office was attacked by Islamic terrorists and twelve people were killed, and its subject happens to be Islam in France. I will comment on Submission in due course. I liked The Map and the Territory, his previous novel, and became interested in him earlier when I read The Elementary Particles, which is a little disgusting but offers the kind of social criticism that I appreciate and is virtually nonexistent in American fiction.

I wish I could find contemporary American writing that I consider good - this, after all, is the country in which I live - but I have to say that I haven't located it yet. Having surveyed classic European fiction already, reading it is a bit like watching old movies: yes, the acting may be good, the screenplay may be well-written, etc., but you can't escape the fact that it is dated; people don't live like that now, and some of the techniques are out of fashion. Even allowing for certain universals that are relevant to all humans, the absence of contemporary cultural references makes classics historical artifacts that have little to say about the actual issues that we confront now. All is not lost for me though, because I am still interested in the obscure and neglected topic of the sociology of American literary fiction. Obviously it would be impossible for me to do a serious study of it, since I don't actually want to read the books. Nevertheless, I have been exposed to a bit of it and have formed some opinions on that basis.

What has caught my attention in recent months is the ascent of Marilynne Robinson to the ranks of major American literary figures. She teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has been acclaimed for her novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. I read Gilead and, as I said, found the exercise to be a complete waste of time. The only place where I can say this without being attacked is my own blog: Marilynne Robinson and the intellectual community that supports her are a disgrace to American thought. In Robinson I see America turning back on itself in search of a meritorious Christian-based past that never existed. She has created a fable-like heartland inhabited by the exact kind of Christians who appeal to her imagination and has falsely positioned them as the essence of American values. Beneath her startlingly unselfconscious preachiness lies a religious fervor that, in my opinion, has no place in contemporary thought and overlooks much of what was wrong in America's history. The U.S. is and was a mecca for simple-minded capitalists who are hardly aware of the ill effects they have had on the world or how their triumphalism is a source of rancor from competing ideologies. Rather than entering the fray like a responsible adult and showing her readers how one ideology is usually no better than another, she takes sides in a traditional evangelical sense and tells us that her specific version of Calvinism is not only better than, say, radical Islam, but better than Southern Christian evangelism. Robinson is here to tell you that Jesus Christ was right and she is going to explain to you exactly what he meant. I am appalled that grown adults take her seriously, and the fact that she has any credibility among educated people is a warning sign to me about how demented the thinking is at the highest levels in this country. Apparently by being forthright about her opinions she has a magnetic appeal not unlike that of Donald Trump. She is a toned-down, politically correct, softened and feminized version who is perfect for lazy thinkers. I don't blame Robinson for having deep convictions that happen to be wrong; my complaint lies more with the intellectual bankruptcy of those who have uncritically provided her with an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Within the literary world, Robinson seems to be a one-off, and I prefer to think more broadly about the creative writing subculture that presently inhabits universities. I apologize for having limited experience in this area, but there is a thread within it that I've been thinking about for some time and thought I'd mention. As I said, I used to like the writing of Lorrie Moore and followed her career closely for several years. Moore received an MFA degree from Cornell in 1982, studying under Alison Lurie. A popular writer today is Lauren Groff, who received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin, studying under Lorrie Moore. These three connect three generations of American writers, with Lurie born in 1926, Moore in 1957 and Groff in 1978.

Alison Lurie was an academic's wife who eventually found her way to writing fiction and teaching English before MFAs became prominent. I read one of her novels, The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989) and thought it was OK but not outstanding. She has been compared to David Lodge, who is nine years younger and writes light satirical novels focused on academics. She has also made contributions to the new academic specialty of children's literature. Lurie usually spends part of the year in Britain and part of the year in Key West and is probably not very representative of American writers. Stylistically, I see nothing of her in the writing of Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore's early fiction was experimental, and she became an instant hit among critics when her first short story collection, Self-Help, came out in 1985. She was only 28 at the time and already teaching creative writing in Wisconsin. Like Lurie, she emerged from an academic background: her grandfather had been the president of Skidmore College. Moore's early fiction was jokey, overflowing with wordplay, but her stories usually ended on a down note that looked much like clinical depression. The short story form leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, and she wove in feminist themes without making any explicit commitment to them. I always got the feeling that the women in her stories were the suffering victims of male abuse, but she never came out and said it. For a time I enjoyed the up and down jokiness and despair, but after about ten years she seemed to have run out of ideas. In 1997, when her career was beginning to tank a little, she published the short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" in the New Yorker, and it subsequently won the O. Henry Award and cemented her literary reputation. By the age of 40 serious writers are expected to produce some serious work, and, as luck would have it, Moore had gone through the experience of having a sick baby and had managed to harvest it for literary purposes, even including that fact in the narrative itself. Since then she has not fared well at all as a writer, and I speculatively attribute this to a lack of real drama in her life, along with the insularity in which she lives as an acclaimed writer who is well protected by university moats and fawning editors such as Robert Silvers who use her reputation to sell their publications. People are still throwing money at her, and I shudder to think how much she makes for what little work she does. I am sure that she is far more successful than she ever thought she would be and has a difficult time dealing with it.

Along comes Lauren Groff, another introverted girl from upstate New York, like Lorrie Moore. By the time she had graduated from Amherst in 2001, there was a better-established path to literary success, and she chose to study with Moore in Wisconsin. Like Moore, she received early acclaim with her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, which was published in 2008, when she was 30, and became a bestseller. She has done well since. I read her short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, which came out in 2009, and thought it was all right, but too juvenile for my taste. Groff is good at turns of phrase that precisely capture familiar events while throwing different light on them, but she lacks the mature observation to dissect anything beneath the surface. Her writing is careful but not witty. She also has a penchant for a kind of Americanized magical realism based on folklore from upstate New York. She grew up in Cooperstown, which is named after the Cooper family of which the fanciful author James Fenimore Cooper was a member. Farther down the Hudson River in Tarrytown there was Washington Irving, who wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," two American classics. These influences appear in her work. The reason why I chose to write about her is that I read this review of her latest novel, Fates and Furies, by one of the very few credible reviewers living today, James Wood. Wood does an admirable job teasing out what is best about the book, but in a rare instance of professional integrity doesn't hold back on its weaknesses. Apparently the second half of the novel is so off-kilter that he had to reinstate any disbelief that he had suspended in the first half after finding the narrative veering into hyperbolic untruths. I would not recommend Fates and Furies, but you might want to read Wood's review if only to see what a proper review looks like.

Groff seems to come from a privileged background. Her father is a rheumatologist and her sister, Sarah, who is a graduate of Middlebury College, competes in triathlons. While a variety of people probably choose to enter creative writing programs, the impression I have is that MFAs are especially appealing to children who are born into affluent families and feel a need to differentiate themselves by excelling at something that appears on an approved list of upper-middle-class careers. Here I go generalizing again, but it looks to me as if this kind of arrangement is likely to skew who gets published in the direction of people like Lauren Groff, at one end of the spectrum, allowing space for a few underprivileged minorities at the other end, in compliance with contemporary political correctness standards. This is not to say that Lauren Groff can't produce good fiction; rather, my point is that the system tends to homogenize literary culture, and people like Lorrie Moore and Lauren Groff rise to prominence well before they have reached the level of maturity as writers that would warrant such success. Groff's latest novel may be her first attempt at adult seriousness, but if James Wood's review is accurate, she lacks the maturity and insight to tackle the large and complex subject of marriage.


  1. Your critique of Ms. Robinson's enablers manages to be both ferocious and low-key. Pretty good.

    I'm not a fan of Mr. Wood's reviews, in part because he reviews books I'm not interested in--Ms. Groff's, for example--and in part because I find him humorless and unadventurous. Maybe I'll get around to reading this one, though.


    1. I used to read James Wood many years ago when I still subscribed to the LRB, and though I decided that my tastes were different from his, he seemed sufficiently articulate and knowledgeable to warrant some attention. Michael Wood (no relation) was more agreeable to me and seemed astoundingly knowledgeable. In this case I find it, in relative terms, quite admirable that James Wood made a substantial criticism of an author who publishes in the New Yorker, which is also his employer (one of them). As discussed earlier, rapturous reviews have almost become the norm here. He has more leeway than most reviewers in the U.S. because he is solidly at the top of the heap and highly respected.

      Regarding Marilynne Robinson, I am finding her reception truly astonishing. In order to concur with her advocates, I would have to unlearn everything I learned over my lifetime and replace it with Christian propaganda. This is perfect material for a dystopian novel. I believe Margaret Atwood covered that ground in "The Handmaid's Tale," but I don't think she's a good writer.


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