Does the Novel Have a Future? The Answer Is In This Essay!

tom wolfe 2 Does the Novel Have a Future? The Answer Is In This Essay!A certain literary discourse, about what others should or shouldn’t be doing with their art, will probably always exist as a distraction from writing novels. I discerned this afresh while studying said discourse for my addition, arguably, in terms of “the future of the novel,” to the discourse. My addition–herein, itself a distraction from the composition of my third novel–summarizes part of the discourse I’ve studied, then asks, “What different kinds of novels actually exist?” and “What, then, is the future of the novel?” and can be read, in entirety, as an effort, while distracted, to encourage myself (by first discerning what exists in the absence of distractions and if I desire that) to be less distracted in the future.

1976. The New York Review of Books publishes “American Plastic” by Gore Vidal: “The New Novel is close to forty years old.” Mr. Vidal views its origin as Sarraute’s Tropisms (1938) and reviews the oeuvres of the four writers whom, two years earlier, Donald Barthelme said were the only Americans worth reading. (Mr. Vidal says in a footnote: “I am told that Mr. Barthelme later, sensibly, denied having made such an exclusive pronouncement.”) These include William Gass, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and–aberrantly–Grace Paley, “a plain short-story writer” of whom Mr. Vidal “got a good deal of pleasure from reading,” contrary to the others: “I am obliged to remark upon the sense of suffocation one experiences reading so much bad writing.” The 11,254-word essay quotes Mr. Barth as “sensibly,” in Mr. Vidal’s view, saying that “the permanent changes in fiction from generation to generation more often have been, and are more likely to be, modifications of sensibility and attitude rather than dramatic innovations in form and technique.”

1985. Mississippi Review publishes an entire issue–“On the New Fiction”–of essays about writers whose work Kim Herzinger describes in the introduction: “If ‘minimalist’ fiction is ‘about’ anything, it seems often to be about ‘endurance,’ tracing the collision of the anarchic self and its inexplicable desires with the limitations imposed by life in the world, with special attention paid to that moment when the self confronts its limitations and decides to keep going.”

1986. Harper’s Magazine publishes “Less Is Less” by Madison Smartt Bell who says “minimalist” writing has oversaturated the market and exhibits a “steadily deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” He blames, finally, to some degree, publishers–for publishing these “minimalists.” Mary Robison is fully, somewhat bafflingly, praised (perhaps to give the illusion that the essay isn’t personal taste stated as objective rule) because, Mr. Bell says, she “departs from the trend by allowing her characters freedom.”

1986. The New York Times publishes “A Few Words about Minimalism” by John Barth who, at Johns Hopkins, was a teacher of “minimalists” Frederick Barthelme (Mississippi Review editor, 1978 to 2010) and Ms. Robison. Mr. Barth says “the history (and the microhistories) of literature and of art in general” is of cyclical corrections, “a cycle to be found as well, with longer rhythms, in the history of philosophy, the history of the culture,” and that “between minimalism and its opposite, I pity the reader–or the writer, or the age–too addicted to either to savor the other.”

1988. The New York Times publishes “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans” by Frederick Barthelme as a response, in part, to negative charges against minimalism “in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire and all the literary mags; one can’t read a book review these days without encountering the obligatory attack on ‘minimalist’ prose (even in USA Today).” Mr. Barthelme says he and others were most interested in Hawkes, Gass, Barth, Donald Barthelme (his older brother) for a time in the ’60s but at some point “started looking around for other things to do” and saw John Cheever, Jean Rhys, Joan Didion and 26 others. “It was a wonderful world,” says Mr. Barthelme.

1989. Harper’s publishes “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” by Tom Wolfe: “Unless some movement occurs in American fiction over the next ten years that is more remarkable than any detectable right now, the pioneering in nonfiction will be recorded as the most important experiment in American literature in the second half of the twentieth century.” Mr. Wolfe cites Emile Zola’s Germanal (1885) as inspiration and example. Wolfe summarizes “minimalists” in two sentences: “Anesthetic solitude became one of the great motifs of serious fiction in the 1970s. The Minimalists, also known as the K-Mart Realists, wrote about real situations, but very tiny ones, tiny domestic ones, for the most part, usually in lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings, in a deadpan prose composed of disingenuously short, simple sentences.”

1990. Harper’s solicits responses to Mr. Wolfe and publishes letters from T. Coraghessan Boyle (“calling Robert Coover a Minimalist is like calling Attila the Hun a man of peace”) and John Hawkes, who says Mr. Wolfe quoted him around 15 years out of context and that the quotation, which he said around 40 years ago–that “the true enemies of the novel” were plot, setting, character–was “an extravagance used to make a point.” Hawkes also says Mr. Coover isn’t a minimalist and that “[Wolfe] does us all a severe disservice by creating a distorted historical perspective” and ends his letter, and the issue of Harper’s, with an anecdote: “Once, when John Barth and I were together in Austin, Texas, it was rumored that James Michener, a documentary writer beyond a doubt, had said that if he could have an alternate route as a writer, he would choose to be his own opposite–some double version of Barth/Hawkes. It’s a curious statement and I can’t vouch for its truth. But would that Wolfe had such openmindedness.”

2002. The New Yorker publishes “Mr. Difficult” by Jonathan Franzen about William Gaddis.

2005. Harper’s publishes “A Correction” by Ben Marcus who defends the kind of writing he says Mr. Franzen has been frequently disparaging in venues with much larger readerships than his targets.

2007. Harper’s publishes “Literary Entrails” by Cynthia Ozick who summarizes Mr. Marcus’ usage in “A Correction” of the Fog Index to discern that Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” actually requires a higher skill level to read than passages from novels by Gaddis. “Still, it is Gaddis, Marcus gloats, who, for all his simpler words and shorter sentences, remains the more complex writer. So: a punch in the eye for Franzen! The Crips and the Bloods would feel right at home in this alley,” says Ms. Ozick. “The real problem here lies not in what is happening. But what is not happening. [paragraph break] What is not happening is literary criticism.” Ms. Ozick then defines literary criticism as based upon connectedness: “No reviewer had thought to set Beloved beside Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.” To do so might create an “innate kinship, a backdrop, the white noise of the era that claims us all,” says Ms. Ozick, that would allow Franzen-Marcus, and others, to exist in a manner “less antagonistic than inquisitively receptive.”

2008. The New York Review of Books publishes “Two Paths for The Novel” by Zadie Smith who reviews Netherland and Remainder in a manner hewing closely to Ms. Ozick’s idea of literary criticism, though perhaps less inquisitive than antagonistic: “All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads. […] These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Ms. Smith seems to disapprove of Netherland mostly because it is, in her metaphor, on a road that currently has too many people/cars on it. “I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subjects,” says Ms. Smith (I’m confused why she believes it might not survive if it’s currently dominating the culture).

A summary of the above:

XX: Group A is bad.

Group A: [no response]

Group B: [inquisitive thoughts about itself]

YY: Group B is bad.

Group A: It’s O.K. to like different kinds of writing.

Group B: It’s O.K. to like different kinds of writing.

ZZ: Group B is “disingenuous.”

Group B: [no response]

YY: I feel like YZ himself wouldn’t read his last three novels.

ZZ: If YY doesn’t enjoy YZ, that doesn’t mean other people can’t.

ZX: YY and YZ are behaving like opposing gangs because there isn’t enough literary criticism happening.

ZY: Our culture is currently bad because one kind of writing–C, “lyrical realism”–is dominating.

Group C: [no response]

Those “complaining,” or “on the attack,” seem to operate with an amount of generalization and judgment and omission that their targets feel reluctant or unwilling to engage with directly (and that every participant, I feel, would likely want to avoid in their fiction), resulting in a comically uneven, at times suddenly directionless, almost zanily halfhearted narrative.

Interestingly, and touchingly, to me, Group A and Group B–despite being very different, most would agree, I think, in terms of their fiction–consistently expressed support and appreciation for each other. 

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