Friday, January 21, 2011

Thoughts on Contemporary American Fiction...

In searching for some info on the New Yorker's slushpile, and whether stories submitted there ever emerge in the magainze, I found this page, and the following Q & A (you'll find the question below about mid-way down the page):

Q: What was your reaction to [the Swedish Academy member] Horace Engdahl’s comments that American writers are “too isolated, too insular” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture”? Do you know of any writers who defy this characterization? --Philip Bestrom

A: I would hope that writers everywhere are sensitive to trends in their own culture. We rely on them to notice, to dissect, and to record social behavior so that we can learn from it, build on it, or improve it. As for insularity among American writers, I have yet to encounter any."
-- Deborah Triesman, for the New Yorker

Horace Engdahl's diatribe (you can read it in its entirety at The Guardian by clicking on the word "comments" above) is a generalization--certainly not every American writer is exclusively introspective...looking into his or her own personal, regional, or national concerns, although this exists, I think, among younger writers. But, but, but....I qualify this statement with the idea (expanded below) that this tendency towards personal (and as Engdahl calls it, "insular") interests also has the potential to teach humanity, at large, something about itself and where it stands...perhaps also where it is going, if it continues on the current path. But more on this in a moment.

First, I want to say that I like Deborah Triesman's answer, and I've inadvertantly used a version of Triesman's idea to justify and explain the value of studying fiction to my more reluctant Gen Ed literature students. Through reading fiction, poetry, and drama, they (hopefully) learn how to analyze and understand themes--the underlying meanings that are intended to teach something about life, about ourselves. Often, literature reveals (for the students who take the time to read and understand the works presented) a similarity of experience. And important to remember is that stories, poems, and drama are frequently the avenues by which a writer deals with his or her own experiences (right now, I've got The Glass Menagerie in mind as an example) or helps to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable. Writing is catharsis for both writer and reader (Now I'm thinking of Sophocles and Aristotle...tragedy as didactic catharsis....)

Certainly, these characteristics are true of literature from decades before, when we, the readers, recognized in dynamic characters a similarity of experience: We were not alone in our difficulties, our inability to pay the rent or to find happiness. And I admit that this perception, too, is a generalization. And even as American storytelling has become filled with microcosmic cataclysms and personal neuroses that seem significant only in their trainwreck-worthy ability to fascinate, this fiction--this contemporary literary expression--reveals a great deal about the state of the human condition now. We are in a particular mind-set that informs how and what we write about.

So, this brings me back back to what I promised two paragraphs ago. What does America's contemporary fiction--meaning the fiction of right now, in all its fragmented and shortened formats--tells us objectively about our mental state now? Well, for one, we are obsessed with crime and disaster. We are frequently giddy with schadenfreude, and we are subject to short bouts of concentration. Contemporary flash--as it is coming out of online writers now--is, in broad terms, a portrait of our disaffected culture. Our 180-degree view of the world (like that of the 19th-century) is considerably narrowed, even as our everyday expectations are higher. This is what fuels contemporary literature, and by contemporary, I mean work appearing in online literary journals, from which indie and sometimes mainstream books are later born. Here the most prominent indie voices reveal our world view, which seems to be getting smaller, more concentrated on the dark, showing us to be less optimistic. We no longer seek solutions or life prescriptions, like Thoreau and Emerson. We don't hitch our wagons to stars. We don't necessarily seek political engagement. We appear not to be a hopeful bunch, but one focused on human weakness in its myriad forms.

So what are we now, if contemporary literature gives us a clue to our identities? I'm open to discussion.

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