I’m back from my meeting with Producer of Note and am pleased to report that it went considerably smoother than I’d anticipated. Thanks to the well-wishers.
I’ve got a chapter to work on this afternoon but I’m finding that I’d like to take a moment to weigh in on the recent NYTBR brouhaha. First off, it’s sparked a lot of thoughtful commentary around the blogsphere and I do urge you to check out what folks are saying. Stephany Aulenback, guesting for Maud, offers a particularly interesting spin.
As I read through the various posts over my coffee this morning, though, I think the one that most resonated with me was Jessa’s post, a bit of which is excerpted here:
Bullshit bullshit bullshit. This is what happens when people who don't read control book reviews. Nonfiction is easy to review. Books that are all plot are easy to review. It's just laziness mixed with an obvious contempt for literature.
She goes on to suggest that NYTBR will be rendered worthless when/if these changes go into effect. Her comments echo the real despair that I felt on reading the original posting; I suppose I also am responding to the implied realpolitik of her posting – perhaps she’s too clear-eyed (or cynical) to believe change can be made, so it’s best to walk away from the thing. It’s frustrating but it’s realistic and I think she’s largely right.
Ed and I may drop our subscriptions, and every other “lit” blogger (and our readers) may do the same, and it won’t make a real difference to the Times. What might make a difference is having the Knopfs or the FSGs pull their advertising completely from the paper – that’s the kind of revenue loss they understand. But I don’t kid myself that that’s going to happen.
Which really leads me to the larger net I’m trying to cast here. I’m not going to write about Bill Keller’s cultural tone-deafness or intellectual shallowness (both of which may well be true), nor will I raise the obvious questions as to how, exactly, tomorrow’s Updikes are to be found (although today’s Updike ain’t all that, frankly – try struggling through Gertrude and Claudius). No, I have a bigger question here, and it’s really just that – a question. Unlike other web motormouths, I’m not seeking to pick fights (well, maybe just with him); I guess I’m thinking out loud.
Because the real reason I suspect Keller will be able to make this change with impunity has to do with the weakened state of the novel as a cultural force. This is something that I’m really grappling with as I’m starting my own first novel (now destined never to hit the pages of the NYTBR) – what’s happened to the relevance of the serious novel, and how can we restore it? Or can it be restored at all?
Obviously this is a question that draws in many threads, including the rise of the internet, cable and other sources of information and entertainment. And if we assume, for the sake of this discussion, that your answer to this dilemma isn’t merely “Print is dead,” then why don’t more people read serious novels? And by serious, I don’t mean difficult or ponderous – there’s nothing especially hard about Pat Barker or Michael Ondaatje. I just have this nagging feeling that there’s a book that lies somewhere in between Vollman’s latest monster and Bridget Jones’ Diary that can gain some purchase with a thoughtful reading public.
I have some theories. One is mere author profligacy and self-indulgence – there seems to be a set of contemporary authors, egged on (as it were) by you-know-who, who have equated girth with Serious Purpose. I refer these writers to William Trevor, Tayeb Salih, Ian McEwan and a dozen other masters of short but dense fiction.
But the other, more serious issue for me is the insularity of the contemporary fiction landscape. I find too many novels that feel like MFA projects that are little more than auditions for teaching posts to grind out more MFA students. Now, this is my own personal bugbear, but if I read one more novel about an academic or a writer I’m going to blow my brains out. Are you all so bereft of invention that this is the best you can cobble up? These arch, self-indulgent self-portraits? My question to all of you is why do you think that any reader would care? What do you offer them to connect to? How are you speaking to them? And that, in my opinion, is why it’s easy for the NYTBR to cut you - and the rest of us, by association - off. You have no constituency, no one who will not only defend the need for your work but who will back it up with their pocketbooks.
It’s the same with most literary journals – run by MFAs, looking for other MFAs who write the same sort of things, so they can all add a few credits to help in the search for a teaching post. I can’t help but hearken back to the day when serious fiction writers lived. They sought out experience and wrote about it. And that’s a big reason for the range of individual voices in the fiction of the earlier part of the 20th century, as compared to a sameness that permeates too much fiction today. Not all of it. But a helluva lot. Obviously, this is a generalization and there are many serious fiction writers today who don’t fall under this rubric. But far too many do, and that’s why I think it’s easy to dismiss.
Call me Polyanna, call me earnest but I think novels can be written that are serious, engaged and speak to a wide audience without pandering or talking down to them, and without sacrificing literary value. (I imagine that’s what Franzen was trying to do, he just happened to write a shitty, prolix book.) And my gut feeling is that’s where the future of the serious novel lies – not in engaging other writing program lifers but in bringing people back to books.
Anyway, that’s what I’m going to try to do. But what do you think? Is this an uphill fight? Is the fight over? How can we make novels count again? I would like to hear your thoughts.