by wjw on January 23, 2013

I’ve just read a literary novel.  And I suppose you know, simply from reading that sentence, that what follows will be a litany of complaint. My apologies for being so predictable.

(Honestly, there are literary novels that I like, even adore.  This just doesn’t happen to be one of them.)

Exhibit A for the prosecution is the “it was only a dream” ending.  I mean, honestly, what was the author thinking? . . .  Can’t they just carve THOU SHALT NOT USE THE ‘IT WAS ONLY A DREAM’ ENDING above the lintel of every English Department in the country?

Even when I was eight years old, and reading Alice for the first time, I found the ending a letdown.   Here I suppose we’re supposed to admire the interplay of fantasy and reality, or maybe the delicate ambiguities of the relationship between our perceptions of the world and the narrator’s raving delusional psychosis.  Or something.

But the ending still disappoints.  If you’re going to set me up for an ending, and then deprive me of the ending I’m expecting, then the ending you provide should damn well be more exciting and interesting than the ending you refuse to give me.  If you know what I mean.

Endings should be some kind of completion, where the major themes of the work are resolved in some fashion, or if not resolved, at least set free of the narrative and sent out into the world to resonate with our own experience.  Finding out, as readers, that the characters in which we’ve become emotionally invested are actually delusions, is to realize that the author is flipping the bird at his audience.  We have become the author’s patsies.

It’s just bad behavior.  Up with this sort of thing we should not expect to put.

But the ending isn’t even my chief complaint.  I was pissed off well before I got to the ending.

Exhibit B, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is that all the principal characters of the narrative are members of the American upper middle class, and that on this account alone they are entitled to have us, the readers, take them very, very seriously indeed.

All the characters share a similarity of background, opinion, and  general mindset.  They are all white, educated, politically liberal, and not unfamiliar with the pool at the Country Club.  They’re not all rich, but you have the impression that they could all go back to the Hamptons any time they wanted.

None of these things are bad, and none of them should disallow a character from being portrayed in a novel, if it weren’t for the smug atmosphere of entitlement that follows them throughout their lives.

I am a member of the upper middle classes, they all seem to say, and therefore you, lucky reader, must care deeply about my feelings.

Well no, I don’t, and I didn’t.  I don’t have to care about your feelings just because it’s you that have them.  Give me some reason I should care for you, other than your privileged background.  Because I keep thinking, Basically, you’re okay.  You’re not starving, you have a roof over your head, you’re superbly educated, you have a job, you’re better off than 99% of the people on the planet.  I’m sorry about that dark family secret you keep hinting at, but wasn’t that decades ago?  Shouldn’t you be over it by now?

It’s as if everyone on the whole planet came from East Egg.  And if someone happens not to be from East Egg, he’s there to be fixed by our privileged heroes, because it gives them another reason to be pleased with themselves.

I have to call this a colossal failure.  Either the author has never met anyone unlike himself, or he can’t imagine such a person worthy of portrayal, or he can’t figure out how to portray such a person.

(Now, it could be worse.  Lots worse.  If everyone in the novel was an MFA candidate in Creative Writing, it would be not just worse, but tragic.)

Now, the word “entitlement” gets thrown about a good deal in political discourse, and almost always in a negative context.  But entitlements aren’t always bad: it’s good if you feel entitled to, say, basic human rights, and property that people can’t take away from you on a whim, and a lawyer if you’re accused of a crime, and a hot meal every now and again.

But is there an entitlement for being taken seriously?  I’m thinking not.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have I made my case?

Bruce Arthurs January 23, 2013 at 6:36 am

Is there a good reason to NOT mention the title or author?

That sense of over-entitlement you mention is something I ran into a lot when I was doing security work at an upscale office/shopping complex. I call it Scottsdale Syndrome: “I drive a BMW, so fuck you.”

Jerry January 23, 2013 at 8:41 am

Sam Clemens published a critique of “Last of the Mochicans,” called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” In it he claims that “There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction….” Number 3 is: “…The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Number 8 is: “…Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader….” And [drum-roll, please] Number 10 “Require[s] that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

Can you tell that I am a Mark Twain fan. and a Walter Jon Williams fan?

Jerry January 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

Hey, Bruce – I live in Snottsdale, I mean Snobsdale, I mean Scottsdale. Same to you and the syndrome you rode in on! Play nice.

Dave Bishop January 23, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I’ve always had a dislike of fiction wherein the the principal subject appears to be the personal problems of the main characters – whatever position those characters may occupy on the social scale. In my mind such fiction counts as soap opera – even if pundits choose to call it ‘literary fiction’. God, how I hate soap opera!

TJIC January 23, 2013 at 1:20 pm

> Even when I was eight years old, and reading Alice for the first time, I found the ending a letdown.


TJIC January 23, 2013 at 1:22 pm

@Bruce Arthurs:

> Is there a good reason to NOT mention the title or author?

I second that question.

TC/Writer Underground January 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm

I’m with Thomas McGuane, who in an interview noted that modern “literate” American fiction is — on the whole — more depressing than your average Russian novel.

Also on the “out” list are drug-soaked memoirs. Life’s simply too short.

wjw January 23, 2013 at 8:05 pm

TC>> damn! Just as I was about to write my drug-soaked memoir! (Well, they say write what you know . . . )

Bruce, these characters wouldn’t despise you for not being one of them. They’d just try to =fix= you in the most earnest way possible.

I’m not mentioning the title for two reasons. First, I want to talk about writing, and not about the minutiae of one particular work.

And second, the title and author were the two most forgettable aspects of the book, and quite honestly, I’ve already forgotten both.

Geoff January 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm

For me, it all comes back to the stakes on the table. If one’s characters could all “go back to the Hamptons any time they wanted” then one would have to be a top 5 all-time American novelist to make that interesting to me.

That’s my main complaint with the “Literary Fiction” moniker: what could that story have in common with Hilary Mantel’s historical novels?

Neil W January 23, 2013 at 10:04 pm

If it’s stakes it’s not so much they could “go back to the Hamptons any time they wanted” but that it doesn’t matter to them. If going back to a pleasant, quiet, privileged life of dinner parties and beach parties is a failure, if that negates every thing a character has strived for and wants and needs, then I might be interested.

Also, dream sequence yes. All a dream, meh. Better be a pretty good dream.

James R. Strickland January 24, 2013 at 1:43 am

You’ve read a literary novel. Not, however, a good one. 🙂

May I recommend, for next time you’re interested the genre, Amy Tan’s /The Bonesetter’s Daughter/, and /The Hundred Secret Senses/? I found that; despite all the main characters being women (which I am not), Chinese or Chinese-American, a culture which I know practically nothing about, basically spending a great deal talking and telling stories; that I /did/ care quite a lot about them, and could not put either of them down. I’ve reviewed them on goodreads (plug!), which in turn feeds my webpage (plug!) above, so I won’t rehash everything here.

I’ve dissected Hundred Secret Senses at least twice to try and understand how Tan pulls me in to stories which should be so /alien/ to me, and how she makes the story-arc-of-what-should-be-short-stories thing /work/ so very well. Still working on that.


Bruce Arthurs January 24, 2013 at 1:53 am

Jerry, as a former Scottsdalian myself, my “Scottsdale Syndrome” wasn’t meant to apply to all Scottsdale residents. (Mid-70’s, I lived in a Scottsdale co-op apartment complex while attending ASU on the GI Bill. Yes, there are parts of Scottsdale where you can actually live on a low income.)

The office/shopping complex where I did security was in Scottsdale, and a big part of the problem there was that the management marketed the place towards people with lots of money and status (virtually all 10-percenters, and some 1-percenters, tho’ the latter tended to drive Jaguars and Bentleys instead of BMWs).

A lot of those people came with an attitude that their behavior should never have consequences. Add in several bars who routinely kept on serving customers well past the point they should have been cut off. Plus the complex’s management bought way too far into that sense of entitlement, and a lot of times kept the security staff from taking appropriate action against customer’s bad behavior. About the most we could do to troublesome customers was tell them to leave the property.

What kind of bad behavior? Oh, let’s see: Public urination, the occasional defecation, open sex acts, sexual assaults, fistfights, even one attempted knifing. (It was an attempted knifing because when the guy pulled a knife out of his pocket and tried to open it, he ended up cutting the shit out of his own hand.) It tooks months of the security staff jumping up and down with their hair on fire before the management finally added some off-duty police on weekends to deal with the worst offenses.

I’d previously worked at a big-box mall in a middle-class part of town, anchored by a WalMart, that also had several drinking establishments. I never encountered ANY of the problems there I encountered at the upscale place.

So if I have an attitude about high-incomers, it’s because I saw too many of them in action. Sorry about that.

Bruce Arthurs January 24, 2013 at 2:07 am

James Strickland, in a similar vein of being absorbed into the characters and lives of a not-MY-culture setting, I recommend Victor Villasenor’s RAIN OF GOLD.

Sara A. Mueller January 24, 2013 at 3:41 am

I forgive the ending of ‘Alice’. I even forgive the ending of the movie of ‘Wizard of Oz’. That’s two strikes. Everyone else is OUT.

Also – I adore your idea of woodwork so much that I had visions of my college creative writing classroom with just such a carving. I may visit it some day with at least a role of painter’s tape and a Sharpie. Just to make someone’s day.

Thanks to Jerry. I had somehow missed that Twain Essay!

Jerry January 24, 2013 at 4:01 am


Not Todd January 24, 2013 at 4:31 am

I do wonder just how tired the “it was all a dream” plot was when Alice was published. Perhaps it was startlingly fresh?
Your other complaint reminds me of a character in “House of Lies” who makes a point of mentioning he went to Harvard in the first conversation he has with anybody he meets for the first time.

DensityDuck January 24, 2013 at 6:49 am

I’m reminded of “White Noise”, a novel about the unbearable crushing awfulness of being a college professor in a nontechnical subject with a hereditary family fortune and a beautiful loving wife.

Ken Burnside January 24, 2013 at 7:18 am

“There is no life so comfortably banal that it cannot be made insipid by a third generation MFA student exhorted to ‘write what they know.'” — Frank Soos, explaining why he preferred teaching the undergrad Creative Writing classes to the MFA classes.

Frank Soos also gave me a wonderful writing exercise that I inflicted on my writing group later in life.

“If you show up for class without four new pages on your project, I shall go over to the Rack of Discount Paperbacks, pull one off at random, hand it to you, and make you read the first three pages, cold. Then, the class shall pick a writer and you’ll be asked to rewrite those first 750 words in the voice of that writer.”

Mark Twain rewrites the first 750 words of Tarnsman of Gor was particularly enlightening. Ayn Rand rewrites the first 750 words of Foundation and Empire was…well, if you can’t imagine it, count yourself blessed. If you can imagine it, you know where the liquor cabinet is.

I think one student dropped the class when asked to rewrite the opening three pages of Red Planet as James Joyce.

Brian Renninger January 24, 2013 at 3:22 pm

In my opinion it is not the setting or the characters that matter. It’s the writing.

Basically all the Wodehouse characters are the equivelent of being able to “…go back to the Hamptons any time they wanted” but are extremely enjoyable stories.

Bad writing and bad story ideas are what matters. A good writer can take the most mundane characters and setting and make it interesting.

Of course, it’s all a dream endings are horrid but, I’m willing to accept that a excellant writer might be able to pull it off. For example, not exactly, but sort of, Implied Spaces is a series of “it’s all a dream” sequences but, WJW makes it compelling and found a way to structure the story so that there were real stakes to be lost.

–Brian R.

–Brian R.

–Brian R.

Ralf The Dog. January 28, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Roger Zelazny once wrote a book where one of the main characters was an electron in the core of a star. As far as electrons go, I would say, it was upper middle class. It did not have a mortgage or money worries.

If Roger Z can write about the privileged life of an electron, I think, a story about smug country clubbers could be made to work. Then again, Rodger Z might have been something of an above average writer.

You could have been describing Great Gatsby, a Jain Austin novel or perhaps, Coverfield. As to the dream ending, one of America’s greatest literary classics “Dallas” , pulled it off quite well, so, it must be acceptable.

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