And Speaking of Fiction

by wjw on February 19, 2013

So over in the New Republic, of all places, Ian McEwan (“One of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”) asks what happens when a novelist loses his faith in fiction.  And I found myself nodding in agreement as I read along..

Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief. What imaginary Henry said or did to nonexistent Sue, and Henry’s lonely childhood, his war, his divorce, his ecstasy and struggle with the truth and how he’s a mirror to the age—I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending . . . 

I confess, I’ve been on those panels with fellow believers as we intone the liturgy, that humans are fabulators, that we “cannot live” without stories.You cannot live, priests always imply, without them. (Oh, yes we can.) My heart fails when I wander into the fiction section of a bookstore and see the topless towers on the recent-titles tables, the imploring taglines above the cover art (He loved her, but would she listen?), the dust-jacket plot summaries in their earnest present tense: Henry breaks free of his marriage and embarks on a series of wild …

Well, you get the idea.

Maybe I’ve just been feeling grumpy because my eyesight has been so demolished by surgery that I can barely read at all.  Or maybe it has to do with a decision to concentrate on light reading.  (Lord knows, in my current situation I’m in no shape to deal with Dostoevsky.)

But still.  Honest to God.  You should make at least a little effort to suspend my disbelief.

McEwan’s talking about what Norman Spinrad would call the “bourgeois mimetic novel,” in which the concerns of the educated middle classes are, basically, the concerns of the entire world.  Whether Henry and Sue can find happiness in their marriage, whether Henry can learn to love his job, and mortgage, and his first intimations of mortality . . . that’s it,  That’s all.  The whole grand apparatus of fiction is reduced entirely to this.

Now I maintain that these subjects can be made interesting— if not to me, then surely to somebody— but it’s not helped when the author is, let’s face it, pig-ignorant of the world.

(And let us spare a few moments of deep sympathy for the authors of the modern academic novel.  Here’s a bright young person who went to college, who got his MFA in creative writing, who then got a job teaching, whose entire adult life has been spent in the academy . . . and who of course turns out a novel about adultery in academe.  Because adultery in a college setting is literally the most exciting thing that ever happened to him.  In his whole life.  Are we not feeling deep sadness and compassion at this realization?  Good lord, if I hadn’t been kicked out of grad school, that could have been me.)

But anyway, even if you’re writing about adultery in academe, for God’s sake make me think you know something about it other than having read a bunch of other novels on a similar theme.  

I’ve been reading some unchallenging novels lately, but even unchallenging novels can be authoritative.  They can convince me that the author knows what she’s talking about, even if she’s not exactly challenging my preconceptions about the world, or about fiction.  But lately I’ve just been stumbling across a bunch of them where it seems the author isn’t even trying.

I’ve read some detective novels written by people who clearly have no idea how to detect.  I’ve read some political novels by people with only the most vague idea of how powerful people think and act.  And I’ve read some science fiction where the science actually works but the characters don’t seem to fully inhabit their world somehow— they seemed to be characters dragged out of the author’s past (1985, say) and not fully-fledged inhabitants of the future that the author was describing.  Even though the stories were written in the 21st Century, and set in the far future, the characters still seemed stuck in the era of Dutch Reagan.

Who the hell are these writers?  Somebody thought their stuff was worth publishing.  Somebody paid them.  Presumably somebody reads them.  Why?

One problem is that I, the reader, simply know too goddam much.  I’ve been on the planet for over half a century, and I’ve had a half-century’s worth of experience, and I’ve been feeding my brain all that time, and by this time I know how some things work.  And when a book violates my understanding, I lose all faith in it.

But mostly it’s the author’s goddam fault.  The author hasn’t been keeping up with, I don’t know, anything that’s happened in the human universe since 1985.  And the author hasn’t included the sort of detail that might convince me that the author knows his subject matter, or at least understands a half-convincing alternative universe in which this story takes place.

How revolutionary is it to simply say: if you don’t know something, look it up!  Isn’t that what we teach our kids in school?  When did writers forget that?  When did editors?

(I don’t want to entirely exclude myself from this critique.  When I started writing, I was myself pig-ignorant of the world, or at least certain important elements of the human condition.  But, y’know, I did my research!  And when the research failed, I did my best to fake it!  And I employed the best models!   I may have made mistakes, but I worked hard at understanding things, I didn’t just make this shit up!)

So anyway, by the end of his essay, McEwan has got over his snit, and he’s found hope here and there, and he’s working on a new piece.

As I would be, if I could get my eyes to work properly, or if I weren’t half in the bag along with a nice bottle of California red.  (If a screaming fear of daylight isn’t enough of a justification for getting loaded, I don’t know what is.)

But anyway . . .

I’m not sure I have a conclusion for this— it’s just a wail about the human condition, after all— but y’know what?  None of the authors I’ve been reading have attended Taos Toolbox, and they really oughta.

Cuz I would learn ’em better.  I really would.

Brian Renninger February 19, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Well, I forget which book it was (one of the Privateers novels) but, as a younger man you wrote the best progression of a cold sequences I’ve read. Now, I thought to myself, that was written by someone who’s lived it.

Except for deathly sickness, it is surprising how little minor illnesses feature in fiction.

I look forward to the upcoming vampire novel based on your current experiences. Seriously, take it easy. Sensory deprivation totally sucks.

Also, Amazon has a book title “Off” by you. Which I’ve never heard off and the page has no description. Is this a new work?

–Brian R.

TJIC February 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I wrote a blog post on a very similar topic about a week ago:

There is nothing but crap on the shelves.

Since then I’ve had a slight change of heart – I picked up the first five “Little House on the Prairie” books and have found in them everything that I haven’t found in science fiction or any other fiction recently: a sense of wonder, joy, excitement, adventure.

I’ve got a friend who is a fan of comic books, and rarely if ever buys anything new. His opinion is that it’s all been done before, and done better decades ago. I’m becoming a bit of a curmudgeon like him re novels.

wjw February 20, 2013 at 1:54 am

Maybe “Little House on the Prairie” is exactly what I need. That would be returning to my roots, for sure.

Brian, “Off” is the German translation of “This Is Not a Game.” Your guess is as good as mine as to why they called it that.

Ralf The Dog. February 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

How about a novel about a man who wants a glass of water? You could have conflict, when he does not know if the dishes in the washer are clean or dirty. “‘Gasp’, he thinks, when contemplating rinsing out a possibly clean coffee cup!!!”

Personally, I have always wanted to write from the perspective of an agoraphobic, who has spent the last 20 years locked in her house. Perhaps, some kind of virus spreads, rendering 95 percent of the population blind. Because, she is one of the last who can see, she is forced to become a world leader (and a farmer and a pilot).

d brown February 21, 2013 at 6:52 am

Maybe Reagan stuff is all THEY (you know, the owners) want printed. And what most readers want. Think Norman Spinrad would have readers if he started out today? If he could start our now.

Jim Janney February 21, 2013 at 9:40 pm

When we look back we remember the Steinbecks and the Jack Londons, but forget the much larger number of writers who were mediocre or just plain bad. Other than The King in Yellow, which he apparently wrote mostly for his own amusement, who reads anything by Robert Chambers today? But he was a best-selling author in his time.

Bruce Arthurs February 25, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Well, if you somehow find yourself trapped in a forest cabin where the bookshelves are stocked with nothing but “modern suburbia” novels, I suggest you look for books by Peter De Vries. He has the advantage of being, at his best, outrageously funny and witty, and rather upending the genre in general. The author photo for one of his books pictures him in a tux, at the handle of his home lawnmower; a pretty apt visual representation of his writing.

(If you want the funny and witty, however, do NOT read BLOOD OF THE LAMB. That one was based on the death of De Vries’ own child from leukemia, and it will rip your heart out.)

Two movies based on his work, REUBEN, REUBEN and PETE ‘N TILLIE, are both worth watching. Outstanding performances by Tom Conti in the former, and Carol Burnett in the latter.

Dave Doolin February 26, 2013 at 4:06 am

I admit to low standards. Low enough that I’m not willing to actually mention by name some of the stuff I’m willing to read.

That said, the only real issue I have with any writing (issue means I don’t finish the story) is when the author feels checked out. I see this across the board, from Banks to nameless amateurs. Although with Banks, I’m not sure the “checked out” feeling I got from Hydrogen Sonata wasn’t deliberate. It’s the kind of prank I’d pull if I had the ability.

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