Lifestyles of the Rich and Stupid

by wjw on October 22, 2018

One of the joys of reading contemporary literary fiction is enjoying the wealth of close observation that literary fiction demands.  Close observation, done right, is delightful, but you have to hope that whatever is being observed is worth the effort, and so often it isn’t, as (for example) when the subject is adultery among the white American upper middle classes. (If you’re going to write about sex, why set it among the most boring people in the world?  But I digress.)

I recently read a novel that brought this issue into sharp relief.  (No, I won’t mention the title, because guess why?  Nobody’s paying me for a review, that’s why!)  The book started with a good idea, which is to say, to follow a number of characters through a world-shifting crisis of the sort that seems to occur every couple years these days.  The characters aren’t important players in the crisis, but are linked to the players in various ways, either as family, colleagues, friends, or rivals.  They’re connected to the crisis emotionally and in other ways, and their loyalty (if any) to the perpetrator class will be tested.

I call that a pretty good premise, even if the entire cast was East Coast white upper-middle class (which is one of the rules of literary fiction since the CIA’s cultural coup in the 1950s, meant to assure that serious writers would not insert political content into their works).

But, having started with this excellent premise, the author then made all the characters, well, stupid.  These people really had no clue.  They spent pages and pages not paying attention to what was going on, and being bewildered, and gathering together in groups to talk about how little they knew, and to try to draw conclusions based on facts they sort of made up, and trying to figure out who to scapegoat.

Do you have any idea how excruciating it is to read pages and pages of nothing but closely observed dunderheads?  My god!  I kept urging the author, Please for Christ’s sake give these people a clue!  But no clues had arrived by the halfway point, at which point I gave up.  I knew what was going to happen to everybody, which was that reality would catch up with them, and the results would not be happy.  Possibly some might learn a lesson or two, but that seemed unlikely.

How much more interesting the book might have been if the characters had known a few things, maybe just enough to get themselves into serious trouble.  But they didn’t even know that much.  They didn’t even know enough to be spear carriers.

I wish they’d all gone to the country club and stayed there.

So, for those of you writers who want to make us pay close attention to your characters, please make the characters worthy of our attention.  Is that too much to ask?

John Appel October 22, 2018 at 10:45 am

At least Richard Russo deals with people who aren’t upper-middle class in his literary works.

pixlaw October 22, 2018 at 11:51 am


Not to be too much of a bummer, but to answer your last question evidently it IS too much to ask.

Susan October 23, 2018 at 12:09 am

Sounds like one of the last “literary” fiction books I tried to read. I read Russo’s “Bridge of Sighs” a few years back and really enjoyed it, but can’t seem to get around to reading more of his work.

Margot Otway November 2, 2018 at 9:32 pm

This is what Dante gave us Limbo for.

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