They Could Be Heroes

From The New Republic:

Imagine a conversation stitched together across time. On one side of the table, it’s 1993 and David Foster Wallace is hunched, do-ragged, gesticulating: “I probably didn’t watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to entertain, give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving?”

Across from him is Michael Chabon in 2005, natty, boyish, and smiling: “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations.… But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure.”

In both these proclamations, Chabon and Wallace were confronting the state of art in a period when commercial entertainment enjoyed unparalleled dominance over American culture. Through the 1990s, cable television exploded, with subscriptions hitting their peak at the millennium. Oprah Winfrey’s book club, launched in 1996, wielded the power to boost the sales of a book by a factor of 40. There was more television than ever, and television helped choose the stories Americans would read. In the economic prosperity and relative calm of the Nineties, pop culture felt like not just a pleasant accompaniment to reality, but like reality itself.

. . . .

By the end of the decade, Chabon’s view had mostly won out. Consider the breakout titles of 1999 and 2000: a reality television–inspired memoir (Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), a Chandleresque noir story (Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn), a tongue-in-cheek riff on Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany (Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist), a collection of Westworld-like short stories (George Saunders’s Pastoralia), and a novel that wanted to be a comic book (Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). Galvanized by the enthusiasms of their youth, these five writers ushered in a literary aesthetic that was loose and unwieldy, gleefully looting popular genres and mixing the highbrow with the low. To be the proverbial writer on whom nothing is lost, one suddenly needed to be knowledgeable about horror movies, Robert A. Heinlein, and the differences between DC and Marvel comics.

. . . .

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Nineties writers’ aesthetic was their sincerity, their openheartedness. Whereas today’s cult authors, like Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti, are inward-turned and intellectual, Dave Eggers believed that books and journals should create welcoming, affable communities.

. . . .

It’s no small thing to tell a familiar story well, and it’s no small thing to make the familiar entertaining and exciting again. Today’s crop of leading novelists looked to fiction for a miraculous escape from the boredom and disillusion of everyday existence, and their success in part reflects the fact that readers share their sentiment. Most of the escapists have stayed faithful to their pledge to provide enjoyment even as they’ve grown better, in middle age, at facing tragedy and loss. The best of the books achieve an emotional immediacy that makes up for the fact that they almost never take place in the present, and they rarely present a particularly demanding or critical view of the past.

Link to the rest at New Republic

To PG, this feels like something written by New York and for New York. Or perhaps by Manhattan and for Manhattan.

6 thoughts on “They Could Be Heroes”

  1. “Except to what end, this pleasure-giving?”

    DWS seems to have been blind to entertainment’s ability to lose yourself in someone else’s less mundane life, to experience deeply felt emotions from a safe distance, and simply to be enthralled by an exciting story. These are highly valued.

    • “The question that these writers—that all writers—have had to consider since last November, of course, is whether enchantment can still suffice.”

      No. We don’t. And we aren’t paying attention to anything you are saying.

      The real question is when those so invested in the snobbery of “literary fiction” will admit that it was a complete historical failure as a concept, both in terms of entertainment, and art. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff labeled “literary fiction,” there is, but it is a genre of writing that will ultimately have less lasting impact on culture than detective novels, let alone romance novels. And the few and far between good literary novels barely make up for the vast sea of dreck the concept created and the money lost promoting it.

      The whole notion of literary fiction was a devil’s pact between the CIA (trying to prove the USA valued art), the universities, and snobby publishing elites to try to sell readers on the idea that they should buy and read what they are told, rather than what they enjoy. It barely worked when traditional newspapers could push particular writers and bookstores could limit what people were allowed to buy. But even then, it was a financial loser. Now, there’s absolutely nothing to prop it up. Might as well try to sell the public they need to read classics in the original Greek.

      So writers like Chabon are rushing to write genre but wrap it up in literary pretention to create hybrids that book critics can try to claim are still literary enough to deserve “serious” reviews. If they can move enough books with some comic book and action elements maybe they can get an occasional click on their reviews to stay relevant.

      The irony of all this is that self-publishing and unlimited shelf space should be the answer to the problem that literary fiction was always unprofitable. Writers who truly believe in the form now have complete freedom to write challenging works and if there are any readers who actually enjoy that kind of stuff, there is no reason it can’t be found. The problem is there seems to be a lot more people who like writing it than reading it.

      • Fiction that is really literary is enjoyable and interesting.

        Think about it. Is Shakespeare boring? Is Chaucer boring?

        If you aren’t literary enough to write about chicken adventures or fairy love spells, you are probably not hardcore literary.

  2. This has the feel of a senior thesis marked “Muscular!” by a prof and subsequently sharpened for submission.

    And ends in an exhortation for writers to write something different from what they are choosing.
    (Should I add that I think that such exhortations are wrong-headed?)

    And, btw, the next line of the Bowie song is:
    “…Just for one day”

  3. Hm. Is this the twin to that article about science fiction being called something else to make it palatable to the hoi poloi? Because we all know people can’t read genre fiction because they >i<like it. Duh.

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