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.