Stuck in the Middle(brow)

If we must endure essays that make broad generalizations about the state of American literature—and if David Shields and the Huffington Post have their way, we must, we must—I’d sooner it take it in the form of Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Letter to Norway.” Asked by the Norwegian literary magazine Bokvennen to deliver some thoughts about American fiction since 2000, Kunkel argues that the stuff has been defined by a kind of slackening of postmodern gamesmanship, replaced by a resurgence of a more formal kind of realism that’s interested in acquiring elements of other genres while not actually becoming genre fiction.

In other words, so long to the “hysterical realism” that James Wood criticized in 2000, and hello to way-we-live-now novels like Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections (and the forthcoming Freedom, which is no departure from that sensibility); the “neuronovel” that the n+1 set is trying to get some traction on, in which mental disorders are stand-ins for way-we-live-now ruminations (let’s say Richard PowersThe Echo Maker); and a postmodernism-lite that’s subsumed by old-fashioned plotting (let’s say The Echo Maker again). Kunkel at least twists the knife slowly: “[I]n spite of some postmodern or genre-bending refurbishing, we have witnessed at once a practical and an ideological return to ‘realism.’ … The disappearance of the term ‘middlebrow’ over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world.”

Resistance to such statements is futile, since it’s forever true that people, in general, gravitate toward things that are more comforting than not, and that trends are created by the stuff that large numbers gravitate toward. If you want to argue that a decade’s tastes are largely middlebrow, you’ll pretty much by definition be right. (Only the authors’ names will change; two decades ago there was probably a similiar essay arguing that American literature was infected with male novelists like John Updike and Richard Ford who suffered from an overabundance of masculinity, instead of “moral and sexual innocence” male writers allegedly suffer from today.) So, point taken, though Kunkel’s critique does seem to ignore the notion that last decade was in some ways a heyday for the hysterical realists, if only thanks to Dave Eggers, who was able to publish and support all manner of arch, effortful, occasionally successful fiction; if not him, then David Foster Wallace‘s inheritors, Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem. Love it or hate it, the path to the success of book like Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Lydia Davis‘ recent collections was paved by that work earlier in the decade. Kunkel may be right that realism is winning the day, but it hasn’t all been easygoing sentimentality.

6 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle(brow)

  1. Mark,

    Thanks for posting this. One of my regrets is that there is not more discussion of the state of the American novel.

    “The disappearance of the term ‘middlebrow’ over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world.”

    There is other work out there, but it is not getting published and thus not getting read. The dominant influence of the last thirty years has been the corporate model. The changes Kunkel describes have happened in part because the publishing industry has dictated them. Decisions are made by frankly commercial agents and corporate boardrooms, not literary sensibilities. Twenty years ago, John Aldridge laid out a picture of this development in “The New Assembly-line Fiction” (from Talents and Technicians), trends which have only intensified. Knopf will not take on a Sound and Fury anymore; FSG largely publishes only less conventional foreign writers and looks to earn its keep with domestic authors like Franzen. For an entertaining look at the publishing world, watch especially the fourth movie here:

    Peter Rubie is one of the more commercial agents, but the message is the same elsewhere. Basically, a publishing house, now part of a large corporate chain looking at shareholders and profit margins, can make more money selling 100,000 copies of one book than 10,000 (a good run) of ten books. A corollary of this is that they will take a chance on a book that might sell big, but won’t even consider the more demanding books that might, in fact, sell. But these are old numbers, and I’m sure they’ve been revised upward. Authors such as DeLillo keep getting published because they established a reputation — and sales — long ago. I wonder if recent writers will be able to even get started, much less have a publishing career.

    “Realism” is a slippery term, but it has hardly been applied with thought or imagination. Tom Wolfe made a superficial appeal in his essay “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast” years ago:

    Click to access tomwolfe.pdf

    He also describes a type of fiction that will sell. It is also an argument for disposable fiction. Franzen has made similar arguments. Wolfe wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities, which received much attention at the time and has largely been forgotten. I make my arguments against it and his “realism” here:

    There are other factors, of course — changes in our culture, burgeoning MFA programs, each with its own special influences. And perhaps a decline of popular discussion, such as the one you started.

    1. Thanks for the comments. One problem I have with essays like this–Kunkel’s and the Huffington Post Post That Shall Not Be Named Or Linked To But We All Know Which One I’m Talking About—is that its criticism isn’t informed by a clear statement about what quality American literature might be. Kunkel makes a (small) case for Joshua Ferris’ “The Unnamed,” which is apparently to be applauded for its “formal restlessness,” but I wasn’t seeing that; if anything its problem was a kind of formal stasis, a stubborn unwilliness to say anything differently even while the main character was going everywhere. (More here: I don’t disagree with Kunkel’s notion that literature tends to cluster around certain ideas and themes, and that those themes are perhaps midwifed by the financial concerns of the publishing industry. But I don’t get a sense from Kunkel of where the pushback—i.e., the great innovators and experimenters—is coming from, or even if he believes there is pushback. I don’t think McSweeney’s is a great example for me to break out on that front—I dislike a lot of what it publishes—but it’s somehow found a way to both test new ideas and gain an audience, which isn’t a small thing.

      “Realism” is indeed a slippery term, so it’s hard to figure out how much Kunkel feels “realism” (or “renovated realism” as he contemptuously puts it) has suffered in the past decade. Tom Wolfe’s call for journalistic realism in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” may have resulted in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (which I agree is more of a satire), but your mention of that essay reminds me that it did inspire what I think is one great “realist” novel, Richard Price’s “Clockers.” Price talked to me about that when I interviewed him about the book:

      Q: When Clockers came out, it got a lot of comparisons to The Bonfire of the Vanities. What did you think about that at the time?

      A: I know Tom Wolfe had been talking about my writing before that, when he wrote that essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” that sort of diatribe he had against minimalist writers, metafiction, this and that. He basically said, there’s a whole world out there, and he used me as an example. This was before Clockers—I was still writing screenplays, so we’re talking about my earlier stuff. And then when Bonfire of the Vanities came out, and I read it, it made me crazy, because I felt like, “I want to go back to writing books.” Not that I wanted write to like Tom Wolfe. But he was writing about the kind of things that I wanted to write about and hadn’t written about in so long. The book itself made me nuts, made me want to write.

      Price has kept up that spirit, I think, and if Kunkel’s concern is that American fiction was turned somehow wussy, or self-involved, or a little brain-damaged, I think Lush Life would serve as a pretty good counterpoint to that.

      There’s a lot to say about Franzen’s Freedom in relation to this, but I still have to write my formal review. I’m sure I’ll spend some time talking about it on the blog, though I hope not overwhelmingly so…

  2. I think you’re observation that he ignores, or seems to ignore, the way literary fiction has taken up elements of (and indeed in many cases has become) genre fiction over the last decade is spot on. If you just look at the Pulitzer winners over the last decade, three of them (Diaz, McCarthy, Chabon) seem to be experimenting with genre and three others (March, Gilead, The Known World) are historical fiction; I find it difficult to see these as “way we live now ruminations.” Of course, this is just one data set, but it seems a useful touchstone to such a general claim.

  3. Price does take on sensational subjects which helps sales — crime/drugs/the urban scene — but he hasn’t lapsed into sensationalism and these are relevant topics. Lush Life is a very fine book, sensitive, well observed, well conceived, and well written. He writes from experience and genuine empathy. I would argue he succeeds on all counts, in ways that Franzen and Wolfe do not. But give all three credit: at least they are trying. I suspect part of the problem is that we live in a culture that does not want to hear their message — or may not be equipped to understand it. Michael Lewis notes how the boys on Wall Street got a kick out of Bonfire.

    More than ever, fiction has to compete with the other media and has lost its place in the culture. While it might be an opportunity for fiction to redefine itself and stake out new territory, so many writers now try to take the culture on, and on its terms — action, pop trends, and sensation — at the expense of experiment and reflection. Then again, that is where the culture is. But these have a huge influence on what is written and how. Try to get anything else by an agent.

    As for the pushback, it’s just not supported. The New Yorker used to publish the stories of Barthelme and Peter Handke. They even published Max Frisch’s entire novella Man in the Holocene, years ago. Now, while it has moved out into the world, its published stories cling to standard forms. Houses such as Knopf, Counterpoint, and Ecco have been absorbed in corporate entities and changed accordingly. Compare their titles now with those of 20-30 years ago. Independents such as Dalkey and New Directions largely publish foreign writers and very little American. Odds are good such work is not supported in MFA programs, either, which have exploded in the last twenty years, some 800 now, I understand. And more and more, writers have to go to one of a handful of those programs to break into publishing (as was noted in the 20 over 40 NY stories).

    Of course the houses had a problem. People stopped buying those titles, and the shift may reflect a change in readership as well. And in writers. One complaint I’ve heard from MFA instructors is that their students don’t read that broadly or that far back. And a lot of energy has gone only into stance and subject — your complaint about McSweeney’s? — as is the case elsewhere.

    “Realism,” like the novel itself, was an experiment. The form has always had to examine and justify itself. Yet so much popular criticism is based on a kind of common sense notion of fiction, more an unexamined posture than a critical stance, something on the order of what B. R. Meyers wrote in the Atlantic some years ago, “A Reader’s Manifesto”:

    He does have a point about sloppiness, though.

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