Crises Averted

Last Sunday the Jaipur Literature Festival hosted a panel called “The Crisis of American Fiction,” though the assembled panelists couldn’t agree that there was one. According to a report from the Times of India (the fest’s sponsor), Richard Ford figured we wouldn’t recognize the crisis if we were living in it, while Junot Diaz argued that the crisis has more to do with time-strapped readers than writers. Both Martin Amis (moving soon to Brooklyn, which I suppose qualifies him to weigh in) and Jay McInerney took the long view, saying they’ve heard this story before:

McInerney said: “By the 50s and 60s, writers like Truman Capote and Mailer began turning to non-fiction. By the 1970s, there was a crisis with Realism. By the 1980s, post-modernism or `PoMo’ was the catchword. American writers began soul-searching over whether fiction was about the world, or simply a game of words, with no connection to reality.”

Maybe it’s more correct, then, to say fiction is in a perpetual state of crisis, and that its survival largely depends on its capacity to respond to whatever we’ve just decided is killing it this time around. To work with McInerney’s series of examples: Capote and Mailer‘s abandonment of fiction was counterbalanced by John Updike‘s ascendance; Don DeLillo denied postmodern death-of-the-author chatter by finding a way into both realism and pomo acrobatics; David Foster Wallace, and, sure, Junot Diaz recognized the limits of fiction as a method of describing reality but could still find a way to capture feeling. And those are just the big names, though big names are necessary here—you haven’t responded well to the “crisis” if you haven’t brought readers along with you. And even so, we could all name a dozen or so lesser-known writers who successfully pushed back against its theoretical sworn enemy of the moment. (I bet we could even come up with a few who were products of MFA programs, yet another oft-claimed source of American literature’s decline.)

What’s different this time, though, is that the enemy isn’t a theory but a fact—available time, which is now reportedly less dedicated to reading because the internet has been eroding our attention spans. Might it spell doom for authors too? This is the anxiety that Union Atlantic author Adam Haslett voices in a Financial Times article pondering a “kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect.” He quotes editor Geoff Kloske of Riverhead Books (Diaz’s publisher), who says, “More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of e-mail and social media.”

Haslett is careful not to drift into woe-is-us-nobody-writes-long-letters-anymore complaints, which is as it should be. Just because more people dash off text messages than write letters, it doesn’t automatically follow that fiction becomes more text-message-y, or that readers won’t pay attention to someone who can write well-crafted sentences. (Did people ever worry about what telegrams were doing to our brains? To our fiction?) In Salon, Laura Miller takes an optimistic view and argues that novelists are only just now beginning to come to terms with how the internet reshapes our lives and our relationships. Novels now serve as a repository for “museum-quality depth,” she writes—the place we go when we’ve had it with our e-mail, Tweets, and Facebook friends. They’re also where writers increasingly go to show us who we are: Freedom‘s Walter Berglund’s sincerity is revealed as mere crankiness once a rant of his goes viral, for instance. Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story and Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad are also called out for special attention, though Miller doesn’t dwell much on how, in both books, the internet enlivens the sentences Haslett is so concerned about. Both novels skewer the online lingo that attempts to reduce us to database metrics (“need,” “reach,” “and corruptability” in Egan; “MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450” in Shteyngart), and they do it by showing how miserably they fall short of understanding who we are. Fiction writers will increasingly have to learn how to exist side by side with an audience whose patience is increasingly tested, but the value of the fiction writer won’t necessarily be reduced from that effort.

Adam Haslett, Lionel Shriver, and the Bygone Age of Order

Much of the praise directed toward Adam Haslett‘s debut novel, Union Atlantic, is focused on how timely it is. One of its lead characters, Doug Fanning, is an investment banker who takes advantage of increasingly slack government financial regulation to make greedy, high-risk bets on the foreign market. It’s not a novel about credit default swaps, which would actually be “timely.” But a work of fiction about investment banks published when investment banks are undergoing a public scourging has been enough to qualify it as on-the-news. “Union Atlantic pulls us into our very own societal and financial nightmare,” as USA Today put it.

That makes it seem a little like Haslett is trying to work up some populist outrage in the book, which he isn’t. The tone of Union Atlantic is too detached for that, and while Haslett makes the folly of Fanning’s enterprise abundantly clear, his prose is mainly concerned with capturing the sheer inevitability of bankers’ greed. Haslett does offer more than a few potent sentences about how corporations have abused the American citizenry. The best one arrives early on: “What had the government become these days but the poorly advertised fire sale of the public interest?” But the curious thing about Union Atlantic is that it’s structured not just to sap the power of rallying cries like that, but shades toward arguing against them.

The main reason for that is embodied in the character who ponders that “fire sale” line: Charlotte Graves, the woman angry at the McMansion that Fanning has built next to hers. Charlotte is an aging former teacher, pushed out of her job for agitating about the government a little too fervently, and she’s retreated into a solitary life with her two dogs. When a high-school student appears at her door for some tutoring in American history, Haslett looks at Charlotte from the boy’s point of view, and what she looks like is a poor woman snowed in by stacks of papers and books, rambling about the public trust and taxation law—the civics teacher as Miss Havisham:

From an ancient wingback chair losing feathers through the frayed fabric of its cushion, Nate took in the remarkable state of the room. Every surface from the side tables to the mantlepiece and a good portion of the floor was covered in paper: journals, newspapers, magazines, manila folders overflowing with yellowed documents, the piles adorned with everything from coffee mugs to used plates to stray articles of clothing—red wool gloves, a knitted scarf. And everywhere he looked, books: hardbacks, paperbacks, reference volumes, ancient leather-bound spines with peeling gold lettering, atlases, books of art and photography, biographies, novels, histories, some splayed open, others shut over smaller volumes, the overstuffed bookcases themselves standing against the walls like sagging monuments to some bygone age of order, entirely insufficient now to contain this sea of printed matter.

In time, Charlotte’s increasing separation from contemporary attitudes about government—which are unconcerned with her fusty notions of government’s responsibility to the people—will make her increasingly unhinged. Her two dogs speak to her in the increasingly oppressive voices of Malcolm X and Cotton Mather, and though her investment-banker neighbor doesn’t come off especially well, Charlotte comes off as worse. To be a greedy banker is to be a fool, Haslett argues, but to be a good citizen is to be a nutjob.

Haslett isn’t alone in pursuing this line of thinking. Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, So Much for That, is also “timely”: It centers on Shep Knacker, a well-meaning working stiff whose hopes to retire early on a remote island are wrecked when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, the treatments for which rapidly drain his savings. To provide a sounding board for Shep (and comic relief for the reader), Shriver introduces Shep’s friend Jackson, who’s keeping a running list of funny titles for books that would expose just how thoroughly the U.S. government is taking advantage of the people (CHUMPS: How Behind Our Backs a Bunch of Bums and Bamboozlers Turned America Into a Country Where We Can’t Do Anything or Earn Anything or Say Anything When It Use to Be a Damned Nice Place to Live). “Citizenship as an aspiration was pathetic,” Jackson thinks, but he recognizes that there was once a time when it wasn’t.

Not unlike Union Atlantic‘s Charlotte, Jackson is punished for clinging to the notion that institutions are treating people worse. As the novel moves on, he shifts from conjuring up clever book titles to browbeating his children about America’s formerly rigorous education system and exasperating his wife by rattling off a laundry list of tax abuses:

“Federal unemployment tax, fishing license tax, food license tax, fuel permit tax, gasoline tax, hunting license tax, inheritance tax, inventory tax, IRS interest charges tax (that’s tax on tax), IRS penalties tax (more tax on tax), liquor tax, luxury tax—”

“Honey, that’s enough,” said Carol.

“Marriage license tax, Medicare tax, property tax—”

“Sweetie, we get the picture. Would you please give it a rest?”

“Road usage tax, recreational vehicle tax, sales tax, state income tax—”

“If you don’t shut up right now—!”

“School tax, service charge tax, Social Security tax—”

“—I swear I will drive right out of here without you!”

“Look, pumpkin, hang on one minute, would you? State unemployment tax, telephone federal excise tax—”

This time it was Carol who hit the table, with the full flat of her hand, and it was loud. “What are you so mad about, Jackson? Really? What is so terrible about your life?”

Underlying all this is Jackson’s disastrous decision to undergo penis enlargement surgery. That tactic not only makes for some bracing, difficult scenes—Shriver isn’t the best novelist working today, but she’s among the nerviest—but tidily suggests that caring about government not only saps your sense of virility but makes you a moron to boot.

Yes, Union Atlantic and So Much for That are “timely,” and at a time when fiction has a tough time in the marketplace it’s understandable that their publishers would push that angle. But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant. I suspect that what readers will gravitate to in these novels 10, 20, 50 years from now aren’t how they captured investment banking and healthcare as it existed in the early 21st century, but how they reflected a time when people were deeply anxious about what it meant to be a responsible citizen. And they’ll notice that novelists avoided addressing that anxiety head-on by making responsible citizens residents not so much of America but of crazytown.

Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer: