Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What literary fiction means to me

In the style of the novelist Rick Moody, answering the Paris Review’s question, “What does American mean to you? Do you consider yourself an American writer?” (h/t: Mark Athitakis).

Q.: What does literary fiction mean to you? Do you consider yourself a reader of literary fiction?

A.: What other kind of fiction would I read? (Can you read something that is not written?) I guess to read literary fiction means, you know, that I have winced routinely at midlife crises and that I have the limitless free­dom to be ashamed of shameless adulterers, and that I am proud of a country that I don’t recognize in its pages, and that there must be some­thing wrong with me because my political conscience is not swollen like a goiter, and that baseball is an occasion for gloppy sentimentalism and total ignorance, and it means that I must listen to men who are so sensitive they’ve never shown any courage in their lives, and it means that I am a stranger to transcendence, and it means that I am familiar with artificial word-order and outlandish yokings of verb and adverb or adjective and noun, and it means, let’s see, that I am not embarrassed by another person’s sexual expe­rience, just need to know the stuff that some guy does in bed, and it means one place is pretty much like another place and not worth paying much attention to at any rate, and it means sentences are really, really well-crafted (even if the craft is more readily apparent than their meaning, which sometimes is not apparent at all), and it means that I don’t mind listening to people yapping incessantly about how terrible America is, and how terrible Bush is, and did you know America was once a slave-holding nation, and O what about the Native Americans, don’t forget them, and it means that radical personal autonomy is the only possible mode of life worth pursuing, even though most of the people I know derive most of their happiness from their families, and it means that I ought to covet urban apartments filled with fine objects and cool gadgets and unusual cookbooks that I won’t find on Amazon and no children, and it means that the best people know nothing whatever about cars or guns or tools or how to fix anything, and it means that I hear a lot of opinions but very little knowledge, and it means I can’t possibly imagine what men and women do all day at work when they’re not reading literary fiction. Wow, it really means a lot of really good things, doesn’t it?


Laforge said...

And with that, I have officially unsubscribed from this blog. You're too much of a real man for me, dogg.

D. G. Myers said...

That’s the beauty of a blog. There are no subscriptions. You need only stop reading the blog, although it’s hard then to make a scene.

Kerry said...

I can feel your frustration, a frustration I sometimes share, with fiction that seems sometimes bent upon itself or too much of the exhibitionist culture we in which we live. There is that. And there are too many books about writers or musicians or artists. Too few about auto assembly workers, sanitation workers. I do agree with some of these gripes. And, not every book or character should contain the uber sensitive, I care about whales and Darfur people, although I do care about whales AND Darfur. Some really interesting people care more about deer hunting.

Reading literary fiction is your job and merely my avocation, plus our politics differ substantially, so I can certainly understand this burst of frustration at literary fiction that often seems to plow the same field incessantly, preventing too much of interest from growing.

In other words, good riddance Laforge. While I am sure we probably don't agree on some specifics (Oscar Wao is great!), I find your frustration justified.

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks for the boost. And our politics and “specifics” may not differ as much as you think.

But my parody of Rick Moody’s reply to the Paris Review was not written out of frustration. It was intended to draw attention to something that Moody himself is unaware of.

Namely, his long loopy one-sentence reply, despite the “cadence” that was praised by a commentator on Mark Athitakis’s site, is entirely conventional. I mean conventional in the literary sense. It is a convention of a certain class of fiction writer in this country to display their cultural and political superiority in an occasional set-piece.

Because Athitakis is a good critic, his eye was caught by the passage’s only touch of originality, the observation about the peculiarly American business of “ministorage.”

The rest of the passage, though, was packed with clichés (Europe is sophisticated, America is not), self-congratulation (“I come from a country of former self-owners,” which makes me deeply ashamed of being an American, ain’t I a good person?), potted history (baseball was never a “Native American game”), sloganeering references to something that has never existed the better to distance himself from it (Judeo-Christianity, which erases how Judaism has differed), and smug condescension to Americans who are not as fine-tuned to correct opinion as he.

My takeoff was a clumsy effort to catalogue the pretensions of the “literary fiction” class, which do not frustrate me but drive me crazy.

A. J. said...

The literary fiction class is a club, and you're not in it, to paraphrase George Carlin. Why not start your own club?

D. G. Myers said...

A class and a club are two different things. You can’t really start a class, and I don’t much like clubs.

What I should like to suggest is that contemporary novelists need not secure a place in America’s ruling class, nor write about it nearly exclusively, to make their marks.

Guy Pursey said...

The other Myers (B.R.) would call Moody's sentence (and your pastiche/parody by extension) an "andelope". You say in the comment above that the "long loopy one-sentence reply" is part of a convention; that such set-pieces are used for a display of supposed cultural/political superiority. It's interesting that Bret Easton Ellis uses andelopes excessively, in his earlier first-person novels at least, to signify his narrators' mental passivity and seeming inability to critically engage with anything around them. Hm, just a thought....

Tim Chambers said...

Me again, got your message a while back.

I share your frustration with Rick Moody's comment. It is that of an old fashioned limousine liberal, which Moody, with his banker father and Fairfield County background, clearly is.

I also write, though not pretty prose for the tea sippers and the MFA set. I write, not to tear my country down, but to point out that it has been been torn down, dismantled quite literally, factory by factory, for the profit of the few, who all the while are pointing fingers at those who merely tear it down figuratively, as political cover for their own economic depredations. The real ruling class in this country abrogated its responsibility to the people thirty years ago, with the election of Ronald Reagan, and it has been thriving at everyone else's expense ever since.

How anyone who is not from that class can support it, just because they hate the limousine liberals is beyond my ken. Where is the equal opportunity contempt for limousine populists, such as Bush?

Kerry said...

I didn't read the Moody answer first. I thought your point was clear enough. Perhaps that was Laforge's problem too. But, Moody, what a f***ing blowhard. Yes, there is plenty wrong with it, the overuse of cliches apparently being a particularly annoying fault of "ours".

D. G. Myers said...

Yeah, because contempt for Bush is such a rare commodity in literary fiction. If that’s what you want you can get your fill in Franzen’s latest potboiler.

fred said...

I think your parody is amazing, great, good.