Sunday, September 8, 2013

Killing My Idols: A Rant.

As someone who is currently being forced to read some exceedingly boring, self-involved literary criticism, I thought: why the hell not write some!

This is not so much criticism of the academic sort, but rather the sort of criticism that one receives from one’s mother.

I don’t mean to bemoan the state of modern American fiction so much as I would like to openly and actively bitch about it.

If we met at a very fancy party and you asked me who I read or who my influences are (this does actually happen BTW, and not just at parties in my own head) then I would say what I have been saying my entire life: I read Steve Erickson, I read Jonathan Lethem, I read Aimee Bender, I read Mark Danielewski, Don DeLillo, Junot Diaz, and on and on and on and I would hit all of the proper g-spots.

For those of you who do not go to these sorts of parties; imagine showing up to a new job where everyone watches Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men. And you say, “I watch all of those too!” but for effect you throw in Downton Abbey or Dexter or House of Cards, because you want to broaden the field. Or - if you really want to open it up - “I have been watching The State Within” or “I just started Skins on Netflix.”

Anyway. Point being, yes these are all good shows. Even if you don’t watch them, you probably have - at some point - seen them. And they are usually undeniably good. But are they satisfying you in a deeper way? Maybe they are. I don’t know that much about what satisfies you in a deeper way because you never comment on this blog and tell me!

Well imagine that you felt a personal investment in whether or not these shows are both good and deeply satisfying. Imagine that, while these shows are good and beyond reproach, you feel that they are missing something that there is an essential vitality and soul that just isn’t present in them anymore. That is how I have been feeling lately about the state of modern American literary fiction (what the rest of the world just calls: novels.)

I feel that there is a vitality missing, that some essential element of fear and of anger and of joy has gone out of that world.

Since we aren’t at a fancy party I feel okay admitting to you that while Steve Erickson has probably been for me the most formative novelist I have ever encountered in my life, his last two novels were almost impossible for me to get through. And Jonathan Lethem - though I love him so - seems to have been writing exclusively for the Pulitzer committee with everything he’s done since Motherless Brooklyn. Danielewski owes all of his counter-culture-hero status to House of Leaves and his work since then - I say this with all dues respect - would not have elevated him to literary luminary status. I’m fairly certain that Only Revolutions was written with the expressed (kinda D-bag-y) intent of creating an impenetrable masterwork on the assumed level of Ulysses or The Waste Land or Gravity’s Rainbow. So YAY for pedantic obfuscation! I guess.

I guess I’m in the mood to kill my idols tonight.

This is why I am terrible at academic literary criticism BTW, I have difficulty concealing my displeasure. Also, I don’t actually try to be a backbiter - I like to think that I have angels on my shoulder when I write this stuff -  and lets face it, backbiting is really all that academic literary criticism is …

Well, that may not be fair. To be fair, most academic literary criticism is about coming up with a largely backbiting idea and then turning it into an abstract to submit to a conference and then if you get accept to the conference you write the paper and then present it at the conference and that goes on your CV and one day that CV will help you get a professorship somewhere and once you have a professorship you can get tenor and then that is basically WINNING! (Somebody tell the balloon-drop guys!)

But that is not my complaint here today. Every industry and profession has its own self-serving, self-justifying feedback loops.

My complaint today is the lack of verve, of energy, of zest in modern American literary fiction. I don’t specifically blame this on Junot Diaz or any of the others I’ve specifically mentioned (Although that dude got himself a MacArthur genius grant which pissed me off because he was already in the position to do nothing but write his name on cocktail napkins and he’d have been a bestseller for the rest of his life.) I blame it on all of us. I blame it on our entire culture. I blame this on a society that tells Joss Whedon that Avengers was a good movie. It was not. The first half was pretty good, the second half was for fifteen-year-old boys, which is what most of us are now. I blame it on a culture that melts the internet when Miley Cyrus goes on television and does exactly what our culture tells her to do. I blame it on adults making cultural phenomenons out of books that are written specifically for teenages.

I have no problem with escapism. I have a problem with the fact that I have nothing to choose between except escapism and the myth of meritocracy. I have a problem with the fact that oh so many years ago Jonathan Franzen had to give a fuck what Oprah thought, but I also have a problem with the fact that Jonathan Frazen’s book was stultifyingly boring, and I also have a problem with the fact that Jonathan Frazen was a dick to Oprah. How the fuck hard is it to be nice to Oprah?

By this point I have written a blog post that seems (to you) a little rant-y but to me could actually be a little career-kill-y should I ever end up in a room with the people who control America’s literary fiction world. But let’s face it, with every day that passses there is less and less chance that I am ever going to end up in that room. But, of course, there is always a chance. But I’m risking it anyway. Because that is the kind of risk - the kind of zest and verve and vitality - that I think there is too little of lately.


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