Friday, May 27, 2011

Keeping up with new fiction

This is somewhat off-topic, but it is prompted by spending a couple of hours this morning going through about six months of the New York Times Book Review. As a scholar of 18th-century literature, and especially of Goethe, there is a drawback: one often doesn't know what is going on, literature-wise, in one's own time. Goethe certainly kept abreast of new developments, whether literary, artistic, even political. A friend of mine regularly channels her finished copies of the NYTBR to me. I am reminded anew of why I stopped reading the so-called paper of record years ago: boring. Make that BORING. It's hard to image why anyone would be interested in most of the new novels it reviews. Here are some outtakes from reviews read this morning:

"Solitude at Twilight: A widow's quiet life is altered when she buys a car and find herself open to the world anew"

"Only Bitterness Remains: In David Vann's first novel, isolation and an Alaskan winter take their toll on a marriage"

"Growing up Fast: As this novel's 14-year-old narrator looks on, her affluent suburban family disintegrates"

"Power of Recall: A writer recollects her long-estranged mother, and her own long-estranged childhood"

"Child Catcher: In this memoir, Margaux Fragoso rememers her relationship with the man who molested her"

I do not intend to make light of the emotional pain experienced or portrayed by these writers, but why are revelations of self-laceration and dysfunction so "popular" with publishers? Pleasures are always small, but epiphanic (the widow buys a car). There is nothing to get enthused about anymore, so we are told. People are invited to reflect on sadness.

The news pages of The New York Times are also infested with downbeat "narratives." News stories on the front page, for instance, no longer consist of facts, but, instead, of stories. Thus, an article on poverty always begins with, say, a single mom living in a trailer in some rural outback. These articles are unashamedly manipulative. Though I haven't read the Times for about three decades, I bet they haven't run an article in that time in which hard work triumphs. The paper has a relentlessly negative tic. Some people call the newspaper's slant "liberal"; I call it postmodernist. Bodmer would disapprove. So would Goethe.

Just for the record, here are some novels I have read in the past couple of years, with "grades": The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason (C); The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (A-); Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick (C); The Imperfectionists, by Tim Rachman (B+); Serious Men, by Manu Joseph (A-); Generosity, by Richard Powers (A-); The Short Day Dying, by Peter Hobbs (A-); Cooking with Fernet-Branca, by James Hamilton-Patterson (A); Me and Kaminski, by Daniel Kehlmann (A); Loving Sabotage, by Amelie Nothomb (B+); My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru (A); A Person of Interest, by Susan Choi (A); The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker (A).

By criterion for an "A" is based more on finding the book entertaining or enjoyable than in literary merit. Now it is time to go back to the 18th century.

Picture credit: Harold's Planet


Not Optimistic said...

I agree with your overall assessment. I've largely stopped reading contemporary literature after finding that critical overpraise leads to disappointment.

Gareth Heard said...

Can't agree more Not Optimistic.