Monday, June 24, 2013

Where's the literary fiction?

There was some controversy recently about a piece in Salon claiming that "most contemporary literary fiction is terrible."  There was a side claiming "Right on!", a side claiming "How dare you?" and the majority side of "Huh?"  But the odd thing about the piece is that nowhere is any writer or any title named.  Literary fiction terrible?  All of it?  Or just certain tendencies? Maybe it's just the experimentalists, maybe just the realists, maybe just the prize-winners - it's just not stated.

So where to start looking?  Conveniently critic Ted Gioia has given us a list of The New Canon: The Best in Fiction Since 1985.  (You can see another list that's also called The New Canon and includes mostly the same books.)  First thing to note is that "fiction" doesn't mean fiction - he means literary fiction which is just another genre but one that's marketed itself as somehow superior, just like Subway has created the idea that its junk food (seriously, look it up) is somehow healthful.  Even within that category it seems somewhat thin and mostly American.  So don't bother looking for William Gibson, Alan Moore, Cathleen Schine, Patrick O'Brian, George R.R. Martin, Tana French, Neal Stephenson or whoever.  But does The New Canon have any bearing on the State of Literary Fiction?  I've read 17 of the books and many of the rest have read others by the author for informed guesses.  The two Denis Johnson books I've read mean I'd expect Tree of Smoke to be substantial - the three Bolano books I've read mean I'd expect 2666 to be insignificant.

But the thing is that if this is the best modern literary fiction then it is indeed in sorry shape.  House of Leaves is ridiculous - the sort of thing you'd get from somebody who's read descriptions of avant-garde fiction but none of the actual work.  It's like comparing a child's play with Tinkertoys to an actual building.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is simply bullshit, an 80s teen sex comedy dressed up for the lit fict ball but commercial trash is still commercial trash.  A Visit from the Goon Squad mixes badly conceived writing exercises with weakly researched settings (the punk doesn't ring true) and utterly misunderstood science fiction.

Those are just the bottom of the barrel - some of the rest is decent enough though hardly worth going out of your way to read. Cloud Atlas has some fantastic sections but never comes together while The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay suffers from a similar lack of clarity (and some misconceived structural elements).  And why the first Harry Potter book?  To show Gioia is open-minded?  Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books are vastly better than Rowling's in every conceivable way (except sales I suppose) - in fact they're better than almost anything on the New Canon list.

But there's something more important about the Salon piece that's overlooked and that's his claim that writers shouldn't pay so much attention to current fiction.  I've heard that literature classes up until the war (WW2 if that's unclear) didn't teach recent books because the feeling was that students would acquire that on their own.  Something like that is hard to prove but from reading lists and accounts I've seen it does seem to be more or less true.  The situation has shifted so that the recent is dominant.  I once worked with a poet studying for a masters in comparative literature and the number of authors she had never heard of was astounding.  I don't mean hadn't read, I mean didn't even know the names, just an endless list.  Certainly she was an extreme example but I think the Salon piece is right that writers would be far better served by not reading anything under, say, 50-60 years old.

I do realize that here I'm mixing up what a writer should be reading - which is basically everything - and what an educated person (in whatever sense you want to take that) should be reading.  Back when Harper's had its Annotations column Christopher Hitchens wrote on the margins of a college reading list something like "Read widely, read deeply".  Easier said than done of course but that is Salon's point.  Restricted to just current literary fiction means a writer lacks the tools and perspective to do more than echo other current writers.  And of course the same is true for SFF writers who tend to read only that or mystery writers who read only that and so on.  This goes for non-writers who have a serious interest in the form - if you're seriously interested in music you'll listen to all of it, in film see all of it, you get the idea.  The worthwhile work can be anywhere.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The mainstream & comics again

Sure, so-called think pieces in newspapers are always easy targets but a new one in The Telegraph is particularly unthinking about an unimportant subject and weakly argued about an important one.  I was going to start with the second but since the first shows many of the problems then might as well go in order.

The headline and opener put forward the idea "Are superheroes the new gods?"  The headline even claims the writer "argues that comic books are the new Bible" though of course she does no such thing.  Even the god/religion idea has been kicking around for decades, explored both within the stories and by criticism.  In no sense is this an actual religion so the writer Anne Billson resorts to the argument that fans oppose changes to the "canon".  First thing to note is that comics fans rarely use the word "canon" instead predominantly saying "continuity" which is a different concept.  Though you could argue that it takes a canon (texts) to make up continuity (diegesis) that's not how comics fans approach this.  One good example that relates directly to Man of Steel is that he does something at the end that can be supported in one book that's considered a classic (in other words more or less canon) but is actually out of continuity.  The enormous arguments among fans about this isn't whether it's canonical or in continuity but whether it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the character and the purpose of the stories.  (I haven't seen the film but if the reports are accurate--and you've noticed I'm being vague about this--then fundamental misunderstanding seems correct.)

Billson then resorts to religious terms that don't in any way relate to the actuality.  Who is being "excommunicated" because of X-Men: The Last Stand and from what?  The debates about Spider-Man's webbing according to her are "theological" (based on what?) and The Mandarin's revision in the new Iron Man movie might be "heresy" (or it's just so radically different it share nothing but the name with the books).  I'd like to think this is tongue-in-cheek but the tone doesn't really support that and if she was then the transition to the next topic would be even more clumsy than it already is.

Then Billson gets to the important point and one that really should have been the headline - "the world of superhero movies is a boys' club."  Not exactly news or even very observant but unlike the religion claims this is something that needs to be addressed and changed.  At least she focuses on the movies and not the books which may be because she hasn't read the books (it's unclear but considering the lack of references probably not) or because while this is a major problem in the comics business it's nowhere near as bad.  And of course this is not specific to movies or comics since there have been numerous reports about the problem in journalism and literary writing (see for instance here or here or here).  It's just worse in the film business because the amount of money and inherent risk (plus let's be fair the lack of imagination) makes studios very resistant to change.  The solution isn't that somebody should decide the movies need more women characters but that the business needs more women executives, directors and writers (unfortunately in that order).  Who knows, maybe they will make the exact same decisions but that's at least a start.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Haul from the library sale

Today picked up:

Schoenbaum - William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life
Harington - Some Other Place, The Right Time
Brooks - The Times of Melville and Whitman
Eicher - Dixie Betrayed
Armstrong - A History of God
Adams - Brave New Worlds (dystopian anthology)
Moorcock - The Jewel in the Skull (Tor edition)
Thompson - Mystery & Lore of Monsters

There was also a nice copy of Pound's Cantos but when I flipped through somebody made a bunch of annotations along the lines of "loosely translated from Homer" so they weren't even useful.  I went back and forth anyway because it was only $2 but figured I was just getting it as a spare or potential gift so maybe somebody else would appreciate it.  There was also a thick history of WW1 naval war that I also nearly got.  Decided against it since that's probably the one period of naval history that I'm least interested in but more importantly it really was very thick so I was pretty sure I'd never read it.  And a Bill Malone-edited collection of country musician profiles that I really did intend to get except I didn't put it with my stack the first time through and completely forgot to go back.