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.