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The Great American Novel -- will there ever be another?
February 22, 2012 11:47 AM   Subscribe

The Great American Novel -- will there ever be another? ...even if a new Melville or Twain, Faulkner or Fitzgerald were to appear in our midst, his work would fail to achieve the critical traction and existential weight of those earlier masters. We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions...The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process—love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown—it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against.
posted by shivohum (126 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
problem, officer?
posted by LogicalDash at 11:55 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, there will.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:55 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Agree with this. The "great" novels are defined by what they are not ie. an existing tradition. They stand out precisely because they are different, that's what makes them "great" and not just like everything else. In our current environment there is little room for this since there is no mainstream tradition, just many niches fragmented. Of course there can be many great novels, just not "the Great One".
posted by stbalbach at 11:56 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is, however, another question, or rather set of questions, that I want to broach. And let me underscore the interrogative nature of what I am suggesting: When I say that there are a set of questions I would like to discuss, I do not mean that I have a satchel full of answers to which I have surreptitiously affixed question marks for rhetorical effect. I mean, rather, that I have sensed a change in the relation of literature to life and that this change, however we might best describe it, has had and will likely continue to have a profound effect on how we understand the significance of fiction. In any event, I’d like to bracket, as the phenomenologists say, the issue of how good American fiction now is and concentrate instead on what I have been calling in my own mind the “traction of fiction.”

When I was reading this passage, as I just was, though by the time you read this, the time I was reading the above passage may be much further in the past, in any case this was the passage that I had just finished reading when I decided in my own mind I was no longer interested in anything this ponderous wank had to say.
posted by gompa at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2012 [38 favorites]


A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible

I must be missing something. Why would you invite someone who doesn't read contemporary novels to speak on this topic?
posted by JaredSeth at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2012 [13 favorites]


The comforting illusion of cultural homogeneity -- wasn't it convenient?
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2012 [26 favorites]


Let me state that, if the next "great American novel" is written in the style of Mr. Kimball, I will probably not read more than the first chapter before becoming frightfully weary of the superfluous use of overwrought adverbs and dramatically voiced adjectives.
posted by HuronBob at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read as few contemporary novels as possible.

Here's about where I lost interest.
posted by incandenza at 12:01 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


or...what gompa said.
posted by HuronBob at 12:02 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This writing is so, so terrible. It's like a satire of terrible, overwrought, self-conscious writing. Is this what conservatives think "smart people" sound like?
posted by mr_roboto at 12:03 PM on February 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


I thought the joke was that there was NEVER a Great 'American' novel But maybe I've grown up in an age where that joke was always post-modern.
posted by muddgirl at 12:03 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I must be missing something. Why would you invite someone who doesn't read contemporary novels to speak on this topic?

Presumably because you're a roomful of old (or old-thinking) people smug as hell in your certaintly that nothing good has been written in the last 50 years, and you'd like to have a big ole Confirmation Bias Party with Dr. Turgid here as the MC.
posted by gompa at 12:04 PM on February 22, 2012 [15 favorites]


It's what non-academics think professors sound like. Picture noted without comment.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:05 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This seems like a good candidate for Arts & Letters Daily: middlebrow hand-wringing, from some mediocre humanities professor, over what "we" are losing.
posted by thelonius at 12:05 PM on February 22, 2012 [12 favorites]


What a lot of supercilious bafflegab. See, I can bloviate, too. Sigh.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:07 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Indeed, whenever I mention the contemporary novel to friends, the reaction tends to alternate between bemusement and distaste."

Gee, Roger, maybe that's because they know the next thing out of your mouth is going to be something like

"The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable."
posted by escabeche at 12:08 PM on February 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


BOW TIE ALERT
posted by The Whelk at 12:09 PM on February 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


As soon as I hit that inevitable, tiresome TS Eliot Quote, I knew this was going to be more of the same wretched bullshit that passes for learned discourse among modern American "conservatives".

Throw in the self-satisfied admission that the author hasn't bothered to try to read even a modicum of contemporary American fiction, and here I am wondering, why this was even posted here?

Might the OP enlighten us as to what exactly it was about this article that compelled him to bring it to our attention?
posted by Chrischris at 12:09 PM on February 22, 2012


What a twit.

I think The Wire is a great American novel. It just happens to be on TV.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:10 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Metafilter is pretty awful when everyone agrees and commenters are just racing to denigrate the link before someone else takes all the sick burns.
posted by grobstein at 12:10 PM on February 22, 2012 [15 favorites]


Oh dear, 2bucksplus. That link really needs some kind of warning. NSF Non-Douchebags. Something.

He first gained prominence in the early 1990s with the publication of his book, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education.

Wow. Dude's apparently been even less worth paying any attention to than he is right now.

On preview: Yes, a warning just like The Whelk's.
posted by gompa at 12:11 PM on February 22, 2012


Also, how can anyone discuss the contemporary perspective on "The Great American Novel" without even mentioning Cormac McCarthy. I would think that right-wingers would be into Cormac; he rings plenty of their bells.

bijoux. heh.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:13 PM on February 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


It wasn't my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible

This would have been a much better article, I think, if this guy had looked over this sentence at the moment it landed on the page and had the insight and honesty to finish with simply: "So, will there ever be another Great American Novel? I don't know, I'm not the right person to ask."

The end.
posted by mhoye at 12:14 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Metafilter is pretty awful when everyone agrees and commenters are just racing to denigrate the link before someone else takes all the sick burns.

Normally I'd be inclined to agree, grobstein, but this is not your garden-variety neocon dittohead here. The Wikipedia pic alone testifies to the presence of a world-class heavyweight-champion asshole. Frankly, I'd be deeply disappointed in Mefi if this didn't turn into a fuck-this-guy smart-ass-athon.
posted by gompa at 12:14 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do Chilean novels count as American novels?
posted by shakespeherian at 12:15 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


McCarthy is one of their stalking horses, actually: they hate his extravagant prose style, and, I assume, they hate "Blood Meridian" for its depiction of violence and horror in the settling of the West. Maybe the simple piety of the father in "The Road" has changed that, I don't know.
posted by thelonius at 12:16 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]



Metafilter is pretty awful when everyone agrees and commenters are just racing to denigrate the link before someone else takes all the sick burns.

You're right, I should have checked his self-servingly uncritical wikipedia page and read that "Kimball's most recent book, published in 2004, is The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art..." before racing to denigrate the link with one of my sick burns.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:16 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The villanelle is another literary form that people aren't as into as they used to be.

We manage.
posted by Trurl at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


McCarthy is one of their stalking horses, actually: they hate his extravagant prose style, and, I assume, they hate "Blood Meridian" for its depiction of violence and horror in the settling of the West. Maybe the simple piety of the father in "The Road" has changed that, I don't know.

Huh... I had assumed that they would have been drawn to the depictions of warlike manliness and the themes of societal decay and fallenness. They're so unpredictable.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:20 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


My summary of Kimball's article is below. To save space I have eliminated all the words except the ones Kimball uses to draw attention to his own erudition and good taste. I have also added punctuation and line breaks for clarity.

*******

Bourse, bijoux. Burgeons, perfervid, exigent. Writ? Broach! Tantamount portends porcine deformation professionelle. Bane, panoply, delectation, ephemeral.... nominal.

Demotic abdicate. Epoch. Epoch.

Responsorial?

Adumbrate.
posted by escabeche at 12:20 PM on February 22, 2012 [50 favorites]


mr_roboto, I may be putting too much weight on that guy who published the big essay in Harper's or The Atlantic, about 10 years ago, about how literary novels don't Tell Real Stories Anymore. McCarthy seemed to be his go-to example for his case against what he saw as decadent, over-written, prose
posted by thelonius at 12:22 PM on February 22, 2012


HEY GUYS SO WHAT BOOKS DO YOU LIKE
posted by shakespeherian at 12:25 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dude hasn't even read my treatment yet and he's already writing off my magnum opus? Smug ass. Everybody knows the Great American Novel is Huckleberry Finn anyway. Why do we need two of 'em?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:27 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


escabeche, that was goddamn brilliant (though you forgot "perfervid.")

Inspired me to see what would happen if I strung together the best bits of chin-scratching and throat-clearing. Here goes:

I’d like to step back and make some observations. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues. This might be the appropriate moment to issue a disclaimer. And let me underscore the interrogative nature. The same thing, I believe, is happening, perhaps to a lesser extent. If we understood also what he meant by “manners” we would be in very good shape indeed. My point here is to suggest. I pause here to quote. I am not, to be candid, quite sure. And in any case, none of us would wish to do without writing. It has often been observed. With the passing or maturation of that epoch. Of course, Hegel was wrong about a great many things. Indeed, it might be argued. But who knows?
posted by gompa at 12:29 PM on February 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oops. You did catch perfervid. I'm a lousy copy editor.
posted by gompa at 12:30 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Samuel Clemens would have done Oprah. It will all work out.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:30 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also it seems really weird that he uses Jay McInerney as a write-off since Jay McInerney hasn't been much of a big deal for two decades (no offense Jay). If not for Eggers' name in there (and I'm frankly not sure anyone thinks of Eggers as a Great American Novelist so much as A Really Decent Publisher) I would think this op ed was piped in from 1988.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:31 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Franzen's in there, too.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:32 PM on February 22, 2012


Samuel Clemens would have done Oprah. It will all work out.

Pshaw! He would have had his own damn talk-show and it would have been hilarious. Something like a cross between Daily Show/Colbert Report and the old Steve Allen show.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:33 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh yeah, no excuses for Franzen.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:33 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of the New Criterion, is publisher of Encounter Books and author of the forthcoming The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.

I wouldn't say 'amnesia', but with this guy, there's certainly much that's forgettable.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:35 PM on February 22, 2012


I would think this op ed was piped in from 1988.

Better than most of these conservative culture warriors who are stuck reporting from 1968.

(Or in rick santorum's case 1768)
posted by The Whelk at 12:36 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Roger Kimball is a troll.
posted by tigrefacile at 12:36 PM on February 22, 2012


The Great American Novel
posted by TheRaven at 12:37 PM on February 22, 2012


> And I would go further. It’s not just contemporary fiction that is suffering from this form of existential depreciation: The same thing, I believe, is happening, perhaps to a lesser extent, with the fiction of the past. The novel plays a different and a diminished role in our cultural life as compared with even the quite recent past.

I'm really not qualified to judge his Pronouncements On Literature, but in the age of the internet it seems like virtually all forms of art are suffering from a form of existential depreciation because of vastly increased competition for attention. Also relevant: The Alchian-Allen Theorem.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:38 PM on February 22, 2012


this guy is awesome, i want to sit around in a stuffy room with him and harrumph until one of us chokes on our own spittle

its gonna be awesome
posted by beefetish at 12:39 PM on February 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible

I find this much more interesting to read if I imagine it being uttered with a bored-yawn in a voice that's a cross between William Buckley and Mr. Magoo.
And begin each sentence with “Muffy, …”
posted by NorthernLite at 12:42 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about 'quantum physics today.' It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I'm terrible at math and never even passed chemistry.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:45 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not that he's not right, in a certain way. It's just that it's not just the novel. It's mass culture--The Great American Anything--that's struggling right now. We're all off doing and watching our own things these days, not necessarily all sitting down to read the same book or watch the same thing on TV as our neighbors like we might have once.

I also kind of agree that this is a bad thing. But I don't think it's a permanent condition, just a sort of short-term cultural response to the appearance of the internet, and to certain socially destabilizing aspects of our current off-kilter approach to doing American capitalism.

A stone the size of the internet is bound to make massive cultural ripples. Add to that the demands of recent decades that all our communities be willing to reorganize themselves on a dime to "meet the challenges of a global economy," and your bound to see mass culture losing its grip. But human nature is human nature.

We'll adapt, and because we're still human, we'll get back to the business of collectively lionizing certain cultural products over others just as soon as we get a chance to figure all this new stuff out.

His prose style is really grating, though.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:50 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I want to lock him in a room with nothing but the collected volumes of Preacher.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:50 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I have also added punctuation and line breaks for clarity.

Awesome.

Did you actually read the article and pull those out, or did you pull it into spellchecker and grab all the words that weren't recognized?


posted by mmrtnt at 12:55 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The writer laments that a new Great American Novel may not happen because it's so hard for a modern writer to "gain traction". Does traction really have anything to do with qualifying as a Great American Novel? The qualities that constitute a GAN, it seems to me, exist regardless of popularity. It also requires a gestational period, I think. GANs don't spring forth with a crown, I think. They have to ferment for a while, no?

My nomination for Great American Novel? Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:56 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think,I think,I think too much. (I'll never write even a Comprehensible American Novel).
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:58 PM on February 22, 2012


I'm afraid that might read like an insult. Sorry. It was intended as a joke. Your post made me smile
posted by mmrtnt at 1:00 PM on February 22, 2012


The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat.

Aside from what the author inexplicably fails to label supralabial hyperhydrosis, my experience with this essay is perfectly described here.
posted by clockzero at 1:01 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who cares?
posted by Simple Answer to a Simple Question at 1:02 PM on February 22, 2012


God - did anyone else get as far as this bit? (Sorry for the long quote - but I almost wonder if it's satire...)

... Television lulled us into acquiescence, the Internet with its vaunted search engines and promise of the world at your fingertips made further inroads in seducing us to reduce wisdom to information: to believe that ready access to information was somehow tantamount to knowledge. I pause here to quote David Guaspari’s wise and amusing observation on this subject: “Comparing information and knowledge,” he writes, “is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter rule.”

I am not, to be candid, quite sure what the “designated hitter rule” portends, but I am confident that it has nothing to do with being green or porcine plumpness. When I was in graduate school, I knew some students who believed that by making a Xerox copy of an article, they had somehow absorbed, or at least partly absorbed, its content. I suppose the contemporary version of that déformation professionelle is the person who wanders around with a computer perpetually linked to Google and who therefore believes he knows everything...


posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:04 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


On the one hand, this guy is an unreadable and unbearable pseud.

On the other, literary fiction does feel like it's painting itself into a bit of a corner, and if nobody wants to ever again publish another novel about a neurotic professor having a midlife crisis or nervous breakdown, or about the neurotic adult children of a dysfunctional and repressed middle class family reuniting because of their dying paterfamilias and beginning the process of healing and forgiving, I'm pretty much OK with that.

There, I hate everyone. That means I win at Metafilter, right?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:05 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I read as few contemporary novels as possible."

Here's about where I lost interest.


For me it was at "The Weekly Standard."
posted by naoko at 1:06 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


There, I hate everyone. That means I win at Metafilter, right?

Maybe today, but overall, you're still a couple hundred points behind eyeballkid

posted by LionIndex at 1:08 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


My summary of Kimball's article is below. To save space I have eliminated all the words except the ones Kimball uses to draw attention to his own erudition and good taste. I have also added punctuation and line breaks for clarity.

*******

Bourse, bijoux. Burgeons, perfervid, exigent. Writ? Broach! Tantamount portends porcine deformation professionelle. Bane, panoply, delectation, ephemeral.... nominal.

Demotic abdicate. Epoch. Epoch.

Responsorial?

Adumbrate.


I just wanted to put this up again because I can't favorite it more than once.
posted by clockzero at 1:11 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


A Google ngram of the phrase "great American novel" (and "Great American Novel") is interesting. I'd say some version of this article has probably been written every year since 1895.
posted by yoink at 1:12 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with him completely, but then I'm near eighty.
posted by RichardS at 1:16 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the other, literary fiction does feel like it's painting itself into a bit of a corner, and if nobody wants to ever again publish another novel about a neurotic professor having a midlife crisis or nervous breakdown, or about the neurotic adult children of a dysfunctional and repressed middle class family reuniting because of their dying paterfamilias and beginning the process of healing and forgiving, I'm pretty much OK with that.

It sounds to me like you've been reading about eight Franzen novels a month, there.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:16 PM on February 22, 2012


The Great American Novel is "The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis".

Before that, it was "The Collected Short Stories of Shirley Jackson".

And before that it was "The Collected Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor".

Next question.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:20 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Roger Kimball is just a pseudonym for T. Herman Zweibel, right?
posted by bassomatic at 1:22 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dhalgren.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 1:23 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


BOP, I think I love you.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:24 PM on February 22, 2012


I want to lock him in a room with nothing but the collected volumes of Preacher.

Preacher is great but Garth Ennis is Irish. Can an Irishman write the Great American Novel?
posted by Tashtego at 1:26 PM on February 22, 2012


I agree with the premise that today's literature just isn't as interesting as yesterday's literature. I'm one of those rock-throwers who finds myself reading a lot more genre lit, especially science fiction. I make occasional forays into "real" literature, but I frequently find myself disappointed. Is it just that these novels are ahead of the curve and I'm not, or is it something else? I don't rule out the first possibility, even though it seems that I'm not alone.

I don't really agree with most of the reasons that are proffered by this article, however. One telling point is how quickly he dismisses television, as though it's not even fit for discussion. To my mind, television series may be the equivalent of the modern day novel. When I think of a show like Breaking Bad, it reminds me of how Dickens would release his novels as monthly installments. These were real page turners, and probably considered low entertainment at their onset. So maybe people today are getting that experience from top shelf television.

Now that we have that settled, what has happened to pop music?
posted by Edgewise at 1:28 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now that we have that settled, what has happened to pop music?

We turned into our parents.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:30 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


The problem with modern lit? Not enough books about whaling.
posted by drezdn at 1:32 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm one of those rock-throwers who finds myself reading a lot more genre lit, especially science fiction. I make occasional forays into "real" literature

I'm genuinely curious, because it always seems to be an underpinning of these Great American novel/Art discussions, what is "real" literature to you? As in, what specifically have you sought out during your forays into real literature? Specific titles/authors.
posted by Katine at 1:33 PM on February 22, 2012


Preacher is great but Garth Ennis is Irish. Can an Irishman write the Great American Novel?

Well, they wrote a lot of the Great English Novels--I'm sure they can lend the US a helping hand.
posted by yoink at 1:34 PM on February 22, 2012


It sounds to me like you've been reading about eight Franzen novels a month, there.

No more Franzen novels would be just one of the many benefits of the program I propose.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:38 PM on February 22, 2012


There is no such thing as definable "literature". There are words which, when assembled, may have an impact on the reader. What impact these words "ought" to have has changed with every change in society, and at no point did everybody agree anyway.

I hope there's never another Moby-Dick, because one Moby-Dick is nearly too much as is. I also hope there's never another Ulysses, or another Infinite Jest, another Blood Meridian, another Underworld, another Gravity's Rainbow, another 2666. Each of these novels, however, is so enormous in some way or other that they defied all the explanations I received of them before I picked them up. Isn't that what we define as greatness? Something so large that they defy our ability to classify them or reduce them?

It follows, then, that the next "great" things will be similarly impossible to anticipate or describe, and that they will continue to exist so long as writers continue to strive for greatness. Do we still have novelists who strive for this? If so, then great novels will continue to emerge. If not, then we shall start to instead follow Great American Webcomics instead.
posted by Rory Marinich at 1:51 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Literature is any book over 500 pages that doesn't have any dragons or spaceships.
posted by fuq at 1:59 PM on February 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


I'm genuinely curious, because it always seems to be an underpinning of these Great American novel/Art discussions, what is "real" literature to you? As in, what specifically have you sought out during your forays into real literature? Specific titles/authors.

I understood the commenter to mean that s/he avoided those books demarcated by booksellers and/or publishing companies as "literary fiction." Thus - no Murakami, no Banville, no Mantel, no Egan, and so on.

As a genre novelist and an avid reader, I'd argue that you're going to miss some amazing books if you skip Mantel and Egan et al (though Murakami gives me migraines - someone recently told me of a woman who refuses to date any man who loves Murakami, and after much laughter, I decided she might have a point). However, you're also going to severely diminish your chances of discovering the next Great American Novel if you avoid the shelves where genre novels are kept.
posted by artemisia at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2012


mr_roboto, I may be putting too much weight on that guy who published the big essay in Harper's or The Atlantic, about 10 years ago, about how literary novels don't Tell Real Stories Anymore. McCarthy seemed to be his go-to example for his case against what he saw as decadent, over-written, prose

This is probably what you mean.
posted by grobstein at 2:06 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brandon Blatcher, what if we locked him in a room, strapped to a chair, dosed with psychotropics, and forced him to stare at a dpt. Then we could create Mr. Nobody.
posted by X-Himy at 2:08 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Err, dot. Bloody phone keyboard.
posted by X-Himy at 2:10 PM on February 22, 2012


someone recently told me of a woman who refuses to date any man who loves Murakami, and after much laughter, I decided she might have a point

This? Right here? This is what crazy talk looks like.
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:12 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm one of those rock-throwers who finds myself reading a lot more genre lit, especially science fiction. I make occasional forays into "real" literature, but I frequently find myself disappointed. Is it just that these novels are ahead of the curve and I'm not, or is it something else?

Some of the best American lit of the last half-century has been SF, so it's likely you've turned to 'real' literature and (rightfully) found it comparatively dull.

Outside of authors like Lydia Davis (mentioned earlier) U.S. 'literary' fiction looks amateur next to the stuff that's come out of Latin America since the so-called Boom.

American SF, OTOH, has yielded great writers lately: Gibson, Le Guin, Wolfe, Delany, Butler, Atwood (well, Canadian), and others. I can't imagine Franzen outlasting any of them.
posted by incandenza at 2:15 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I mean I'm only halfway through Wind Up Bird Chronicle so far but is Murakami always so... weird about women?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:19 PM on February 22, 2012


the Internet ... made further inroads in seducing us ... to believe that ready access to information was somehow tantamount to knowledge. I pause here to quote David Guaspari’s ...: “Comparing information and knowledge ... is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter rule.”

I am not, to be candid, quite sure what the “designated hitter rule” portends


Hey Bow-Tie, why doncha just Google it?

Gawd, stuffy little d-bags like this are the reason all of us nerds got our faces snow-washed at recess.
posted by NorthernLite at 2:19 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


shakespherian, I believe you may find this infographic helpful. I would argue it's missing a wedge for "Socratic dialogues on the meaning of existence with shadow selves or ghosts," but otherwise it's some solid number-crunching.
posted by gompa at 2:26 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


someone recently told me of a woman who refuses to date any man who loves Murakami, and after much laughter, I decided she might have a point

She's just reading the wrong Murakami. Problem solved.
posted by aspo at 2:31 PM on February 22, 2012


I do believe, gompa, that there is a wedge missing dedicated to whiskey (and drinking in general) too.
posted by Seamus at 2:32 PM on February 22, 2012


I don't get the distaste for sick burns. Most candidates for the title of "Great American Novel" are composed of goodly chunks of sick burnage.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:37 PM on February 22, 2012


Everyone needs a shrug. If you don't like contemporary "literary" prose (here I raise my hand), you just don't read it, like I don't. There is more than enough good stuff from decades past to keep you reading profitably for your entire lifetime. And if you get caught in a conversation with somebody going on about Franzen or whatever, you go "Ah, sorry, I've not read that." I guess if you cared enough you could argue that people are wasting their time reading [whoever from now] when they could be reading [whoever from a while ago] but...jeez, who gives a shit? Though I gotta admit I am a massive fan of B.R. Myers and agree without question with everything that he has said or ever will say because he just rubs me the right way and with a million new books being released every minute that's more than good enough for me.
posted by tumid dahlia at 2:39 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Rory Marinich: "I hope there's never another Moby-Dick, because one Moby-Dick is nearly too much as is."

And that's exactly the rub. We're looking for the "Next Great Novel" in all the wrong places. The next "Great American Novel" isn't going to look anything like the currently-revered classics, and it pains me to see literary scholars restrict their study of "legitimate" contemporary literature to novels that reflect the styles (and often overblown pompous language*) of these classics. I'm sorry, but Moby Dick wasn't a great novel because it looked like something that had been written 200 years prior.

Unfortunately, hyperbolic reverence for the past is a bit of an American meme right now. Apart from its obvious presence in politics, this mindset has worked its way into our perceptions of our own culture.

Try to think of something created after 1980 that you would consider a "classic." Now think about the things from after 1960 that you would have considered to be "classic" in 1992. I suspect that second list is considerably longer. The "everything new today is crap" trope is a logical fallacy that most people now accept as fact.

*Sidenote here: One of the reasons that I love Kurt Vonnegut's writing is that it's simultaneously beautiful and comprehensible. He doesn't fuck around with his readers. Literary critics hate this. It makes them redundant.
posted by schmod at 2:50 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the reasons that I love Kurt Vonnegut's writing is that it's simultaneously beautiful and comprehensible. He doesn't fuck around with his readers. Literary critics hate this. It makes them redundant.

Wha-what? The job of the literary critic is not what you think it is.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:53 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article has inspired me to start writing a novel called The Great American Novel, in which an aspiring novelist with the crazy ambition of creating something with broad and lasting value beyond the fragmented niches of today's literary industry attempts to write The Great American Novel in a series of increasingly absurd drafts and premises, until the whole thing loops back in on itself and collapses around me in a somewhat Kaufmanesque way, ultimately settling on my need to feel like I have some significance beyond myself and my own private inner life, and probably reluctantly admitting the impossibility of that in an emotionally satisfying but narratively opaque way.
posted by byanyothername at 3:20 PM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


also there should be naked people on the cover
posted by elizardbits at 3:22 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


If your aspiring novelist were also a neurotic professor having a midlife crisis, you've pretty much just written Wonder Boys.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2012


This article has inspired me to start writing a novel called The Great American Novel,

Philip Roth already did this; his The Great American Novel was about baseball, and came out the same year the designated hitter rule came into effect, so maybe Kimball's whole wretched essay is actually a sophisticated and subtle homage to Roth's book.
posted by escabeche at 3:26 PM on February 22, 2012


I've never read it, but there are people who contend that A Confederacy of Dunces is a "Great American Novel".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:29 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never read it, but there are people who contend that A Confederacy of Dunces is a "Great American Novel".

I would agree. I can imagine what this article would do to Ignatius J. Reilly's valve.

I'd also agree that writing for television or film has given us some absolutely fabulous "great" literature or art, drama, comedy, what have you.
posted by juiceCake at 3:43 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean I'm only halfway through Wind Up Bird Chronicle so far but is Murakami always so... weird about women?

Kind of, but then again, he's weird about pretty much everything.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 3:44 PM on February 22, 2012


I've always assumed Et Tu, Babe was the Great American Novel.
posted by maxwelton at 4:39 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


As in, what specifically have you sought out during your forays into real literature? Specific titles/authors.

Well, like I said, I only make occasional forays, so my list is not exhaustive. And of course, this is my own personal taste. Having said that, here are a couple of the "literature" books that I've read in the last few years, and was greatly disappointed: Delillo's White Noise (top of my list), Franzen's The Corrections, and McCarthy's The Road. There are others, but these are the three that jump to mind. It might be fair to label The Road as genre lit, and it's probably the one that I liked the most out of the three that I mention. White Noise, though, was a major turn off. It was like one of those things where I wasn't sure that I "got it" because the underlying themes and messages seemed so incredibly cliched and obvious. For that matter, I didn't like Underworld, either, but found it to be merely boring with a fairly obvious theme that could have inspired a more interesting story.

I'm sure that there's good stuff out there that I haven't come into contact with. It's just that each of my adventures in literature has turned into such a slog that I am reluctant to get much more exposure. I fully acknowledge that I may not be "getting it," but with each attempt to break in, I am less convinced of that as a possibility. For what it's worth, I'm currently reading Blood Meridian and enjoying it more than The Road, though I can still say that I don't feel that propulsive page-turning urge that leads me to finish new George RR Martin installments (or old Steven King novels) in three days straight.
posted by Edgewise at 4:42 PM on February 22, 2012


This article sent my Victorianist nerves a-tingle, for a few reasons:

1) The "eeek, genre fiction" thing. The major nineteenth-century British novelists are writing genre fiction. Some of them work in a number of different genres (waves to Dickens), or are writing fiction that people prefer not to discuss as "genre" (says hi to George Eliot), or are even inventing genres (points with trepidation to Bulwer-Lytton, who is a fine case of someone being important and, yet, mostly unreadable). Almost everybody who was "serious" attempted a historical novel, and everybody who was anybody experimented with Gothic (even the aforementioned Eliot). For crying out loud, the most influential novelist of the nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott. There's no good literary-historical reason to whine about this.

2) I sometimes joke with my undergraduates that my courses on British fiction are corrupting them--at least, by nineteenth-century standards. There's a lot of nineteenth-century fiction; there are also a lot of nineteenth-century claims about fiction's effect on the mind that cannot be distinguished from Kimball's animadversions about the 'net, TV, and so forth. And not just from evangelicals, either. (Although Christian critiques of didactic fiction are often quite interesting, as they're not necessarily any different from contemporary attacks on sensation fiction or whatever.)

3) The 'net, TV, etc. are one form of distraction. The notion that previous eras weren't distracted in different ways by other competing modes of entertainment strikes me as deeply wrong. The Victorians had a lot of other things they could do besides read novels, much of it not very intellectual: theater, music hall, lectures (a big business), traveling shows and exhibits, circus, panoramas, even sermon-tasting. (Richard D. Altick's The Shows of London is great on this.) At home, there could be singing and music, private theatricals, arts-and-crafts type things (sewing, painting, whatever), and so forth.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:47 PM on February 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


(And, yeah, I'm talking about the British context, but the Americans are up to much of the same thing.)
posted by thomas j wise at 5:06 PM on February 22, 2012


I have tried to adumbrate.

Well, I've tried...
posted by ovvl at 5:23 PM on February 22, 2012


God knows, I've tried...

I kinda feel for this guy. He is proposing, with kinda erudite words, two thingys:

One thing is that our modern info-glut makes it harder to search out the gems from the chaff:

It might even be argued (I merely raise this as a possibility) that there are as many good novels being written today as in the past. It is sobering to reflect that between 1837—when Victoria ascended the throne and Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published—and 1901—the year of Victoria’s death—some 7,000 authors published more than 60,000 novels in England. How much of that vast literary cataract has stood the test of time? How can we hope that our perfervid literary output will escape the exigent discriminations visited upon all prior periods?

The test of time is one filter. But it's not perfect. There are lots of really interesting artworks lost in time.

The other thing: He is trying to do what the protagonist of the latest Woody Allen movie is trying to do: to live in the past.

The novel was probably the preeminent literary genre of the later 19th and most of the 20th century. Whether it continues to enjoy that distinction is unclear. I suspect that, increasingly, our most intense encounters with novels will be with novels of the past.

Some of the most interesting art and literature that will ever be made is being made right now. Future generations will look back at us, and they will say: "Despite their ignorance, there was some really cool stuff they did... just before that massive evolutionary change..."
posted by ovvl at 6:05 PM on February 22, 2012


The point I was trying (but I think failing) to get at earlier is that I think it's really just the absence of any particular, popular literary novels that everyone and their uncle all seem to be reading and talking about at once that's setting the author's teeth on edge, but he draws the wrong conclusions from what might otherwise be a legitimate observation. It definitely seems consistent with my experience that the current popular culture doesn't rally around particular works of literary fiction in the same way that it sometimes has historically. But I wouldn't say that's necessarily better or worse, or even all that unique from a broader historical perspective. I personally suspect there have always been periodic lulls in literary fiction readership. There are a lot of factors in confluence right now that happen to make this another one of those down times for literary fiction with mass popular appeal, but that doesn't mean literary fiction is in any kind of serious trouble. It's just in a lull.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:28 PM on February 22, 2012


Lolita was written in the US, by a naturalized American author, in English. I'd consider that to be a pretty monumentally 'Great American Novel' published during the start of the period the article describes as the dead zone for American writing.

Is this where the q.e.d. goes?
posted by yellowcandy at 6:29 PM on February 22, 2012


The notion that previous eras weren't distracted in different ways by other competing modes of entertainment strikes me as deeply wrong. The Victorians had a lot of other things they could do besides read novels

Yes, but each succeeding generation has more diversions than the last--we have almost if not all of the same diversions the victorians had at their disposal at ours, AND really cool video games AND the internet, etc.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:30 PM on February 22, 2012


Lolita was written in the US, by a naturalized American author, in English.

Kimball's lip sweats if he so much as cracks open Jonathan Franzen. Can you imagine what would happen if he tried to read Lolita?
posted by escabeche at 6:41 PM on February 22, 2012


Rory Marinich is right that Moby Dick isn't great because it looks like something that was written 200 years prior to it. I'm writing an entire thesis on how the greatness of Moby Dick exists in its timelessness. In the end, as long as the writing meets certain standards of expression, all great novels are timeless, because people don't change.

Furthermore:
"Everyone knows about the studies showing the bad effects on children and teenagers of too much time in cyberspace (or in front of the television set). It cuts them off from their family and friends, fosters asocial behavior, disrupts their ability to concentrate, and makes it harder for them to distinguish between fantasy and reality. I suspect, however, that the real problem is not so much the sorry cases that make headlines but a more generally disseminated attitude toward the world."

Know what else does these things? Good novels.

(I should know, I enjoyed reading them, and they fostered asocial behavior and made it harder for me to distinguish between fantasy and reality...) Why do we approve of experiencing the fictional worlds of novels, but not the fictional worlds of television? (Maybe we're right to do this, maybe not...I'm not sure)
posted by Lee Shore at 8:08 PM on February 22, 2012


With TV, there are measurable neurological effects that some of us might not consider desirable. These are due not just to the content of TV, per se*, but the hardwiring of the brain and how it receives and interprets visual signals. Doctors now advise parents not to let kids before the age of 18 months watch any TV, as it's been definitively shown to have negative impacts on brain development when watched excessively before that age. Also, TV addiction is not a fuzzy thing--there's a lot of hard science work that shows there are real neurological mechanisms involved in the compulsion to watch TV that aren't in play when you confront printed words on a page. In particular, TV seems to condition the brain to expect more sensory novelty than is normal in everyday life, leading to chronic boredom if you watch too much. Just a few things off the top of my head. But TV has its place. (Hell, I'm a life-long addict.)
_______
*Though a lot of it is awful...
posted by saulgoodman at 8:29 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not until there's another great america.
posted by onesidys at 8:35 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought it was a pretty funny article, and was impressed that he’s even crankier than I am. But I think once you get past the crankiness he had some good points. He wasn’t just saying "no one writes well anymore".

I’ve had the same thoughts about music. Even in popular music of the last decades, are we going to have another Beatles or Dylan or whoever you like? Not that those are my favorites, but they had a huge, wide influence. There is a lot of good music today, some even very good music, but I don’t know how much truly great music there is, and even if that artist is out there I don’t think they will connect with the masses like they might have before. The new Dylan will just be some guy on an indie label with a decent following that most people, including me probably, will never hear.

I think that’s what he was saying, only in a more entertaining way.
posted by bongo_x at 10:33 PM on February 22, 2012


American SF, OTOH, has yielded great writers lately: Gibson, Le Guin, Wolfe, Delany, Butler, Atwood (well, Canadian), and others.

Sorry, but Margaret Atwood is about as Canadian as it gets.
posted by stinkycheese at 12:02 AM on February 23, 2012


Just a short way into this thread I was wondering what will replace the comforting illusion of cultural homogeneity. Someone should write that article. I promise not to denigrate it with sick burns.
posted by vicx at 12:38 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


For a better version of this kind of thing, check out A Reader's Manifesto by BR Myers. He gets in some great digs at modern American literature, but aims more at affected prose style that he says is celebrated instead of good storytelling. Myers is funnier and more insightful than this guy, though probably reductionistic. He talks about how bad the jokes are in books like White Noise that are praised as hilarious.
posted by steinsaltz at 1:05 AM on February 23, 2012


Speaking of bad jokes...
posted by stinkycheese at 1:22 AM on February 23, 2012


everybody knows that the next great american novel will be written in china.
posted by canned polar bear at 3:39 AM on February 23, 2012


I'm pretty sure people who go on about The Great American Novel aren't actually interested in great American novels. Anyone who loves great novels (American or otherwise) and doesn't have way more on their To Read shelves than they can hope to get to any time in the foreseeable future just isn't trying very hard.
posted by aught at 6:47 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article has inspired me to start writing a novel called The Great American Novel, in which an aspiring novelist with the crazy ambition of creating something with broad and lasting value beyond the fragmented niches of today's literary industry attempts to write The Great American Novel in a series of increasingly absurd drafts and premises, until the whole thing loops back in on itself and collapses around me in a somewhat Kaufmanesque way, ultimately settling on my need to feel like I have some significance beyond myself and my own private inner life, and probably reluctantly admitting the impossibility of that in an emotionally satisfying but narratively opaque way.

Sounds like a book David Markson could have but never exactly wrote.
posted by aught at 6:51 AM on February 23, 2012


Rory Marinich is right that Moby Dick isn't great because it looks like something that was written 200 years prior to it.

I'm not sure why that would make it not great. MD is a stunning tour de force on several levels. I've heard it convincingly argued that one of the reasons MD is great because it's the first postmodern novel -- a pretty amazing achievement as it was written before literary modernism got started.
posted by aught at 6:56 AM on February 23, 2012


You misread-- he said that the reason Moby-Dick is great isn't that it looks like something written 200 years prior.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:21 AM on February 23, 2012


first postmodern novel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Opinions_of_Tristram_Shandy,_Gentleman
posted by thelonius at 7:29 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


You misread-- he said that the reason Moby-Dick is great isn't that it looks like something written 200 years prior.

Thanks, shakespeherian, yes, I should have re-read the earlier comments or just read more closely.

Also, thelonius, agreed about Tristram Shandy, actually.
posted by aught at 7:51 AM on February 23, 2012


This article has inspired me to start writing a novel called The Great American Novel, in which an aspiring novelist with the crazy ambition of creating something with broad and lasting value beyond the fragmented niches of today's literary industry attempts to write The Great American Novel...

If the following advice for writing a great work of lasting value had come from Hemingway, it would have made me vaguely disgusted at old Ernie's typical arrogance, but it's from F. Scott Fitzgerald (of whom I approve more & more the older I get.)

In Fitzgerald's own words, an excellent - if shockingly cynical - description of The Great Gatsby itself:

"An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards."


posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:13 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, I admit I don't really do a lot of pleasure reading, so I can't say whether or not he has a valid point underneath all his stuffiness, so maybe you guys can translate it for me in music terms:

Is he being the type of douchebag who talks about how there hasn't been anything good since Led Zepplin / 80's new wave / whatever they grew up on, and when you give them an example of someone/something really innovative from the last ten years they go "I don't listen to that emo bullshit", or is he the kind of douchebag that thinks mp3's / iTunes / Spotify is making music worse because people aren't kissing his ass because of his 'sweet' mix tapes anymore?
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:53 AM on February 23, 2012


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