THE GENTEEL ART
It’s impossible to take the established literary world seriously. By “established,” I mean the critical/review/p.r. apparatus based in New York, bolstered by the academy, which decides what writings and writers are an approved subject for proper discussion by the proper crowd, and so, regarded as “literature.” It’s a tiny bubble world far removed from the hectic noise of America-at-large.
The Bubble Literary World has been marked by a fear of contention and conflict. No clash of ideas among this crowd. The goal has been to become as innocuous as possible.
In a recent New York Times Book Review article, (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/books/review/do-we-really-need-negative-book-reviews.html?_r=0), two Bubble writers take tentative steps toward questioning the prevailing norms. Their words, when put into context—literature’s non-standing among the greater populace—are comical.
Francine Prose, an unexciting author and uncreative thinker, affirms the right to disapprove in her reviews of “bad” writing. She doesn’t define “bad” writing, but it has something to do with how sentences are crafted. She gives the example of “His eyes were as black as night.” Not done! If Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Dickens ever used such a phrase, you’d have to dismiss their entire body of work. Ms. Prose is locked into a single standard of value for literary work: “the well-written sentence.” This is chief value for the MFA set. Characterization; plot; pace; ideas; dialogue; form—everything else which goes into the creation of a compelling work of fiction is of secondary value, if considered at all.
What does Francine Prose make of a Debra Webb from Alabama, who has written 100 novels, the last several of them best sellers? On the first page of one of Webb’s novels, Webb talks of a character’s “piercing blue eyes.” I winced myself when reading it, because it seems like cheating—making it too easy for the reader to see the character. The larger question, though, is: Does it work?
Debra Webb is doing something right in her novels. They have an avid readership. Far more than Francine Prose (or myself), Debra Webb is keeping the art of fiction alive in this country. People purchase her books and her ebooks. The task of a critic is to figure out what Debra Webb is doing well. What compels her audience to read her books? To understand this is to take a real step toward saving literature in America; moving toward the elusive hybrid novel which can be popular and significant BOTH.
I’m not saying Francine Prose or Zoe Heller shouldn’t attack such work. I’m saying they should be open to an equal amount of attacks on themselves. It’s the only way the art can improve.
The literary scene needs contention and controversy. By such contention in this loud age, literature will be noticed. Myself, I’m from a background where we would argue just to argue. I enjoy debating. Try to do this with stuffy literary folk and you’ve broken their rules. No conflict. No contention. No noise. Everyone please get along. (Turn out the lights when you go home.)
(For a satirical look at Francine Prose and a few other writers, buy my ebook novel, THE MCSWEENEYS GANG, affordably available at Kindle or Nook.)