Sunday, June 08, 2014

Not a Pop Writer


As I’ve long argued at this blog, there are two kinds of fiction writers in America now. The cookie-cutter genre novelist, whose work seems stamped from an auto parts stamping factory, or the “literary writer,” whose work is just as predictable and generic, only less readable, more pretentious, and deliberately unexciting.

I’ve argued for the kind of “pop lit” that’ll bridge the divide. An increasing number of writers are arguing likewise—and more, trying to themselves create that new kind of fiction which can be “pop” fast and entertaining, but also meaningful and relevant at the same time. It’s an ambitious quest and a difficult enterprise.

Former zine writer Ann Sterzinger once showed promise at creating new pop fiction. She wrote short-but-powerful stories which were dramatic and moved at a good pace. They were fun, often upsetting, always fascinating reads.

Then Ann decided to become “educated.” In the process she adopted the worst aspects of the academy-spawned literati.

That’s my conclusion anyway after reading about a third, so far, of one of Ann’s recent Nine Band Books novels, NVSQVAM (Nowhere).

The novel is an interminable narrative consisting mostly of Henry James-style interior monologues filled with doctoral-student banalities—most dialogue put in italics to further alienate the general reader. The objective is to impress rather than enlighten, much less (gasp!) entertain.

The viewpoint is impossibly solipsistic. The novel includes footnotes. Footnotes! A la everyone’s favorite unreadable author David Foster Wallace. “Look at Me!” the writer is saying. “I know something.” (Or, I did not completely waste the dollars spent on my education.)

There’s the ghost of a good story buried under the verbiage. Plenty of cynicism and wit—diluted by the banality of life. Likely the banality is the point—but who needs to read it? We live it. Most of us read to escape from the mundane and the disappointing.

An excerpt:

“He wasn’t walking toward the health center quite yet; he was walking
toward the big pink mall that squatted across the highway from the Wal-
Mart. He had planned to spend the morning editing his dissertation, but
two clauses into it his head had begun to pound. He thought at first that
he was dying of a stroke, but the pounding stopped whenever he looked
away from the computer screen. So he turned it off—why bother, when
the review committee would dutifully find fault no matter what?—and
found time on his hands. He had needed to buy new walking shoes for
months. He asked himself why, if he really needed a shrink, the mild
irony of walking through traffic to the mall so he could buy walking
shoes didn’t upset him more.”

In and of itself, it’s a fine paragraph. Well written, wise-eyed and all that—but unendurable when there are two hundred other finely written paragraphs just like it.

The old maxims of writing hold true. SHOW us on occasion, don’t just tell us. FIND a proper mix of narrative and scene. Bring pictures of what’s happening to the mind’s eye. Create a plot. Plant hooks. Have pace. BE dramatic.

There’s no effort to impose structure—sense and order—on the writing. That would be too condescending. Too beneath the intelligent writer, whose sense of intelligence, expressed solipsistically, is all. (Yet design—structure—is an expression of intelligence.)

Here I was worried about the readability of my new novella (ASSASSINATION OF X) and worked to impose order on the viewpoints and ideas—chapter numbers and the like-- so that the unwary reader stumbling upon it would be able to follow what’s happening. But let’s not bring that much-scorned creature the reader into the equation!

And so books written with clarity—no matter how shitty—control the marketplace, while authors capable of writing intelligently vomit out their intelligence in a stream of nonsensical consciousness, lest they’re thought to be pandering to the demands of the marketplace. It’s a willful need for obscurity.


(I Challenge Ann, and anyone else, to write a pop story that’s intelligent, fast-paced, dramatic and entertaining. I know someone putting together a new project who’ll be looking for such stories. People, please let me know if you or anyone you know can create that new story: can give us exciting new art.)

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