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Sunday, May 21, 2006

It is time to put away childish things

I'd read the list of the best American fiction of the past 25 years, but it wasn't until I actually sat down with the physical copy of the Book Review that I really grasped the implications. The thing that struck me when I saw the whole thing all splayed out like that in front of me wasn't so much that it was a bunch of white dudes and Toni Morrison as much as that it was a bunch of modernist realism. Oh sure, the well-represented DeLillo ostensibly writes postmodern fiction, but it's not, really, is it? White Noise is just a slightly more psychadelic Roth (though is real good), and Libra and Underworld are about as postmodern as Mason & Dixon. The most forward-looking book on that list is probably A Confederacy of Dunces, which was actually written in the 60s, and it seems really significant to me that the novels we've apparently chosen to canonize since then often feel like a regression. Postmodernism is, after all, forty or fifty years old now as a literary pursuit, which should be long enough to make it safely accepted, but whereas you'd certainly find postmodern works in any canonical list of visual art, architecture, film, TV, or even music, it's astounding that here we find a list of novels almost totally devoid of anything beyond solid realist narrative.

There are a number of possible reasons for this, most tied up with the methodology used: a request was sent "to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'" In the accompanying essay, by A. O. Scott, he mentions that a number of people asked to submit refused to on various ideological grounds, and it's certainly possible that these people, the ones with strong ideological opinions about fiction, were the ones who might have voted for non-modernist works, so it's more of a bullet vote. (Certainly looking at the people who did submit votes it's easier to understand the results, but still not entirely, and there's a handful on there whose abscence from the actual list of "winners" is absolutely baffling--though maybe it's significant that I see a lot of geezers on there.) Scott also mentions the fact that there was a similar poll done for the period 1940-1965, so perhaps the preponderance of authors born in the prewar period is in some way a compensation for the lack of a similarly-constructed 60s and 70s canon.

But to be totally honest, the thing that struck me, and that still strikes me, is the omission of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which, according to Scott, received no votes whatsoever. Admittedly I'm a bit of a fan, but my impression was that there was a wide consensus that IJ is probably the most important novel of the 90s, both because it's making a clear effort to be a Big Important Book and because it actually succeeds. Certainly it's still cited as a major influence in all sorts of places, and I think it's impossible not to see Wallace's influence in the current crop of literary wunderkinds, i.e. The Jonathans. Scott observes that all the books on the list seem to be, at best, concerned with the present, but almost entirely concerned with the past, going as far to peg this as the dominant theme of the list. IJ, in contrast, is explicitly set in an imaginary near-future, and while it has things to say about the past and the present, its view is resolutely forward. That it's nowhere to be found on this list is very telling.

I've written before about being put off by fiction, and while I think I've dealt with that fairly well, this is a pretty good encapsulation of what makes me shy away: its inherent conservativism. Not politically, but artistically, fiction seems remarkably backward-looking, the most visible symbol of which is probably the visual style associated with being a fiction writer. If you are a serious fiction writer, you are supposed to look like you stepped out of a picture of the boho 50s, exhibiting a sort of stoic, working-class, grumpy masculinity. And the fiction you write should in some way reflect this. Sure, certain weird deviations might be the flavor of the day, but in the final analysis, quality fiction always came down to a solid, well-crafted narrative, with believable characters showing clear psychological motivation, all revolving around a thorough treatment of a real geographic location and some sort of central tragedy.

This is modernism, and this is fine--there's lots of modernism I love. But as I say above, postmodernism has been around in America for 40 years, which should be more than enough time for it to be established as something worthy of canonization, and though Scott feels that Gravity's Rainbow would be a shoo-in for the 60s/70s canon, it's unclear if that would prove that pomo's moment passed or merely that fiction decided it had had its fun, but it was time to grow up and be responsible now that the 80s were here. (Certainly the row of author's pictures

The crazy thing is that it hadn't. It's possible that, as Scott says of Ann Beatty, postmodernism and its attendant literature "steadfastly refuses to try" to be part of a canon, but every new idea that announces itself as a revolution inevitably becomes the mainstream, and that's a good thing. Forget IJ for a moment--novels like Geek Love or Middle Passage or Motherless Brooklyn were good in no small part because they refused to do what they were expected to, and they're certainly better than any Philip Roth book I've ever read. (I might be more eager to read another tragicomic trawl through the aging male libido if I wasn't subjected to it on a daily basis.)

Maybe the fault lies with pomo, which presented itself, foolishly, as an insurrectionary movement, making fiction perhaps unwilling to integrate any useful lessons it could have, or making the canon's gatekeepers wary of anything smacking of its touches. But, once again, this shit isn't actually revolutionary anymore, and some of it is fairly widely accepted, so to refuse to acknowledge it even is almost the defintion of conservative, especially when your field looks remarkably similar, style and subject-wise, to the field from the 40s and 50s, except (arguably) not as good. Things building on the past are great, but it just seems foolish for there to be nothing that looks to the future. And, for that matter, it might very well indicate that pomo's children have themselves failed to integrate its lessons in any productive way.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: criticism is literature, and this is one of the many reasons why. You'll find more acknowledgment of the forward-looking literature of the last 40 years in the year's best pieces of criticism than in this NYT list, and while that's pretty sad, it's also I think demonstrating why criticism has become literature: because literature itself is failing to evolve. There are steps it could be taking that it almost stubbornly isn't, and so that energy ends up emerging somewhere else. Criticism attempts to deal with the future and change the present, to think what could be and to gather together; fiction seems to want to wall itself off, and to join poetry in becoming mere craftsmanship. I know I'm wrong about all this--I've disowned this stance before, more or less--but goddamn does fiction make it hard not to be wrong sometimes.