Cutting through the din of the dotcom age
The real battle was waged with the Internet.
Illustration for author W.G. Sebald's "Campo Santo." (David Pohl / For The Times)
Criticism of the American way of life, particularly the inhumanity of corporate America, has been a consistent theme. Second- and third-generation immigrant fiction expanded the literary globe. Novels overshadowed short stories, the way they often do. Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike and Ian McEwan cemented their immortality. Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace wrote unforgettable books.
And a strange thing happened in this last decade. Some of our best fiction, literary fiction, was made into movies; there seemed an increase in mutual respect, a better blending of word and image: "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, " There Will Be Blood," based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!," to name a few. Nonfiction pushed forward the idea that we inhabited, if not the margins, something other than the center of the universe -- Richard Dawkins, Bill McKibben and Malcolm Gladwell. Meanwhile, Tracy Kidder, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser showed us the importance of thinking about others as extensions of ourselves.
A friend of mine used to play in a rock band. Before a gig in a Holiday Inn one night, the leader of the band, in full, sparkling jumpsuit, gave a pep talk. "You got to sing out," he said. "We are competing with television." He had a bit of a hard time with his Vs; so "television" became "telewision." Competing with telewision was literature's first great media hurdle. (Sure, there were other distractions, but none of them did their imagery right in your living room, or took over space in your bookshelves). But the real mano-a-mano came with the increasingly widespread use of the Internet.
Still, the truth is that literature has a big head start when it comes to helping us live our lives. On the world map literature would be Europe and the Internet, America. Escaping is one thing -- science fiction, romance novels and nonfiction make excellent magic carpets -- but for turning and facing, there's nothing like good old literary fiction. If I spend money to make myself happy, I could end up like Emma Bovary. If I abandon my children for my lover, I might become Anna Karenina.
"It's not about you," someone else I once knew used to say whenever I cried in movies or got too emotional about paintings or accused him of linking certain musical pieces with ex-girlfriends. He's right, I thought, full of self-loathing for my own self-centeredness; art is not about me.
But it is. In order to be truly useful, fiction has to have a certain psychological density and depth. And as much as authors like to deny it, much of that depth comes from the autobiographical component of all fiction. "I live my life 11 days ahead of my fiction," the author Pam Houston used to say. An author's life experience is the glue that holds the characters to the metaphors: the tall pine that gives them courage, the rock or hurdle they have to walk around or the small, shell-shaped cake that brings childhood memories flooding back. A reader brings his or her own experience to the equation.
So authors have to be particularly conscious. And so do readers. The act of reading is not all that relaxing, as every child first starting out seems to know. Virginia Woolf distinguished between moments of being and unconsciousness -- her work depended on being for its spark and heat. If we become too depleted by, say, the pace of life, the bombarding of information or our disconnection from the natural world; too emptied out, too dependent on external stimuli, we run the risk of being lousy writers and lousy readers.
It takes effort to make art out of emptiness; the more emptiness, the more effort (hence all that phony, amplified emotion in bad writing). You can hear the gears grinding. So the best writing feels light and musical but also plain, honest and clear. And there will be an element of surprise throughout. Characters will not act or react in received ways; the thing we expect to happen will not always happen (never say never). The writer must resist cultural gravity. This is how literature helps not just the reader but the entire species evolve.
This generation's literary grandparents (I'm speaking of America) placed a high value on plain honest fiction. It was the generation with the first almost-clear view of sky through the rubble of World War II. The most successful writers relied heavily on magazines like the New Yorker, Harper's and the Atlantic. In these cozy havens, they could work with one editor for decades, polishing, refining and simplifying their styles and voices. The result was a kind of calm cultural overview that often seemed elitist and sometimes was. The audience took a back seat to the writing life; "Let them eat cake!" If they don't like it, there's always, well, television.
The next generation -- Tobias Wolff, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver and so many others -- had their mentors and their writers groups, but the audience mattered more. It had to. This generation relied heavily on the academy and on grants. Today, young writers do not have the luxury of ignoring their audience. Book deals depend heavily on the audience the author brings with them. There is less money, and the money buys less.
Writers write what they write, a path up and out of one generation's burden, one strangulating set of cultural norms into the future, regardless. But fiction, generally speaking, has been affected by this shrinking market, this smaller pie, largely in the last decade. It is more interactive, in very subtle ways. It tries to do more with less. Plot twists can be interpreted in many ways. Reality is layered, archaeological. Perspective shifts. The narrator is hardly ever reliable. Voices labor under the weight of excessive irony. Morality is more elusive as well. The poor reader searches for truth like a needle in a haystack.
James Frey and other writers forced the issue of truth through the marketing keyhole: What are these categories we call fiction, nonfiction and memoir? As in all times of doubt and confusion, readers called for rules. But true book people make terrible bureaucrats. So there is more babble, more static, and you can see this in much modern fiction. Language, what Thomas Wentworth Higginson called in his 1862 "Letter to a Young Contributor," which ran in the Atlantic, a "fascination of the syllables," is often a luxury, secondary to character or plot or, heaven help us, the message.
I could end the decade that began for so many of us with Sebald (who, of course, had been writing for years but hadn't truly percolated through book culture) happily with Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist," a novel that has the honest clarity of his literary forebears and the sense of cutting a path through the noise, not to mention a return to the lifeboat of language, the fifth beat in the four-beat line, the one we need to be fully conscious to truly hear; awake, alert and ready to read.
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.