Narrowness is strangling today's American fiction

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At this millennial moment, when ever fewer seem to enjoy reading, a discouraging trend toward provincialism has infected the literary scene. Many readers, particularly the young, will read now only stories that mirror their own lives, written exclusively by authors their own age (no one 40 or over need apply). One of my students in a graduate program in creative writing dismissed that eternally young, angst-ridden genius Franz Kafka as "an old guy."

Much American fiction that is being published today seems to have been squeezed through a narrowing mirror only to emerge in Lilliputian proportions. Books have grown smaller as a result of economic pressure on publishers. The physical smallness of the book is matched by a narrowness of outlook and a parochialism that are rapidly becoming the norm for both literary and popular fiction.

Too many writers are deliberating tailoring their work for small, select audiences defined by age and ethnicity. Publishers, terrified of their conglomerate bottom line bosses, prefer the niche audience, certain if small, and have even become suspicious of authors reaching for universal truths, ambitious for a wide if uncertain readership. Books by ethnics about their ethnicity sell easily; gays focusing on gayness find eager editors. Feminists do best when they write softly comforting books about female friendships or teary mother-daughter reconciliations like "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Most disquieting is how pervasive this trend is among the young who have burrowed down into reading foxholes. Assuming in reading (and writing) about themselves, they know all they need to know, they deprive themselves of the critical intelligence, the wide perspective reading at its best offers. Languishing in myopic prisons, forgoing the quest for universal truths, they consign themselves to historical illiteracy. The post-modern suspicion that no center of values holds, that there is no universally accessible core of meaning available, has resulted in a provincialism of epidemic proportions. It's ironic that a generation that has little prospect of achieving lives economically better than those of their parents censors itself and refuses to face the issues confronting the society at large.

Yet if intellectual narcissism turns young readers ever inward, who can blame them when the culture at large promotes separatism? In culture, no less than in politics, segregation is alive and well and even the norm. So the New York Times reported on Dec. 29 that while "The Steve Harvey Show" ranked first in black households, it was 118th in white; blacks watch themselves, and read about themselves and whites do the same: "Friends" was popular with whites, but 91st among blacks.

Some other cases in point:

The import of this hunkering down behind identity politics barricades came to me after watching photographer Jill Krementz being interviewed on Booktv. Discussing her latest book, "The Jewish Writer" (Henry Holt, 160 pages, $35), Krementz lamented that she was doomed to an audience well over 50 because the young would not look at black and white photographs, thereby depriving themselves of access to an entire art form.

Buying into the separatist approach, young writers even admit they are searching for small, private mini-cults. Junot Diaz, a writer from the Dominican Republic who has caught the attention of the audience 35 and under with his first book of stories, "Drown," (Riverhead, 208 pages, $12) admitted as much to a New York audience. At a reading titled "Border Raids and Treaties of the Heart," Diaz revealed that he writes for a very particular readership, and termed it "misplaced humanism" to try to "write for everybody."

It is certainly true that great authors have always written about the world they know. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James took as a canvas a specific class, culture and time. Latino, African-American or gay writers are no less entitled to draw on their own experience and to evoke the world that shaped it. The problem lies in the misguided view that we can only learn from those who are like us in all essential respects.

Diaz's advice to young authors was that they always remember who "you're in communication with." A "writer of color" was always to be read by people, or other writers, of color. The ideal reader was a member of your own ethnic group. The result is not a strengthening of cultural identity, as Diaz might suppose, but a paltriness of story. "Drown" reveals the details of life among the Dominicans as if they were interesting in and of themselves, and fails to venture beyond anthropology, depictions of "how we live." He's not only politically correct; he's politically safe.

Meanwhile, publishers seem most comfortable with faddishness, searching for the ethnicity most in demand. At the moment, anything written from the Indian sub-continent, or by an author of Indian ancestry, seems destined for acclaim. So in March, Knopf heralds the publication of "Freedom Song: Three Novels" by Amit Chaudhuri. These novellas are nicely written stories of life in an exotic place. They take no risk, offend no one, and substitute local color for engagement with anything beyond, to borrow Chaudhuri's own term, the "atmospheric." Like Diaz, Chaudhuri is writing anthropology without knowing it.

The sexual barricades were represented this season in "The Extra Man" by Jonathan Ames (Scribner, 336 pages, $23). Yet, as sectarian as the identity riffs, the New York sexual exploration novel has grown so predictable that the ante must ever be raised. Ames invents the term "trisexual" and creates a character who cross-dresses (bras! panties!) and is neither gay nor straight. Transvestite transsexuals parade at regular intervals through the pages, and there's even a passage of bonafide anthropology courtesy of who else but Krafft-Ebing. Its subject is the "Pueblo Indians who purposely cultivated feminized men."

Yet another form of insularity pervades Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers" (Vintage Contemporaries, 208 pages, $12). A "family" of 100 brothers gathers in a room for dinner in a red library; here the foxhole is the self-consciously absurd, the antic. The "novel" itself is no more than extended description. Antrim does take time off to dismiss anyone who dares suggest narcissism is not a wholesome literary goal, or that life is not an absurd dead end.

One of the brothers wishes for more than navel-gazing, but the causes Antrim allows him are grotesquely preposterous: "synchronicity, interspecial telepathy (animals read our minds), seraphic intervention (angels help us succeed in life), morphic resonance. ..." His larder bare, Antrim winds up writing about writing, as tiresome as the dreams of a stranger: "conflict is always so difficult to recount," he confides.

These books share a single ideology. Thinking leads nowhere. Engaging with ideas beyond the self is a dead end. The readers' feelings of ineffectuality are entirely justified.

Revel in the absurd, Antrim urges. Ponder "what can be said about a hundred penises of all ages." Setting their sights locally, these authors make few demands on the reader, whether they enlist magic or retreat into the cliches of realism.

This cultural phenomenon occurs during a vast leap toward "globalization," in which every social gain of the past hundred years is under assault. Meanwhile, writing about less and less, these authors extend the distance between the lived experience of our time and our ability to address it socially, politically -- or creatively.

Writers who would enlarge our lives write for everyone. They're pluralistic. They're internationalist. They rule out no one on the grounds of race or gender. Russell Banks, a white male, writes about race. Jeanette Winterson, an avowed lesbian, writes stories from the point of view of men. "What you risk reveals what you value," she says in her brilliant new collection "The World and Other Places" (Knopf, 240 pages, $22).

The idea of any canon, Euro-centered or ethically democratic, ought to die its natural death. The canonization of multi-culturalism needs particular re-examination, for it has spawned an introverted literature, marginal audiences and trivial visions. I would urge diversity advocates like Junot Diaz to consider the work of writers like Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who offers his Japanese audience a whiff of the world outside.

Murakami writes about the young, but then he himself was born in 1949. He may be just plain too old!

Joan Mellen, an English professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, is the author of 12 books. Her books are on a variety of topics -- the Japanese cinema to Marilyn Monroe to sexuality in film. Her most recent books are "Hellman and Hammett" and "Bob Knight: His Own Man." She is also at work on a biography of the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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