Thursday, May 11, 2006

Arbitrary Arbi-traitors

The Sunday New York Times Book Review takes a stab at locating "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

In an essay that attempts to help contextualize the survey for us, A. O. Scott writes:
...late-20th-century American Lit comprises a bustling menagerie, like Noah's ark or the island of Dr. Moreau, where modernists and postmodernists consort with fabulists and realists, ghost stories commingle with domestic dramas, and historical pageantry mutates into metafiction. It is, gratifyingly if also bewilderingly, a messy and multitudinous affair.
You can't argue with that. But when you read the final list of 25 "best works of American fiction," you will notice how those who are still published by the multi-national media companies are the only ones who are capable of making the cut. Those who control the publishing industry from "on high" while sitting atop their perches in the corporate towers of the American Publishing Industry will be happy to know that not a single author of my generation, and most especially any one author published by a small, alternative, or literary press, made it on to this elitist-conformist list.

It ends up that the "bustling menagerie" of writing that proliferates here in the U S of A is incapable of producing an emerging generation of writers who can come close to nipping at the heels of these Last of the Lost Generations. We are so lost, that we can't even find ourselves on the runner-up list to Toni Morrison's "Beloved." As Scott says:
Is this quantitative evidence for the decline of American letters - yet another casualty of the 60's? Or is the American literary establishment the last redoubt of elder-worship in a culture mad for youth? In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers - by which I mean writers under 50 - were mentioned. One vote each for "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," none for "Infinite Jest" or "The Fortress of Solitude," a single vote for Richard Powers, none for William T. Vollmann, and so on.
No Kathy Acker, no Ronald Sukenick, no Dave Eggers, no Chris Krauss, no Mark Leyner, no Carole Maso, no Shelley Jackson.

No hypertext, no imagetext ebooks, no innovation, really.

This elitist-conformist exercise spurred by the Times should be played up as the last list of Great American Fiction since there simply is no more fiction, at least not the kind we used to associate with work from the likes of Roth, Updike, Carver, and DeLillo (all of whom are fairly represented here, a few with multiple listings).

But here's the catch: the best writing being produced today is not-fiction.

I borrow the term not-fiction from an essay of the same name written for the American Book Review by Ronald Sukenick. In my essay on Sukenick for the book Musing The Mosaic (SUNY Press, 2003), I remixed some of Ron's ideas about the not-fiction movement in contemporary letters, a movement that challenges the fictional underpinnings of the publishing industry's attempt to always anoint new heroes in the never-ending "literary age":
postmodern fragmentation will lead to
the jumpy non-sequitur of mosaiced narrative

postmodern pastiche will lead to the predication of truths

postmodern interaction of composition and audience will lead to decomposition of the virtual artifact and its intervention in the real world

postmodern illogic and alogic stemming from Duchamp
will resolve into the dialogic

postmodern drift to the language of speech will be mixed and amplified with the language of writing, graphics and music

postmodern deconstruction will gravitate toward the
contingencies of rhetorical assertion

postmodern intellectual disintegration will mutate
to a yearning for spiritual reach

postmodern imagination will move toward a hard factuality

postmodern interest in pop genre will result in a new synthesis of genres

postmodern embrace of the mass market and its values
will turn toward a revival of unmarketed prestige
The best American fiction for the next 25 years will steer clear of book culture, will not be fiction at all, and will be available for free download on to your video iPod. DEAL WITH IT.


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1 Comments:

Anonymous Cat said...

I find your comments interesting. But I have some questions. Why can't fiction be great on its own without "innovation" as you explain...hypertext, ebooks, etc. It should be the quality of the work not just how it looks on the page (or web page). Do you feel that if fiction is printed by these "multi national media companies" that it discounts the possibility of greatness? That it somehow just contributes to the evil publishers? How is it an elistist conformist exercise when it is an opinion submitted by that of a journalist? It is the opinion of those at the NY Times, just as you could make your own list of the top 25. And what do you mean by there is only not-fiction and no longer fiction? Are you discounting all of us writers out here who identify ourselves as fiction writers, and that we must now commit to hypertext in order to "prove" our work to you? And even if someone can get a book and put it on the ipod, how is it not fiction at all?

1:19 AM  

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