Anis Shivani: Why is American Fiction In Its Current Dismal State?
Shivani critiques the narrow vision of US fiction writers @ Barcelona Review.
Contemporary American fiction has become cheap counseling to the bereaved bourgeois. Its scope is restricted too much to the trivial domestic sphere. It promotes grief, paralysis, inaction: a determinism for the post-politics society, where ideology has no place. Mired in appreciation of beautiful (or rather prettified) language for its own sake, without connection to ideology—although that is an ideology of its own, and perhaps the most corrosive and debilitating ideology of all—serious fiction writing today has lost any connection with a wide, appreciative readership. There are no more writer-oracles in America, nor even writer-visionaries, or writer-sages. There is only small writing, with small concerns, and small ambitions. Very little fiction today aims for a universal audience: the market segmentation of specific niches of writing forces writers to address discrete audiences, those who already read their particular brand of writing, while great possibilities of disrupting the fixed manners of reading go ignored.
The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change. Then there must be full accounting of motives and intentions, causes and effects, actions and consequences, in a step-by-step, gradually unfolding manner, all in the aim of achieving psychological credibility—as if humans were predictable voting machines, as if all that happens lies within the boundaries of explicability; and the result is not explanation, but unintended mystification, not psychological profundity but sheer tiresome exposure, unwanted nakedness. The culture of confession – expose in the interest of integrity – rescues the bewildered fiction writer; time after time, the hope triumphs that there is something in the muck of memory that might after all salvage the writer from his struggles with telling a good, full-blooded story packed with real people and real events.
The generation of writers now coming up is frightening in its moral austerity. Can one imagine an O’Connor or Yates or Cheever among them? Can one imagine them grappling with the paradoxes of civilization: Why is there a repetitive decline into desperate fascism? Why are enlightenment principles so frail? How does evil defeat good more often than not? Where does evil come from, if we all claim to be good? If there are any hints of connection in contemporary fiction with the marked trends of the day—fascism, globalization, corporatization, surveillance, dehumanization—they tend to come from older writers, those who didn’t come up through the current establishment process for breeding writers, or from writers rooted in East European or South Asian or East Asian or Latin American cultures, those not yet fully assimilated into the seamless fiction writing matrices of postindustrial America, but on their way already. Can one see a Schnitzler or Kafka, a Musil or Broch, a Bely or Bulgakov, a Waugh or Greene, among all of today’s puny, humorless writer-souls?
The younger fiction writers today, Mr. K.’s all, are themselves entirely self-constructed as bourgeois citizens, playing by the rules of the publishing game, pursuing their grants and promotions and accolades from wherever they might come, hungry for any scrap of attention from the limited sources each niche is likely to offer them. Writers today are polite, sociable, inoffensive, wanting to spark no controversy, staying clear of any dangerous, big, meaningful ideas, even at the cost of their own increased commercial viability. To win the game by making a large statement, and thus causing discomfort within one’s established social zone, is not worth winning the game at all. Image: Robert Moran @ F-Stop Magazine
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