discuss amongst yourselves

From today’s edition of Publisher’s Lunch:

…though the Granta list of best young American novelists was announced a while ago, the release of the actual issue of the journal launches another wave of coverage. The [Los Angeles Times] notes, “This year, one source of discussion is how many of the list’s 21 writers were raised abroad or are nonwhite. Are stories of transnational identity where the literary action is these days?”

Editor Ian Jack indicates that “a lot of the 100 or so novels he read for his role as judge show writers, regardless of ethnicity, newly interested in the outside world.” But most of them are not interested in social class*, or people in economic distress. Jack says, “To go through this process of creative writing schools, now, to become a budding novelist, more and more means you need a certain amount of ancestral wealth. I hate to sound like a Marxist, but economics does govern a lot of life, especially cultural life.”

But critic Laura Miller thinks that “Writing about immigrants saves you from having to write about mass culture.” She says, “American novels have an extremely ambivalent relationship to mass culture** and have a very difficult time coming to terms with it. Because it’s supposed to be the opposite of all the things that people want from literature. People would just rather avoid it,” and writing about ethnicity or migration allows them to.

Editor Lorin Stein thinks it all matters less than it once did: “The readership has fractured, and reads less, and spends more time e-mailing. And it makes less sense to talk about novelists now — the really creative writing is being done in other genres***” such as the personal essay, reportage and criticism. “The novel has become like landscape painting. It’s the ‘top’ genre, but not, in real life, the main one.”

* I myself am fascinated by issues of social class — having crossed through so many of them in the course of my 30something years on this planet, and seeing how they interact with each other or, more to the point, don’t, and the prejudices and misconceptions each group seems to generally have about the other, whether it’s the middle-class feeling morally superior (“I would never spend so extravagantly or foolishly!”) to the wealthy — or assuming that their perspective on things is the correct, normal perspective simply because it’s the most common or dominant or simply loudest one — or the wealthy being often stunningly clueless about everybody else.

But then, I’m also not writing literary fiction, so la.

** And this perhaps is one of the reasons why I’m not writing literary fiction, as much as I love to read it. I myself am not ambivalent about mass culture. Hell, I embrace it. Even the stuff in it that really sucks can be oddly fascinating, if just to watch how other people are watching it. How can you be a writer of your place and time if you’re not observing the very culture you live in? And like it or not, mass culture exists for us today in a way it never did for writers even twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. To deny that — put your head in the sand about it — simply in the pursuit of some allegedly lofty ideal makes no sense to me. You can work within your observations of mass culture and still aim for lofty things. They are not mutually exclusive.

*** I so do not agree with this. But whatever.


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