Monday, March 28, 2011


I don't really mind crappy escapist fiction, a good beach read or airplane book. What I do mind is the lack of imagination and originality in these novels.

And I mind the low level of quality in so-called literary or mainstream fiction. I'm thinking of books by John Banville, Adam Ross, Jess Walter, Jonathan Franzen, John Wray and other respected, so-called literary novelists.

God damn, their stuff is disappointing, to me at least. Sorry to have to say it, but it's mostly crap, what I have seen of it. I even have problems with the works of my acquaintance Michael Chabon, who seemed like a nice enough young guy when I met him once. He's a wonderful technician, full of brilliance, line by line, but he wouldn't know a complete story if it bit him on the butt. (Sorry, Michael.)

The great literary critic Harold Bloom posits several criteria for good literature in his book "The Western Canon." One criterion is originality. He says when you read a great work for the the first time, "you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations." 

In other words, a real work of art doesn't give you the same old crap that you have seen a million times before, whether it be in plays, poems, novels, or visual art -- sculpture, painting, dance, movies. 

The real thing is new, sometimes shockingly so, although that is not enough to make it art. That sense of strangeness, coupled with truth or insight into the human condition, is one way you can sort the men from the boys, the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff.

Popular fiction is not usually original. It doesn't go for that. It does just the opposite. It gives you a warmed-over version of the same old story, the same old ideas or sounds or shapes. New wine in old bottles, as they say in Hollywood. Some people, in fact many people, prefer the familiar, like coming home to the same warm oatmeal. They read the same mystery story written under different titles by different authors. And that's fine with me. I don't have a problem with that.

As my friend Adam says, these bestseller writers are not getting paid to write well, they are getting paid to make you turn the pages.

Maybe there is a way to bring them together. We'll see.

-- Roger

© Copyright 2011, Roger R. Angle

No comments: