Friday, May 20, 2011

A Novel Theory: Why Isn't Fiction Culturally Relevant?

The obituaries for various facets of the publishing world have been coming out for years. Reading is dead. No, not reading, just bookstores. Or maybe print books are dead, but e-readers will keep reading alive. No, just kidding, the novel is dead. Or maybe novels will survive while newspapers wither away and die. 

Yet despite all the doom and gloom, there's always a few books that seem to slip through the cracks and become cultural phenomena. David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, the difficult The Pale King, garnered a lot of media attention and managed to place on the New York Times bestseller list, and last year Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the first writer to do so in almost a decade. There's a lot of literati dancing around the edges of our cultural periphery, even if fiction writers don't necessarily occupy a central position anymore. 

But why not? Why don't novelists command the cultural clout that they used to? People still read, sure, but even the popular fiction writers of the 21st century seem to be cult figures lurking on the edges, rather than offering an authoritative commanding voice. Perhaps society has changed, and literature, like music, has become fragmented to such a degree that no one figure appeals to everybody. Or perhaps the writing has changed, and it no longer reflects society in quite the same way.

I enjoyed The Pale King quite a bit, and clearly in that book and Wallace's previous publication, Infinite Jest, Wallace was struggling to come to terms with modernity (or postmodernity, if you want to go there). Both books tackle the possibility of retaining a long-term attention span in an increasingly distracting digital landscape. But Wallace embraces the very things he's trying to criticize - excessive footnotes satirize our link-hopping culture, and twisted, almost incoherent narrative structures reflect the fragmentation brought about by technology, lacking a unifying narrative or an emotional catharsis to provide closure. And the books are weird, like some kind of hyped-up fantasy world, filled with tangential anecdotes about crazy, unrealistic happenings that don't necessarily fit into the narrative, except thematically. 

In 2000, the literary critic James Wood coined this method of writing as "hysterical realism." Wood used the term to criticize Zadie Smith, while retroactively applying it to Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and, of course, David Foster Wallace. According to Wood, "hysterical realism" takes the fantastical happenings of "magical realism" and adds in some overblown prose, two cups of postmodernism, a dash of pop culture, and voilĂ ! - you've got yourself a thousand-page-long novel about something like a talking lightbulb or magical video tape

These novels, filled with digressions on impossible happenings, make perfect sense to a culture raised on the manic melodrama of television and the informational oversaturation of Wikipedia. But Wood criticizes them for knowing "a thousand things...but not a single human being." And he's kind of right. I like Wallace well enough, and I love Pynchon to death, but there's no denying that their books, in their manic attempts to summarize the whole of the modern experience, end up dropping a few balls during the juggling act. 

It could be that we as a culture have lost our patience for the more "realistic" novels of yore. Maybe we need the craziness of Pynchon's mechanical ducks and Wallace's psychic accountants if literature is going to compete with visual media. Or maybe in this age of digital distractions and delights, the American public has lost its taste for literary realism entirely. 

But I don't think that's the case. Strangely enough, one of the best cases of "realism" in the arts (and the self-proclaimed heir to Charles Dickens) comes from television. David Simon, a former journalist, managed to craft The Wire into basically five televised novels. It was gripping, entertaining, thought-provoking, realistic while still retaining some of those good old television staples like cliffhangers and one-liners. It's also the exact kind of thing that modern novels are avoiding. The very thing that got a lot of attention on television is getting no attention in literary culture. It's as if David Simon and David Foster Wallace didn't realize what medium they were working in; Simon's intricate plots and realistic portrayals of urban poverty seem the stuff of literature, while Wallace's fantastic setpieces and verbose descriptions are almost made to be filmed. 

But if The Wire went on to receive critical acclaim, if not necessarily popular success, it's strange that there aren't really any novels fulfilling the same function. There's clearly an appetite among the cultural tastemakers for these kinds of realistic stories, both cruelly lifelike and lovingly sentimental. Yet while television has stepped forward to address this, novels have shrunk back, avoiding the onus of such responsibility. 

The British writer Geoff Dyer has proposed that the recent works of journalism published in book format - like Dexter Filkins' The Forever War or Jane Mayer's The Dark Side - have replaced America's need for the novel; these new nonfiction books are making sense of the modern American experience with brilliant writing and reporting, in a way that no novel really can. Perhaps he's right; the events of the past ten years have led to a glut of books published about politics, warfare, and economics, all written by experts but aimed at amateurs. "It is difficult to see what the novelist might bring to the table except stylistic panache...and the burden of unnecessary conventions," writes Dyer. Perhaps the novel is dead, and nonfiction journalism has replaced it. 

But there's something depressing about this prospect. There's a lot of good nonfiction being written, but these books need not supplant fiction entirely. There's a reason why American students still read Fitzgerald to get a sense of the decadence of the Jazz Age, Steinbeck to understand the poverty of the Depression, Kerouac to understand the simultaneous optimism and malaise of the post-war era. Novels may not be timeless, but they often age better than nonfiction, which can quickly become outdated or obsolete. Novelists can take current events and modern issues and frame them in a compelling narrative, and craft a story that addresses these themes. I have no doubt that the "hysterical realists" are trying, but their methods automatically prevent them from having a sizable impact. The books are not realistic and because they're not realistic, because they're shrouded in these postmodern narrative tricks and abstract thematic imagery, they can no longer take a central role in the shaping of culture. Infinite Jest has achieved its own level of cult success among literary geeks, but I don't think it will ever be a cultural touchstone because it chooses to be so obscure. 

I'm not suggesting that hysterical realism go away (in fact, it's one of my favorite genres), or that authors somehow dumb down their writing in order to give it popular appeal. But I do think that writers need to think about what they're trying to accomplish. In the wake of 9/11, two American wars, the recession, the continuing cycle of Web booms and busts, are there really no modern stories to be told about these events? Jonathan Franzen took a big swing at this with Freedom, which was only partially successful (it's portrayal of both college students and red-state America was rather problematic). But I think part of the reason why everyone paid attention to Freedom is just because of the unlikely fact that someone was still trying to write the Great American Novel about the 21st-century at all. 

"The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles." David Foster Wallace wrote that in 1993. He kept plugging along with his own brand of ironic, postmodern literature, and I'm glad he did, but I'm also hoping that this prophecy will eventually come true. I'm glad that hysterical realism has a place at the table, as does book-length journalism. But there's a big empty seat for the novel, if there's a group of Americans willing to take some risks and sit down there. There's plenty of realistic stories ready to be told.