Is today's fiction irrelevant?

The blogosphere debates: Are today's novels merely clever where they should be deep?

Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988
A generation wonders: Where have all the Mailers gone?

Earlier this summer, the American novel was whisked into a retirement home by cultural critic Lee Siegel in an essay in The New York Observer, titled “Where Have All the Mailers Gone?

“Fiction has become culturally irrelevant,” he wrote in a line that launched a thousand blogs.

Umm. Good to know. I'll just empty my shelves, shall I?

I can name any number of writers – Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson, E.L. Doctorow, Richard Russo – whose work I prefer to Mailer, who in addition to his great books, also left behind a few stinkers. (I know. I've read “Ancient Evenings.”)

Now, a British academic is calling out the “greats” of modern British literature – Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes – and declaring that they barely pass muster as mediocres. (Hopefully Canada, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have critics standing by, so that we can pooh-pooh all literature written in English by the end of the calendar year.)

"We are in a very fallow period," Gabriel Josipovici said in The Guardian Wednesday, calling the contemporary English novel "profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears.”

Josipovici calls the lot of literary lions “prep schoolboys showing off” and claims they're arrogant and self-satisfied. (Also successful, but I digress.) While going easier on Americans, Josipovici reaches across the pond to poke Philip Roth in the nose.

So, what's his definition of a good book? “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne, which he declares more “avant garde than the so-called avant garde.”

(Interestingly, this is the second reference to the 18th-century classic I've run into in pop culture in as many weeks. Now, we aren't in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” territory, but I usually can go years between Shandy sightings. Is the BBC working on a costume drama?)

One quote in particular resonated with me. "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner.”

That's exactly the opposite experience that reading a novel should bring. And it's one that too many self-consciously clever novels have inspired.

But even though we seem to have similar tastes, I'm not sold. Probably because I read an awful lot of contemporary British writers. I'll see you a Martin Amis and raise you a David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, or an A.S. Byatt. (Just a thought: Maybe Josipovici should try reading more female authors.) And if McEwan's last book didn't wow me, I'll still hang on to my copies of “Atonement” and “Amsterdam,” thanks.

To dismiss an entire country's literary output based on a few hand-picked examples strikes me as a little … easy – like aiming at somebody in a dunk tank.

The fact that Josipovici has a book coming out – “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” – doesn't help him claim the high moral ground. (And the idea that the media are behind this vast middle-brow conspiracy is pretty funny to anyone who's ever seen the online numbers for a newspaper's book page.)

As so often happens, the whole argument brings to mind a quote from “The Princess Bride.” (And anyone trying to argue that William Goldman is overrated: Stop now. You're only embarrassing yourself.) “Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?” the kidnapper Vizzini asks the Man in Black. “Morons.”

I don't actually lose sleep calculating whether today's award-winning books are as “great” as the greats of yesteryear (terrible failure in a critic, I know). It's an easy argument, because everyone can think of at least one instance where it's true. Also, many of the lousy books of yesteryear are out of print, leaving us with a, shall we say, distorted perception of the cumulative literary output. I can imagine ancient Egyptian critics of the Middle Kingdom poring over papyri and sniffing that the hieroglyphics are derivative and uninspired.

I read novels because I love the adventure and the resonance and the sense of discovery. If they make me laugh, even better. And as long as I get that, that's pretty great.

So what do you think? Is Josipovici a brave voice of common sense in a land of sycophants? And does it matter if Britain's literary greats are self-satisfied, since, if the alarmists are right, they will soon be Jeff Bezos's indentured servants, laboring in a sub-basement under the Amazon complex, with only Harriet Klausner left to critique them?

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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