Stop reading only new novels
If you don't know your history, you can't surpass it
I’m reading a couple of books right now that are fine. They are entertaining. They are not the best books I have ever read. And yet when I read reviews of them they were heralded as “brilliant” as “groundbreaking” as “innovative.” Now, we are all smart enough here to know that there is really only so much that you can do with the written word and that most things have been tried already. But I do like a weird chance. I appreciate a ballsy decision. ((I just read Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (2018) which was strange and fun and exciting))
Often these books aren’t innovative, though. They aren’t doing anything new. They are good and sometimes great, but this narrative is one built of a lack of interaction with our own (American) and our global history. It’s a narrow perception of where our work fits.
Friend of the newsletter and brilliant literary critic and reporter Madeleine Schwartz had a good tweet the other day, which sent me into a rage spiral with how correct it is:
Being an idiot who cannot communicate through only one form of media, I immediately texted her. THIS, I wanted to scream while running around with a print out of it and shoving it into people’s faces. Madeleine, being an actual literary critic and well-versed in the history of literary criticism, directed me to an excellent article by Elif Batuman from The London Review of Books, which you can read here. The article has a flashy title (“Get a Real Degree: Down with Creative Writing), but a few interesting points that I just thought would be fun to draw back out for you all here. It was written in September 2010.
The ideal of self-expression also explains the programme’s privileging of ‘fiction’: where ‘non-fiction’ is burdened by factual content, and ‘literature’ is burdened by a canon of classics, ‘fiction’ is taken to be a pure vessel for inner content. As if the self were a ready-made content, and as if the wish to become a writer – a complicated, strange wish, never fully explored
Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.
Mostly, what I am trying to say is that technical proficiency isn’t enough. Writing a tight story isn’t enough, and it never has been. What makes a book (or any piece of art) pop and resonate and matter isn’t whether or not it is perfectly paced and perfectly copy-edited and filled with perfect analogies. A novel can be a formula. Plenty of them are, but that doesn’t make it good.
What’s worse to me, though, is this mass of people who have only read modern fiction thinking that they are the first to do something simply because they have only read books written in the last 20 years. People were writing novels from the perspective of tea pots in the late 1800s. Nothing under the sun is new.
The problem, Batuman argues, isn’t that MFA programs exist or even that they work to create expertly rendered works, but that they do not encourage writers to place themselves in a greater cannon of the work they want to make. This past year, reading books by American women from the 19th and early and mid 20th centuries has opened my eyes to how narrow my understanding not only of women’s contribution to our literary history but of what exactly our literary history contains. What we are taught from the archives are the same kind of stories by the same kind of men with the same kind of tones, but that isn’t all there is. There is so much more.
Read an old book next! Read something out of print!
Last Friday, I recommended some novels by a writer I love who almost got forgotten in the 80s. I’ll be writing more about some of my favorite old books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, let me know if you have a book that you love that is too old to be popular! I would love to read it.
Some other stuff I wrote this week if you’re craving more: