Is Literary Fiction Fucking Boring?

Replying to a piece by Dan Chaon about how today’s woefully ignorant writing students could learn a lot from being better acquainted with the contemporary scene, J. Robert Lennon begs to differ:

…most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.

As a result, the dialogue literary fiction writers are having with themselves is, by and large, uninteresting. It isn’t that there aren’t smart people writing and conversing, it’s just that the lit-fic world is so enormous that the noise tends to overwhelm the signal.

There is more superb fiction already extant in the world than any of us will be able to read in our lifetimes. Why develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the present cultural moment when so much of it, inevitably, is crap?

I’ve hesitated to write about this because I’m still not sure whether I agree. It’s certainly true that a lot of the fiction in big magazines is painfully unambitious. It’s also probably a lot better than what passes for writing in the world of self-publishing, or videogames, or most movies. But I would love to know whether Lennon’s is a minority opinion. Does anyone else think ‘mainstream’ literary fiction could be a bit spicier? That it should take more cues from the avant-garde? I find ‘experimental’ fiction equally bad if not worse, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that some of the most successful literary fiction of late has developed a serious flirtation with ‘genre’ elements: see Michael Chabon, Karen Russell, and Glen Duncan’s oeuvres, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and, with the asterisk that it was cordoned off in the SF issue, the reliably awesome Jennifer Egan’s story from The New Yorker written in tweet-like aphorisms.

But if people thought literary fiction was all that boring, would Tenth of December really be selling like hotcakes? Does the world need another George Saunders?

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5 comments

  1. Molly

    Meh, I know this is an incredibly trite comeback, but much of past literary fiction was terrible, too. Much of what everyone does and ever has done in every sphere of life is terrible, because most people are not very good at doing the things that they stubbornly persist in attempting to do. “Wah, wah, there are too many stupid people talking for me to hear what the smart people are saying.” That’s how Lennon sounds to me.

    Still, it’s interesting to hear someone denounce the mediocrity of current literary fiction while simultaneously upholding the belief that an MFA in writing is of great benefit. I feel like those two viewpoints don’t tend to go together…

    • thecopybara

      I think his point was more that we should ignore the mediocre stuff, and concentrate on what we *know* is good. But I’m more interested in whether or not the biggies in literary fiction today are boring. I gained appreciation for it as I got older, but damn if it didn’t take me a few years to get the hang of reading ‘The Virgin Suicides’. I still haven’t made it past the first scene of ‘Infinite Jest’, and I kind of just wanted to dispose of Michael Ondaatje’s latest autobiographical vomit. We both had *serious* problems with ‘Swamplandia!’ and she’s touted as literary fiction’s Luke Skywalker (i.e. ‘you’re our only hope’ if the reference is too lowbrow for you).

      I also think it’s an issue of time and place. For example, today, the vast majority of writing is bad. There have never been more awful writers than the amount out there today. But consider painters in 15th century Florence. The worst among them were probably pretty excellent in absolute terms. I only mean to say I don’t consider the situation unavoidable. Perhaps it’s just harder now, as tastemakers and gatekeepers lose power while the realm of the aesthetic becomes further compartmentalized, for lack of a better word—divided in ever more specific communities. I’ll probably get it wrong but the new saying is something like ‘in the future everyone will be world famous to fifteen people.’ In that case the possibility of a robust mainstream literary fiction seems largely illusory. But maybe it always was: great fiction seems to have the knack of sticking to specific/small communities, sometimes as small as one.

      • Molly

        By “The worst among them were probably pretty excellent in absolute terms,” do you mean that every painter in the 15th century was a trained painter (absolute terms = mechanics and techniques)? Like, that it wasn’t possible to be a painter unless you had money and leisure time enough to train in painting? Plenty of people in the 15th century who could afford to pay for painting instruction for themselves or their children still lacked depth, subtlety, artistic sense, etc., and were therefore bad/boring painters. In that sense they were more like MFA grads who still lack that “something” that makes for great writers.

        In part I am extra defensive against this “It used to be better” argument because it smacks of elitism (as does bandying about “tastemakers and gatekeepers”). I just think people always have and always will be bad at things.

        As far as whether the big names of today, sure, I find a lot of it boring. I find a lot of it not boring, too. I, for example, read Infinite Jest so zealously it was basically a part-time job for a period of a few weeks. I also find a lot of the literary canon from the past boring (and a lot of it not boring). Given that the tastemakers and I do not have identical taste, this seems bound to happen. I agree plenty of writers are boring; I just don’t really agree with this historical narrative.

  2. thecopybara

    I don’t want to offend your sensibility as the top commenter on this blog, but you’re attacking a straw man. First of all I said ’15th century Florence’ which is quite a bit different from every painter in the 15th century. Moreover, I referred to the professional community of painters there, trying to make a comparison with ‘professional’ writers today (the product of grad schools/the academy). I didn’t mean every person who could hold a brush and pay for portrait lessons from Raphael was pretty excellent in absolute terms. I meant that if you could make a living as a pro there, you’re bound to be a lot fucking better at chiaroscuro or drawing perspective or whatever (and I guess I only mean technical skills) than the average gallery jockey making a modest living today. My point was that there *isn’t* a historical narrative about talent; it isn’t getting worse and worse. It varies widely, and pockets of greatness, whether in time or place, can be very large or very small.

    I also hate the ‘it used to be better’ argument, not because it smacks of elitism (in fact I think I hear it most often used by ignorant bigots), but because it is a weird narrative that rarely fits the data. And I agree that people will always be bad at things. My bandying about gatekeepers and tastemakers losing power in the age of the internet suggests that the barrier to entry is being lowered; therefore the people who are bad at things are having more success than they could/should be having. Which did not, for example, happen to the shitty painters in Florence or to the mediocre philosophers at Oxford in the mid-20th century. But is happening on the internet and in publishing houses now.

    That said, I don’t think that’s the problem with contemporary literary fiction. I think it has more to do with an unwillingness to explore other possibilities than those established by Henry James as worthwhile goals.

  3. Pingback: James Patterson Gets Highbrow | The Copybara

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