Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unprecedented Literary Renaissance

 When I started writing seriously, I could easily get caught up in one or two writers, for example, James Joyce and John Updike. Joyce, because I’d set myself the task of reading Ulysses, and Updike, pouring through a backlog of New Yorker’s at the cafe where I pulled espressos and dreamed a much older person’s dreams (I was in my mid-twenties). In between I wrote fiction. You could wonder if someone so limited in their reading could say of themselves that they were writing “seriously.” There were a few writers before that I’d read extensively (Thomas Mann, Henry Miller, and Samuel Beckett), but perhaps not gone beyond admiring, and certainly not knowing how they might influence my own writing. Needless to say, it took me several more years of unbridled reading until I began to get some sense of what I wanted my own writing to be. By unbridled reading, that meant latching on to a few writers at a time--not unlike the way I read now--until I assimilated some of their influence (if I chose) and moved on. At that rate, it wasn’t a surprise that I could get no one interested in my work. I’d had no general idea of the current world of fiction, and felt more comfortable with my nose buried in work that was decades old.

Now I’d like to believe I read widely, enough to have a sense of what’s happening in contemporary literature, while still dipping into the past to remind myself of what first got me interested in writing.

Just on the basis of the Best American Short Stories 2012, the short story has changed quite a bit in the past few years and has become incredibly, almost ridiculously, vibrant. This collection is one of the strongest groups of stories I’ve read in awhile. I haven’t looked at the BASS in several years, but to compare it to equivalent collections that I have read, almost every story here surprises in ways that don’t feel formulaic, and don’t derive all from a single kind of narrative style. The variety is inspiring. Where in the past I might have recommended only two or three out of twenty of the stories, in the Best American Short Stories 2012 I’d only steer a reader clear of two or three out of twenty.

I don’t know the numbers or statistics, but I believe we’ve seen a renaissance in fiction writing in the last ten years. My own interest had been reignited almost simultaneously with following what was taking place in the world of fiction, writing and publishing, and so much of this came about because of the pervasiveness of the web. I might even argue that it’s nearly impossible to write in a vacuum anymore (i.e., just reading the ancients); or there’s no good reason to do so if you are trying to get your work published. I’m sure there are writers who choose this, and some might slip out of the slush piles and get something published; but besides being pointless (without at least some broad knowledge of what’s happening in contemporary fiction writing), why wouldn’t one be interested in reading what’s out there?

In this renaissance, there has been backlash and critique of MFA programs with the rise of MFA programs, and this has probably forced the tide of short fiction and fiction in general. It already feels like a tired complaint to bemoan their proliferation. No matter what, writing short fiction today might be best categorized as a free for all. Any and everything seems to go. In terms of form, style, subject matter, you name it, the only rule seems to be, there are no rules. There’s  a lot more variety.

Because of the sheer variety, the number of publishing venues, the diversity of voices and viewpoints, we’re no longer in the quaint realm where an alcoholic working class writer in Chico, whose greatest contribution was a naval gazing minimalism, could be claimed as the leading influence of a generation. But even that ‘generation’ label limits the group of writers producing exciting and interesting work today.

Now we have the effects of David Foster Wallace’s modalities, which were even in his hands limited to a post cold war American culture formed primarily via the television. Strange how Wallace, to my knowledge, never ventured with depth into the internet and yet, because his approach feels intrinsically connected to it--his rise has come about with the rise of the web--his imprint has been even more pervasive on the writers that have come after him. More pervasive an imprint than Carver might have ever made in his time. Wallace, in an earlier time, might have had marginal impact on the larger scene, or only in academia. The web’s saturating influence is lending to the multiplicity and variety of radical stylistic shifts that are taking place. TV has become little more than a joke with minor influence, in the new landscape.

There are few journals that have what approaches a similarity of style, or as was once claimed, a derided “MFA workshop style.” Though the general guidelines are about “writing of the highest quality,” that doesn’t mean much. You almost have to get the gist of a journal’s stylistic proclivities. And if you are entering contests to win, in fact it’s best if you have an MFA or better still, a Ph.D., and a professorship at one of the millions of MFA programs doesn’t hurt, either. Yet I suspect, if my own publishing experience is any guide, you should write whatever you want (adhering to high standards of quality, of course) and someone will find you--rather, you will luck across them. Don’t count on the contest circuit. If you wonder where your work fits, it will (or should) find its place.

Long live fiction, and the train wreck of MFA programs. It’s a great time to be a writer.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Star Reviews

The skeptic’s approach to selecting a novel to read from among those that have been hyped to death and promoted by their irrepressible publishers? Look at the one star reviews (on Amazon) first.

These reviews certainly provide a lot of wildly subjective takes. But you learn to read them, and must practice a subtle discernment to tap the sincere ones (if anyone giving a book in a review one star can be sincere), and if nothing else, the general consensus offers an honest and straightforward take. A smattering of one star reviews by a bunch of general readers tell me more about a book than a lofty drubbing by Michiko Kakutani.

My approach could apply to any novel, usually one I’m on the fence about. This is not counter-intuitive, as the novel in question may be from an author whose previous book did not excite me, which almost justifies in my mind the one star reviews I’m curious to read.[1]

I read one star reviews as a way of finding a book to read that I might ultimately come to love. I find I often want to read a novel because it has many one star reviews. In fact, because of my prurient curiosity, I’m probably more inclined to consider reading it if no one likes it. If it’s a book I’m certain I’m going to read anyway, good or bad reviews, I’ll likely only read the one star reviews hoping to glean some essential truth of the work. Here I will point out that when I refer to one star reviewed books, these are the ones in which the number of positive reviews (five stars) are relatively balanced by the number of negative reviews (one star) of the book. These books tend to be the ones that I really like, which must say something about my tastes. Maybe that I’m the text book demographic that follows the latest literary hype.

One star reviewed books tend to speak to me as a possibly misunderstood genius (Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: 40 one stars, 40 five stars), intentionally interesting snobbery or unappreciated intellectualism (Norman Rush’s Mating: 19 one stars, 34 five stars--I recall that it had more one stars--maybe Norman Rush fans came to the cause), typically brilliant and air tight prose in the service of what-was-the-author-thinking (Philip Roth’s The Humbling: 12 one stars, 9 five stars), or not reaching the bar set by their hype (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which has an almost equal split: 306 one star, and 304 five star).

What would be very helpful for readers, though horrifying, I’m sure, for most writers--would be a search option for number of stars reviewed. Because if a book only has five star reviews, then it is safe to say no one is being honest about it, or no one is willing to speak of what might be wrong with it. I like a bit of flaw, a little weird, some character imperfection. I don’t think any book is perfect; I know no book is perfect. If the reviews are predominantly five star reviews, the book in question is most likely the literary equivalent of milquetoast. There are the books that have been around awhile with NO one star reviews. If I do read one of these only high count starred review novels, I read it with a strangely skewed, cautiously skeptical eye.

I’m not sure negative reviews matter. If anyone wants to read it, they will, no matter what critics say. I think now you could rarely find a novel that is so bad it’s received only one star reviews, and maybe a few sad two star reviews, and a paltry one or two three star reviews, but I could be wrong. There again, I’d say maybe the consensus is generally accurate. I’m sure some writers secretly fear this happening to their work. I suspect just this kind of speculation can make a writer with a lack of self-confidence pretty much never dare offer their work up for scrutiny.

This reminds me of the flap with those writers who were posting positive reviews under pseudonyms on all of their friends’ fledgling novels (Of course this behavior is not privy to just writers). As if the presence of the positive reviews would cancel the negative reviews. But those one star reviews are there for a reason, too. On the other hand, the more voices, good or bad, the more that people are talking about the book. In which case, the truth of the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity. After all, you have to sort out the overly strident and bone-to-pick one stars from the frank, I-just-didn’t-love-it one stars. Though I do think the honest ones might sting a little.

And sometimes, no matter the reviews, I just don’t like the book. Or I love it. I read it, at least.

[1] This novel might be one that has been out long past its shelf life before I can expect it to go to paperback (when I’ll more willingly shell out to buy it and test my theory). And thus, in spite of negative reviews, the book must be selling well, or the publisher is trying to unload the extra copies they unwisely produced and recoup their losses. It seems that this is a tactic publishers use when the book isn’t any good.