By Ray Sawhill
If Robert (“The Trial of Joan of Arc”) Bresson had directed a Zalman (“Wild Orchid”) King film, it might have come out like Louis Malle’s “Damage.” A pot-boiler made austere and tragic, equipped with style to kill and that phony but ever-alluring theme, sexual obsession, it’s a perfect complement to the Josephine Hart novel it’s based on. Hart gives us sleek coupling, with people in glamorous jobs suffering from posh anguish.
Along with such recent novels as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover,” “Damage” is an example of a new type of literary fiction. These books represent a highbrow mining of trash for its zing while condescending to it for its lack of class — literature that’s slumming. They’re would-be page-turners for narcissists who want to imagine they’re having an art experience.
This new form is the latest outgrowth of the ever-prospering creative-writing industry and the ongoing rationalization of the publishing business. The large publishing houses have moved far beyond what was called (by Thomas Whiteside) some years ago “the blockbuster complex”; one executive describes the creature his company has become as “a creator and exploiter of copyrights.” A house may or may not have a place for “quality literature” on its list; they may or may not feel they “can make it work.” What they prefer to commission and market is category books — franchises like horror novels and sewing books. Most have lost the knack of selling literature. Only Knopf, publisher of “Damage” and run by a one-time English publisher with a British flair for exploiting the American culture market, seems capable of putting over “literary importance” anymore.
If, for the publishers, literature is one potentially marketable commodity among many, for the creative-writing industry literature has become just something people with a certain kind of education produce — an abstract discipline a good college is supposed to give you a taste for. (People who follow this kind of writing closely seem to do it in a spirit of dedicated self-denial; most of them don’t watch TV or go to the movies. It’s a cargo cult under the sway of the great gods Flaubert and Chekhov, Joyce and Beckett.) The creative-writing classes and schools teach formula — a matter of fiddling with “voice,” “points of view,” etc. — while claiming to encourage the creation of literature. A couple of the hallmarks of writing-school writing: a preoccupation with that mesmerizer of first-year literary students, the unreliable narrator; and in place of story, word patterns, image patterns, theme patterns. It’s literature-by-algorithm-Synthesizer Lit. We now have several generations of writing school-educated creative writers; they have begun to set the tone for serious fiction. As the generation of Roth, Mailer and Munro becomes less prolific, the composers of Synth Lit will have the field almost entirely to themselves.
“Literature” used to indicate a judgment implying degree of expressiveness and level of accomplishment — either that or an elite, avant-garde activity. (“Professional writers” wrote genre books.) It’s still generally assumed to mean one or the other. But the creative-writing writers simply do literature. (This is similar to the way, among visual artists, “art” has become simply what it is an artist does.) Their schools have informed them that literature is the manipulation of formal elements, and the press, itself educated to recognize literary quality in these terms, concurs — another example of the domestication of a stance that once served to defy and provoke.
Like every other category, literature has spawned innumerable sub-categories, each with specs as demanding and artificial as any mystery-novel form: the Hers-column coming-to-terms novel; the multicultural/oracular/accusatory; the ode to the pre-AIDs years; the new-South farce; the category-defying blast of mega-ambition, etc. Despite this, literary people are almost frighteningly determined to see what they’re doing as akin to the supposedly unique works of solitary genius they learned to admire in school. One useful way of thinking of this kind of literature is as a category that won’t admit it’s a category. Yet the industry and the press still paint that old picture from the Thirties and Forties, the one that shows us how:
The new books in a bookstore may include genre, fluff and utility books, yes — but there’s also literature, where humanity transcends itself, and the tears and heartache are redeemed. Sophisticated editors and journalists and critics manage to exchange information about which books really do count in such a way that deserving authors and readers finally find each other.
The fantasy is that the culture of books is guided by people of talent and taste, and that while decency may not always prevail, it has a fighting chance. But the fact is that trade publishing is now run almost entirely on the business’ terms. The rout began about 15 years ago is now close to complete. Trade publishing is a thoroughly professionalized world. Publishing lists are constructed under the same kind of constraints and with the same kind of conceptualizing-editor guidance (and interference) that glossy magazines are, and the fiction writers who contribute their work to these lists tend to have an academic preparation comparable to that of contemporary journalists and business people.
Why is it, then, that virtually the only fiction that’s accepted as literary are books the industry labels as such? And why is it that only such literary fiction is considered worthy of serious discussion? It partly has to do with the vanity of the college-educated post-World War II generations. Many of what are marketed as literary books are clearly the products of educated people who have decided that only the field the greats toiled in is worthy of their full talents. (People seem tirelessly attached to using literature as a way of making themselves unhappy — using it to represent the something important they feel they really should be doing with their lives.) And of course the corporate journalists and publishers want to believe that what they’re involved in is significant not just economically but artistically and intellectually.
A more basic reason may be the widely cherished image of the book as the sacred embodier of wisdom and cultural values, as well as (for the writer) the big chance to show what he or she has got, and the ultimate test of character. Books, read in solitude and held emotionally close-in, often make a memorable impact on us during adolescence — like pop music, only more private. Attack the current literary conversation piece and you’re attacking someone’s memory of being moved by “Crime and Punishment.”
There are a number of kinds of books the corporate houses publish pretty effectively nowadays. Literature just isn’t one of them. Among their literary books it’s rare to run across one that sets out to entertain as straightforwardly as a mystery by, say Sandra Scoppetone or Robert Crais; that has anything like the sociological and psychological interest of the average true-crime book; that shows as respectful a recognition of the everyday frustrations people endure as a fair number of self-help books; that has the pep of Kay Yarborough Nelson’s computer-advice books; or that’s as beguiling to leaf around in as the Dorling Kindersley productions.
Yet faced with a stack of titles from the large houses, each one having a shelf life of from six weeks to six months, the old arguments about what’s a “real book” and what’s not still go on — a “real book” being understood to be not just some fleeting pop-culture phenomenon. Given this atmosphere of self-delusion and self-consciousness, how can a modeler of empty, graceful exercises such as Michael Chabon not be more likely to win the label of real writer than, for instance, Lee Smith, an emotional celebrator of common experience, whose novels have the pop fullness of a Patsy Cline performance?
It’s a PR triumph that the industry still has perfectly intelligent readers feeling guilty for not keeping up with its literary output, and convinced that they aren’t managing to do any real reading. But of course when you look at your friends’ bookshelves, you find that they really are reading, really prolifically. You see the nod to literature: a shelf or two of Synth Lit, mostly unread and often in hardcover (the hard covers sober monuments to the importance of “the literary”). And you see books that have actually been enjoyed: shelf after shelf of well-thumbed paperback books of journalism (“Barbarians at the Gate”), collections of interviews, category fiction (airplane reading, Scott Turow) and reference and lifestyle books — avowedly genrefied projects, few of them “real books.” One friend served on a literature prize board for a couple of years, reading literary novel after literary novel. When her term ended she returned to what she really enjoys: true crime and celebrity biographies. Readers nagged by the feeling that they’ve lost track of what’s important in books might trust their own tastes more; the books they’re having fun with generally are the industry’s most lively products.
Literary trade publishing today resembles the movie world as “The Player” (accurately) portrays it — with the difference that Hollywood doesn’t rely on the illusion of artistic significance. By now the world of literature, or the appearance of such, has become its own greatest creation. Certainly it makes no sense to take the fiction reviews in The New York Times Book Review as anything other than components of an ongoing soap opera with a rotating, evolving cast of characters. Synth Lit reached a momentary state of refined-away-to-nothing perfection a couple of years ago when Harold Brodkey was being compared to Proust for a novel he was avoiding publishing, and Gordon Lish was celebrated as “Captain Fiction” not for his novels and stories but for an EST-like writing class he conducted.
To find work that has some actual originality of form and content — Acoustic Fiction as opposed to Synth Lit — readers would have better luck trying books from such small houses as Godine, New Directions, Mercury House, Arte Publico, 4 Walls 8 Windows, Sun & Moon, Coach House and Dalkey Archive. Intriguing novels have come from such unlikely places as the University of New Mexico Press and the Sierra Club Press.
Trade literature might have more vitality if it allowed itself some acknowledgement of the hustle and vulgarity of the commercial world it’s part of; the combination of the corporate and the aesthetically and morally self-serious results in something neutering, products that serve the corporations’ convenience first of all.
However sincere the authors are, the Sontag, the Hart and the Tartt are examples of books designed to stand out in this streamlined new world of trade literature. (Does it mater whether these writers know that they’re filling out templates? A bee doesn’t need to understand DNA and natural selection to gather honey.) They’re cashings-in on people’s vulnerability to the myth of literature, raids on the literature market that are as high-concept as any Hollywood film. High-concept movies can actually be easier to take simply because more people have participated; there’s often a performer or two worth watching.
It may be peculiar to this form that what’s most immediately irksome about the books isn’t how deadly they are but how badly they fail on the most basic (if “sensational”) level. The Donna Tartt can’t compare to a Tony Hillerman, and Hart’s “Damage” isn’t exactly a stellar example of the when-do-the-sex-scenes-begin genre.
Sontag, forever making like Kundera and dropping her narrative to let an essay take over, can’t keep the pages turning as fast as Danielle Steel; Kundera hasn’t been making the pages turn too fast lately either. (It’s said in the business that Sontag’s agent, in celebration of her epochal decision to write a “popular, literary” novel, broke Sontag’s long-standing contract in order to raise her price.) But has the writing ever really been the point with Sontag? Her greatest gift has always been for acting out people’s fantasies of a thinker — nothing she writes can surpass the public character “Susan Sontag, woman intellectual.”
The most entertaining aspect of her performance this time around were the highfalutin’ interviews she granted. Did Marie Antoinette ever affect such regal airs? Asked recently what she thought of her fan-turned-detractor Camille Paglia, Sontag simply denied ever having heard of her.
- An interview with the very un-shy Gordon Lish.
- The Susan Sontag website.
- A page of links to interviews with Donna Tartt.
©1993 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.