The Deterioration of the American Novel

In a previous post, I addressed the problems with current ‘literary fiction.’ I looked at what I see to be issues with the writers everyone is supposed to read, the batch of postmodernists whose fiction is based on the form and the words themselves over the substance of the story. Even the Minimalists like Raymond Carver have this problem; the style is simple, the antithesis of Pynchon or Wallis, but the underlying problem is the same. There is no, or little intellectual substance to the stories to the

average reader. Fiction of this type requires the same analysis of an English professor for someone to understand it. The dense, overwritten prose of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow requires a literary critic for the student to even understand what the author is even talking about, let alone see what point the author is trying to make. Minimalist fiction does not need the first step, especially in Carver’s case, but it needs the second step for the student to find any meaning in the story. I read Carver’s story “The Students Wife” (you can listen to a narration of it here) and had to look up an analysis of what it might really mean or be about.

This is a trend in post-WWII American fiction I find worrisome. Writers-at least those that are celebrated and promoted by the literary establishment-are no longer the products of unique lives. The Modernists had diverse biographies; the lives of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner are varied and unique. The modern literary writer is a product of the system. They receive a Creative Writing B.A. and then MFA and spend time teaching and writing for small literary journals that pay nothing or close to nothing. I concede that many great writers and artists lived in poverty or were not commercial successes in their lifetimes. And commercial success by no means denotes artistic quality.

The writers that come out of the academic system and become fixtures of that system like David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver, and Joyce Carol Oates produce writing that is the bread and butter of that system’s English departments, something for the critics to in turn analyze. It is a closed system that feeds into itself. To gain recognition of the literary establishment (if that’s your goal) you must get a creative writing degree. Unfortunately, much of American education even at the university level is not about independent, truly critical thought. It’s about regurgitating the party line. Eric Bennett’s article on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop recounts the “house styles” of the workshop.

An example of CIA funded Jackson Pollock

Contrast Pollock to this Socialist Realism example

I’ve covered this ground before, but now I want to address why the postwar literary scene (or lack thereof) has reached this point. Bennett’s article covers CIA funding of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as part of a response to Soviet education of international students. I found an attempt at refuting Bennett’s piece. The refutation might have been convincing, if not for now-public evidence American intelligence front groups also funded modern art. The Cold War had to be fought through culture as well. It is no surprise that American intelligence wanted influence literary as well as visual art; to paraphrase the late Johnathan Bowden, you can imagine CIA officers holding a modern painting upside down because the art would make for a good psychological warfare tactic [1]. The rationale for this was that the Soviet Union represented an artistically repressive regime, and in an odd twist the post-Stalin USSR was culturally very conservative. Therefore, America needed to be seen as a place where art could be anything you wanted it to be, at least on the surface. In the fiction world this had the effect of removing any intellectual content from prose. Bennett quotes a textbook, Writing Fiction where the author instructs students to pare down their stories to nothing but sensory experiences.

I agree with Bennett’s thesis that the influence of American intelligence has damaged American literary culture. Realistically, the CIA had some influence over the literary culture of this period. In this area of research, it can be hard to discern who was an actual asset, simply took money, or who was indirectly influenced by the previous two groups. The focus on creative writing education has produced (as I mentioned in a previous post) competent fiction. The kind of story that keeps the reader engaged and entertained, but as there’s no real intellectual content to many of these stories you forget about them immediately. Stories are supposed to be purely sensory experiences according to Janet Burroway et al. There’s a another word for this kind of story: it’s called a travelogue.

Books have been thrust to the side in American culture. It’s unfortunate that American fiction must be either a purely commercial or a literary, even though a great many classics are entertaining and have intellectual substance. The work of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is both intellectual and exciting. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? explores concepts of identity and what it is to be human through the frame of an SF detective story. According to the dialectic, stories are either ‘pulp’ or MFA-establishment approved literary. Fiction can be both. It should be both. Where a history book or essay is intended to convey a factual truth, fiction gives readers an emotional or spiritual truth about life.

Thanks to indie publishing, writers who would have been censored out of either system can now reach readers, and the readers are responding very well to the new way. A POD children’s book hit number 1 bestseller on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I can only hope, as I addressed in “Creating the New Literary Fiction” there are others out there that want to make quality novels and stories part of mainstream American culture again.

End Notes:

  1. Bowden discusses this at about 15:30. Wyndham Lewis was originally an avant garde painter (one of his paintings is the banner of this blog). Bowden’s lecture covers Lewis’ writing and painting; Lewis rejected modern art a la Pollock late in his life in the 1940s and ’50s.

12 thoughts on “The Deterioration of the American Novel

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