It is Nobel Prize time again and the requisite articles about the insular nature of American writing are making their annual appearance. As someone who reads an awful lot from around the world and in original languages, I’m, of course, predisposed to enjoy this latest addition to the perennial hand wringing fest. Since I find most tips for writers tedious and have been making a move away from the realism of experience in Carver, etc, that had been held up as the model of good writing when I was coming up, I enjoyed the barbs thrown. Are the criticism justified? I don’t know. The problem I always have is the books usually don’t sound that interesting. Yet another middle class family saga: yawn. Of course that is a problem, because that’s exactly where I come from. At least I didn’t live in a suburban hell (and all suburbs are hell).
What do you think of these kind of articles?
But if we don’t win yet again, we are at fault. America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?
The critical establishment was split on the award to Toni Morrison, but the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her “visionary force, [which] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” You struggle through “Beloved,” but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before. Can you honestly say that about Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys”?
Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.
As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”