At the end of my last post I complained a little about being bored by contemporary fiction, and specifically realistic fiction, and a number of people said that they sometimes feel the same way. Lilian asked if I would be willing to explain what I meant. So, uh, maybe? I’m not entirely sure what I meant, except that I wanted to express a vague feeling of discontentment and to explain why I didn’t fall in love with The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a book that others have fallen in love with and is probably worth falling in love with.
I certainly don’t feel bored by all contemporary fiction; looking over my list of books from the last year or so, I see that I loved Arthur Phillips The Tragedy of Arthur, Teju Cole’s Open City, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Joshua Ferris Then We Came to the End. I also liked Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo, although I thought it broke all kinds of fictional rules. I liked it because it broke fictional rules. And that’s what I liked about all these books, I see now. The Phillips book is a novel that pretends to be a play and a memoir; Open City is basically a guy walking around cities and thinking stuff; Baker’s novel has only a little bit of a story and lots and lots of meditations on poetry; Egan’s book is really linked stories with a lengthy chapter written using PowerPoint (and using it very well); Ferris’s book is in the second person (and focused unusually closely on the workplace); and PopCo spends a lot of time explaining how encryption works. That book explains everything.
And I loved all that. I think the perfect contemporary novel is one that breaks the rules in some way while still being fun. It’s possible to break the rules to such an extent that the book is boring or too difficult to enjoy, but the ones above do it perfectly.
Where I run into a problem is when books are more conventional in their plot lines and writing style. It’s not that I dislike all these books, necessarily, just that I don’t often get excited about them. Part of the issue is that I don’t read for story. There are exceptions, such as Sarah Waters, but mostly I don’t care about the plot. I don’t really read for beautiful sentences either, unless we’re talking about an extreme case — unless you’re Proust, for example. Mostly I read for that sense of excitement that comes when I fall a little in love with a character or a voice or the way a book explores an idea or does something new. I’m a little suspicious of sincerity, which is odd because I’m a serious and sincere person, but in my books, I prefer lightness and humor. Do what you do with energy and gusto, and I’ll be impressed.
That’s not always true, of course. I loved Olive Kitteridge, for example, which has hardly any lightness, humor, or gusto. But I guess there I liked the linked story form and the unremitting darkness of that book struck me as brave. I like brave books.
I keep talking about contemporary novels because my feelings about older novels are different. Conventional plot lines bother me less there. Seriousness and sincerity are fine in those books. I don’t look for experimentation in quite in the same way. But you can see why Tristram Shandy is a favorite of mine.
So, there, that’s my explanation of how I feel about contemporary fiction. Anybody else want to try to define their aesthetic? It’s a fun thing to think about.