Writing for Salon, J. Robert Lennon, one of my favorite living novelists, recently said, "Most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious."
My first thought was, "I hope he's not talking about me." Once I realized the odds of J. Robert Lennon having read my novel were vanishingly small, my second thought was, "What the heck is he talking about?"
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I'm actually very surprised by Lennon's attitude. He's an excellent, inventive writer. His "Familiar" is the story of a woman who is dislocated from one version of her life into another, all the while remembering all the details of the life she left behind. It's a disturbing and affecting piece of work. His previous novel, "Castle," is one of a handful of books that left me too scared to fall asleep.
Lennon thinks fiction writing has become too popular. "Too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it," he writes.
He's not wrong about the seeming popularity of writing literary fiction. There are now 148 full-residency graduate programs in creative writing that draw something like 3,000 to 4,000 applicants per year. You'd think with so many people interested in writing literary fiction, there'd be more people buying and reading it.
There's a certain irony to Lennon's charges, given that he is both the product of (University of Montana) and a teacher within a graduate program in creative writing (Cornell). It's a bit rich for a guy so steeped in the system to complain about the pernicious effects of its insularity.
It's pretty undeniable that some not very good books get written and that some of these even go on to get published.
In a way, Lennon is seeking an explanation for "Sturgeon's Law," a theory developed by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon who had grown weary of defending his chosen genre against critics who picked on its most hackneyed examples to tar the entire enterprise. Sturgeon observed that 90 percent of anything is "crap," regardless of category. In other words, it's like watching only the Chicago Cubs and deciding that all baseball teams are terrible.
But even if 90 percent of what's available is crap (debatable), that still leaves more than enough non-crap our there for our reading pleasure. I can't say I've ever had any trouble finding good books. In my weekly recommendations the problem is always having too many possibilities.
Lennon's attitude is not entirely foreign to me. For an assignment during graduate school, I wrote a kind of manifesto, in which I declared everything that was "wrong" with contemporary literature. It had phrases like "intellectual masturbation," "solipsistic navel gazing" and "creatively bankrupt." I named names and quoted at length from those I perceived as the offenders — and I enjoyed doing it.
Some years later, I ran across the paper in the midst of some dusty files, and as I re-read it, I felt the shame creep through me. It was a petulant screed from a failed and resentment-filled writing student. I'd thought taking on my betters might hoist me to their level.
The opposite was true. Not until I learned that it's more important to champion the good, rather than condemn the bad, would I start to write from a place of possibility and joy. I'm surprised that a writer like J. Robert Lennon, someone who has achieved more than I could ever hope for myself, holds these attitudes.
I'm glad that I outgrew them.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man."
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez
2. "Tinkers" by Paul Harding
3. "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami
5. "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving
— Emory K., Atlanta
I see some contemporary classics (if that's not an oxymoron) in Emory's list. I'm going to take a shot at recommending a new release that has a chance of joining them: Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings."
1. "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief" by Lawrence Wright
2. "The Buzzard Table" by Margaret Maron
3. "May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind" by Cyndi Lee
4. "Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers" by Anne Lamott
5. "Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell
— JoAnn R., Wheeling
Four out of five of these are nonfiction, three of the inspirational memoir variety. I'm not sure that JoAnn will find "Elsewhere," Richard Russo's memoir, inspirational, but it is funny and emotionally moving.
1. "Suspect" by Robert Crais
2. "To the Nines" by Janet Evanovich
3. "Insurgent" by Veronica Roth
4. "Tribulations of the Shortcut Man" by P. G. Sturges
5. "Sharp Objects" by Gillian Flynn
— Paul T., Naperville
For Paul, the mysterious, intense, and unsettling "Await Your Reply" by Dan Chaon.
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