The outsider

Dan Simmons, whose novels range from science fiction to thrillers, talks about the feebleness of today's "serious" fiction and what we can all learn from Tom Wolfe.

By Dorman Shindler
Published February 27, 2002 6:57PM (EST)

Not many writers appeal to both mainstream and genre audiences, but ever since "Song of Kali" -- a thriller deemed moody enough to qualify as horror -- won a World Fantasy Award in 1986, Dan Simmons has found himself with a foot in both camps. Three years after that-- all in the course of a single year -- Simmons published an epic horror novel that won a Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association ("Carrion Comfort"), the first of four science fiction novels that take on the themes of poet John Keats while dishing out plenty of space opera action ("Hyperion," which was awarded a Hugo from the SF crowd) and "Phases of Gravity," a mainstream novel that centers around the midlife crisis of an ex-astronaut.

In a 1991 speech at the MileHiCon, a convention of genre writers, Simmons exhorted his peers to blend their bold plots with the serious themes and high-quality prose often found in literary fiction. He urged his colleagues to create their own equivalents of such classics as "The Great Gatsby," "Daniel Martin" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and to "have them accepted by the same standards of excellence which apply throughout the literary world."

Simmons' oeuvre is a melting pot. In "The Hollow Man," he mixes SF-style telekinetics with horrific set pieces straight out of Dante's "Inferno"; "Fires of Eden" combines historical romance with comedic horror; "Looking for Kelly Dahl," a novella, is an afterlife fantasy that features some vibrant writing about nature (drawing on Simmons' 18 years as a teacher); and his latest, "A Winter Haunting," is a mix of Jamesian spookiness and Alfred Hitchcock thrills. Through it all, Simmons' crisp, unfettered prose keeps the narrative pace moving briskly along. Recently, Salon spoke with Simmons, at his home in Colorado, about such topics as the state of both genre and "serious" (literary) fiction, the bout of depression that figured in the writing of his latest novel and what it's like to live between two literary worlds.

The speech you gave in Stony Brook, N.Y., in 1991, challenged genre writers to tear down the wall between genre and mainstream fiction over the course of the following decade. How do you think they fared? Did the genres of SF and horror succeed in tearing down the "wall" between genre and mainstream?

That talk, delivered in slightly different form in Colorado that year at the MileHiCon writer's convention, was meant to be a stirring, Kennedy-esque, "we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard" challenge to my fellow SF and genre writers. No one really noticed the speech, much less took it seriously.

But there were a couple of points from that passionately earnest speech that should be clarified and perhaps reiterated. When I spoke of tearing down the wall between genre and mainstream, I meant it in terms of SF and other genres not making the mistake of establishing separate but equal criteria for excellence -- not lowering standards, not judging their beloved genre fiction by segregated rules of quality.

Also, when I talked about the wall between mainstream fiction and genre fiction as a rift between the "heirs of Robert Louis Stevenson and the heirs of Henry James" (close friends and admirers of one another's work before genre boundaries and anti-genre snobberies were born), I wasn't suggesting that genre fiction was the sad ghetto; on the contrary, my analogy was to divided Berlin in the Cold War, with mainstream fiction having become too much like East Berlin -- gray, joyless, lifeless, hierarchical, with its store shelves empty or stocked with a few Party-approved items that no one wanted to buy. I suggested that the color, energy, vitality and ongoing party of West Berlin -- the energetic genres -- needed to kick down the wall and bring some life back to the East Berlin of contemporary serious fiction.

Has it happened since 1991? Not really. SF has become more socially acceptable through sheer attrition -- its readers, largely Baby Boomers, have grown older and more affluent and can afford hardcover books now, so some of the social stigma of reading (and writing) SF has faded. Horror solved its ghetto problem through the simple act of destroying its own genre -- greedy publishers, sloppy editors and lazy writers producing so much junk and in such quantities that "Gresham's Law" kicked into effect. The bad drove out the good. Then the whole genre imploded. Seen any horror sections in major bookstores lately? But just as many species of trees, shrubs and wildlife flourish after a major fire burns away the old-growth forest, so this self-immolation of horror has led to new writers (and some old) coming back to the fields and hillsides of horror fiction, made more fertile by the flames and ash.

In the December 2001 issue of the Writer, you were quoted as saying, "Our 'serious fiction' has not been serious for decades. Fiction has become a succession of literary games that amuse other game-playing writers and the reviewers who scamper to catch up to the game-playing and help create the arcane rules of 'excellence,' to applaud every self-serving, self-absorbed new piece of useless fantasy. But it's not serious fiction." Care to elaborate further?

There's a wonderful war going on within the world of "serious fiction" today that's germane to my suggestion that too much of mainstream writing has become precious and irrelevant. I'm referring, of course, to the knock-down, drag-out hissy-fit bitch brawl between Tom Wolfe and his detractors -- primarily John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer (with Saul Bellow limping along to get in the fight). Both Bellow and Updike have been important voices to me over the decades -- writers I truly love -- but they may well be on the wrong side of this argument. (Irving is a writer who has underwhelmed me for years, so I take it as a sign that he is the most apoplectic of Wolfe's attackers.)

Way back in the late '80s, Wolfe had written an article in Harper's entitled "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast" in which, in his own words, "I argued that the American novel had deteriorated into a 'weak, pale, tabescent' condition so grave, its very survival depended on somehow sending 'a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas ... out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours to reclaim it as a literary property." Wolfe, of course, sees himself as the Zola of our age. Interesting, since he's written only two novels so far -- "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full."

What drives Irving, Updike, Mailer, et al. (and the galloping-lemming herd of their adoring critics and reviewers) off the cliff is Wolfe's suggestion that in their self-satisfied dominance of the serious fiction universe -- in that New Yorker world of fiction that Updike admits to have worked so hard getting "small enough and inky enough" to join so many decades ago -- these writers have forgotten to tell us anything relevant about today's world. Perhaps worse, they seem to have forgotten how to learn from the world.

So you obviously take Wolfe's side in the argument.

I think Tom Wolfe is onto something here. The John Irvings and Salman Rushdies dominate the ranks of "popular but serious writers," and their work is -- by their own admission -- largely nonsense: metafictional games, self-indulgent fantasies, joyless magical realism devoid of both magic and realism, seasoned by a growing narcissism and antagonism toward women that remains like a sour undertaste in so much of their fiction.

To be fair (and I speak from some experience here), it's hard to keep churning out novels year after year, decade after decade. Plus, there's the sad fact that -- like a star that uses up its hydrogen and begins burning the heavier gasses of its own waste byproducts, bloating and cooling and dying as it does so -- writers whose early books are full of energy and human experience inevitably run out of material. (Unless, like Charles Dickens, they constantly throw themselves into the "Great Oven" of the London night, observing the ongoing human condition.) Or perhaps they have a lifetime of material, but it's mired in the issues and sensibilities of a long dead decade. (Kurt Vonnegut did the unthinkable and admitted as much, saying that he was a writer for the '70s -- but then he wrote more books anyway.)

Sven Birkerts wrote about just this problem of writing after one runs out of new things to say in his 1997 New York Observer article "Running Out of Gas." He makes the point that some of his favorite authors -- Updike, Mailer, Philip Roth, even Saul Bellow -- while publishing regularly, are producing weaker and weaker novels. He suggests that it has something to do with the obsession with self that has powered each of the novelists' works and careers -- "Narcissism, it would appear, does not slacken with the years, it only grows. Only there is a problem ... The self, however grandiose, is finite; the wells do dry up."

The very word "novel" comes from the French word for "new" -- new visions, new information, news from the world (so terribly important in the age before telecommunications). But the masters of "serious fiction" in America have brought us precious little news from the world in recent decades. Does Updike's metafictional game playing in "Gertrude and Claudius" or Irving's endless childishness in "The Fourth Hand" or Mailer's bizarre Egyptian nastiness in "Ancient Evenings" or Rushdie's "daring" exposé of crass materialism in New York City in "Fury" add anything new to our understanding of the workings of the world -- and the people in it -- at the beginning of this new century? Reading the fiction of these aging masters is depressing in the way that listening to elderly Uncle Earl complain about his bowels is depressing.

It's fascinating that in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the only author in demand on the TV networks was Tom Clancy. As a writer, as a handler of language and character and metaphor, Clancy ranks somewhere slightly below the sixth-graders I used to teach. But he knows something -- about terrorists, about weapons of mass destruction, about the world we live in with all its fanaticism and teeth and cynicism and terror.

So you believe Wolfe's writing meets the criteria of serious fiction?

Yes! When you read "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full," you return to the era of Balzac and Zola and Dickens and Thackeray and Twain -- you see and you learn and -- unlike in most postmodernist, semiotic, feminist, deconstructive written-for-professors fiction -- you're allowed to use your own judgment in drawing conclusions from all this information.

In "Bonfire," we see a New York courtroom in which, when felon after felon is paraded before the judge and asked "What's your occupation?" we hear "security guard" and learn, from Wolfe's years of research and observation, that this is the favorite occupation of America's criminal class. And why not? Entry requirements call for a fourth-grade education and a pulse. So when, after Sept. 11, we discover that our airports and planes and lives are being safeguarded, in part, by felons and parolees and people too stupid to pour proverbial piss out of a metaphorical boot, are we surprised? Not if we've read Tom Wolfe.

Wolfe writes about things that have seemed off-limits to "serious" writers the past few decades: observing class and race unblinkingly, without the filter of politically correct polemics; looking at the power of money in almost every human interaction; looking at how one event -- such as the hit and run accident in "Bonfire of the Vanities" or Charlie Croker's money problems in "A Man in Full" -- can cut vertically through society, like a knife through a cake, changing the lives of politicians, journalists, "Master of the Universe" stockbrokers, petty criminals, street thugs, factory workers and fake civil rights leaders.

When, in Boulder, Colo., a few miles down the road from where I live, the murder of little JonBenet Ramsey eventually cost the careers of the district attorney (an idiot I'd known slightly for 16 years) and the mayor and the city manager and the chief of police and the chief of detectives and ... well, those of us who read Tom Wolfe had a sense of the dynamic of it all. Those who read Updike and Irving and Mailer and Rushdie ... who knows what insights they gleaned? Perhaps JonBenet was murdered by a disembodied hand from a telepathic Egyptian escaped from a Shakespearean play or fallen out of an airliner passing over. Anything is possible.

[Simmons gets up to retrieve a couple of books: a copy of John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" and "A Man in Full" by Tom Wolfe, into which he has tucked a battered copy of an essay by Wolfe.]

Still, Tom Wolfe weakens his own case when he writes -- as he did in his ad hominem attack on Updike, Mailer and Irving, "My Three Stooges" -- that the paragon of the reportorial novelist was John Steinbeck. Wolfe argues that, "'The Grapes of Wrath' is a textbook American demonstration of Zola's method of writing the novel: leaving the study, going out into the world, documenting society, linking individual psychology to its social context, giving yourself fuel enough for the maximum exercise of your power as a writer -- thereby absorbing the reader totally."

Well, maybe. But if Updike, Mailer, Irving, Roth and Bellow wanted to respond to this argument, they could do worse than to quote John Gardner in "The Art of Fiction":

"No ignoramus -- no writer who has kept himself innocent of education -- has ever produced fine art ... Witness John Steinbeck's failure in 'The Grapes of Wrath.' It should have been one of America's great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil."

So where does that leave us on taking sides in the great hissy-fit bitch-brawl? A pox on both their houses? Perhaps, but there remains the simple imperative of excellence. That which is excellent is serious, however comedic in its tone or inwardly Jamesian in its focus or grandly Stevensonian in its scope and adventure. Talent commands.

I said in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that I thought our "serious" fiction should get more serious again -- serious in the sense of returning to themes forged by talent and tempered by experience and wisdom.

In "A Winter Haunting," the protagonist, Dale Stewart, struggles with depression on several levels. Though it isn't a large part of the plot, it was very effective. Were you working from personal experience?

While my character Dale Stewart's clinical depression in "A Winter Haunting" is more or less a gimmick to get him into the haunted house near his boyhood town rather than a truly central theme of the book, it is important to the tale in the sense that the story revolves around his damaged perspective on time, reality and himself. In this way, "A Winter Haunting" owes much to Henry James' ghost story "The Jolly Corner." So, just as I went to Romania to research Transylvania for my novel "Children of the Night" and went to Thailand to research my novella "Dying in Bangkok," I had a round-trip ticket to clinical depression before writing "A Winter Haunting."

I've always been a mildly melancholic person and happy about it. The slight humor of melancholy -- the Keatsian pleasure taken at autumnal light and bare branches -- is an aesthetic, not a source of real pain. Nor does depression run in my family.

But in the late autumn of 1997, for some reasons known to no one, least of all to me, events and neurochemicals conspired to drop me through a trapdoor into the kind of clinical depression discussed by William Styron and others.

I won't go into all the details, but suffice to say that for several months I could not read, much less write; I couldn't watch a TV show or movie; I couldn't connect with anything or anyone; I couldn't feel or appreciate sunlight or the out-of-doors. Nature had been my fortress of solitude and solace since I was a little kid ... now it meant nothing. Suicide -- an act I've always despised, fairly or unfairly, as the ultimate act of self-absorption and cowardice -- now seemed nothing more than a logical alternative, like tying one's shoelaces when you notice they've come untied.

Anyway, I chucked myself to the medics soon enough and signed up for the appropriate antidepressants -- "Ten cubic centimeters cure ten gloomy sentiments!" Whatever the bad neural chemistry was, it began to correct itself and within a few months, I began to notice sunlight again and began writing fiction again -- oddly enough, before I could read fiction again. It took about a year before my little mental bark found its balance on the choppy seas again, during which time I wrote all of my novel "Darwin's Blade" -- a knee-slapping comedy about fatal accidents -- several novellas, a film treatment and a screenplay.

I didn't do a good job of describing the experience of depression in "A Winter Haunting" because I didn't even try. Such sadness -- "clinical depression" is an inapt and inadequate phrase to describe such an absolute black hole of despair -- is, like some solitary religious epiphany, almost beyond description. You've either been there or you haven't. All a writer can do is report on stupid behavior and social dysfunction, which is tiresome to everyone, writer included. But as someone who's had the dubious pleasure of experiencing kidney stones over the years, I can say that the pain of real depression is to the discomfort of ordinary sadness as the agony of kidney stones is to our everyday aches and pains -- that is to say, literally incomparable ... and, sooner or later, unendurable. Luckily, there are drugs to make both types of pain stop.

"A Winter Haunting" obviously owes much to Henry James' story "The Jolly Corner." But didn't it start out as a book titled "Going East," about a couple's road trip to the East Coast as their marriage falls apart?

Actually, "Going East" did strangely morph into "A Winter Haunting" over a few years. I've always been fascinated how that works -- how one idea, wildly different from its final iteration, twists and turns on its slouchy way toward Bethlehem to be born.

"Going East" was to be a mainstream novel about a man and woman in their early 50s, recently divorced, who end up driving from California to Washington, D.C., together (their youngest child is leaving Georgetown University for a semester abroad and they want to say goodbye to him) -- the drive accidentally replicating a premarriage trip they took from Berkeley to a Washington antiwar moratorium there in the fall of 1969, more than three decades earlier. I had lots I wanted to say about differing perspectives of our aging Boomer generation -- about love and energy and the loss of each, about how nasty idealism can be and how pleasant a little materialism can be, about roadside diners and fast food drive-throughs, about felt-tip pens and the Internet, about men and women before and after kids.

But in the meantime, it somehow turned into "A Winter Haunting," in which a man who's lost his wife and family through a series of bad decisions -- read middle-aged fling -- ends up going back to his old hometown in the Midwest and spends the winter in a haunted house.

Go figure.

My first mental draft of "A Winter Haunting" contained many of the themes I'd wanted to deal with in "Going East" -- a parallax view of life across the past four decades, the profound changes in our American landscape as our cities and lives have become, more and more, a "geography of nowhere," due to homogenization and lack of imagination, and so forth -- but eventually all that was tossed out of "A Winter Haunting" except for a few sentences of the main character's musings, and I focused on the story of the man lost in himself in that house haunted by his own memories and failures. In that sense, I made the deliberate decision to teleport from Tom Wolfe's universe to Henry James'. I'm happy in both.

Dorman Shindler

Dorman T. Shindler is a freelance writer from Missouri, and a regular contributor to the Denver Post, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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