The war for the soul of literature

Two critics, one revered and the other almost universally reviled, protest that the literary world has been taken over by big, bad, "ambitious" novels.

Published July 15, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Once upon a time -- about 15 or 20 years ago, to be precise -- when people complained about contemporary fiction, they complained about minimalism. The quintessential minimalist work was a short story written in austere, emotionally muted prose. It described a scene of domestic despair or disconnection fully understood by its protagonist only in a closing moment of bleak epiphany. It was written by Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie or an acolyte thereof, and edited by Gordon Lish. It was published in the New Yorker.

Whole books were dedicated to denouncing this trend and the master's of fine arts writing programs that were accused of popping out graduates who in turn popped out minimalist stories like a chain of identical and tasteless breakfast sausages. The days of minimalism's preeminence, if it ever truly had that, are gone, but the habit of raising a hue and cry about the state of contemporary fiction has proven addictive. We read different kinds of novels now, and so we have a different sort of critic to denounce them.

James Wood is the most admired literary critic at work today, and Dale Peck is the most reviled. Yet they share the same loathing, for a type of fiction that Wood calls "hysterical realism" and that Peck labels "recherché postmodernism." Most people who follow contemporary fiction can confidently name some books that fall into this category and can tell you what they're like: They're big, they're full of information, ideas and stylistic riffs; they have eventful plots that transpire on what's often called a "broad social canvas"; they experiment with form and voice; they're overtly (or maybe just overly) smart. Or at least that's what they're supposed to be like.

Maximalism, to use this genre's most reactionary name, turns out to be a lot less uniform than minimalism. If minimalism's paterfamilias is indisputably Raymond Carver, maximalism's is Don DeLillo -- unless it's Thomas Pynchon. (DeLillo is the star that some younger maximalists claim to steer by, but the less solemn Pynchon seems the better fit.) The novelists usually rounded up in this group include Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen (who wrote a famous 1996 essay on the "social novel" for Harper's Magazine), Colson Whitehead, Jeffrey Eugenides, Dave Eggers, Richard Powers, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith and, especially, David Foster Wallace. But the books these writers produce don't always have much in common. Some of them (Eugenides' "The Virgin Suicides," for one) aren't even especially long -- which seems like the minimum you'd expect from a maximalist novel.

In a way, these are indeed "social" novels, not because of their content or style but because what connects them is their audience. The same people tend to like them all; it is a society of shared taste, a genre consolidated less by the books themselves than by their fans' sense of what kind of novel they want. A lot of these fans are critics, and this is in part because novels of ideas make critics feel clever and useful -- there's so much to explain! -- and, as Wood is fond of pointing out, they have essayistic passages, such as Wallace's self-contained digression on videophones in "Infinite Jest." Since critics are themselves essayists, such interludes strike them as both accessible and collegial.

You could say that the latest books by Wood ("The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel") and Peck ("Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction"), each a collection of essays and reviews, pick their fiercest quarrels with other critics. If critics didn't fuss over what Wood dismisses as the "perpetual excitements and digressions" of hysterical realism, if they did not gullibly cheerlead for "bombastic and befuddled writers," as Peck would have it, the need for both Wood and Peck to take those authors down a peg (or two, or, in Peck's case, more like 10 or 20) would evaporate. Both critics are on crusades, if only Peck quite sees himself in that light. Their enemies are not so much the perpetrators of vile maximalist novels as those who publish and praise them, who put them on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and profile their authors in glossy magazines. And then there's the ignorant and vulgar public, which insists on buying and reading the stuff.

Wood's is by far the more developed and articulated critical project; Peck is all dodges and feints when it comes to putting his aesthetic on the line. Wood knows what he likes, the kind of literature he can believe in, and also knows that it will never attract a large readership. In disdainfully surveying Jonathan Franzen's essay about the difficulty of writing a novel that "engages with the culture," Wood explains that such a book shouldn't even be attempted because it could never be any good: "The only success is aesthetic, and the 'culture' will never validate aesthetic success, will never 'engage' with that." The true artist holds himself apart from the mere noise of the popular. What Franzen and his mentor DeLillo propose, Wood maintains, is that authors "flatter the culture the novel is supposed to resist."

For Wood, the ideal author appears to be Anton Chekhov (a curious choice for a writer so prone to expounding on the novel, since Chekhov mostly wrote short stories and plays). In the best fiction, Wood argues, the author submerges himself utterly in his characters, so that no image or idea surfaces in the text that would not occur naturally to them. The goal is to achieve a style of transparent "innocence," purified of the author's voice, thoughts and sophistication. The only proper subject for such a book is family relations, or perhaps the relations in a small, immediate community. Most of the authors Wood holds up as exemplars -- Isaac Babel, Italo Svevo and Giovanni Verga, for instance -- wrote in or before the first half of the 20th century and about people who lived before the onset of mass media. (It's easier to resist a culture that hasn't happened yet.)

In "The Irresponsible Self," a collection of previously published pieces all circling around a central argument, Wood aims to explain how this best kind of fiction, when it concerns itself with "the mild tragicomedy" that "arises naturally out of context and situation," is superior to satire and other "novels obviously very busy at the business of being comic." The works Wood labels "hysterical realism" belong to the latter camp; they try too hard. The tragicomic is gentle and sympathetic; it forgives its characters for follies and inconsistencies that are simply part of an inevitable human waywardness and unknowability. The harsh comedy of satire, on the other hand, presumes to reduce people to predictable types or caricatures (the miser, the hypocrite, etc.) and then "scourge" them for their shortcomings.

This is a fine but familiar distinction; satirists are forever being accused of cruelty and condescension, sometimes with excellent cause. Wood probably draws the line more closely than most of us, though, relegating a huge chunk of comedy into the realm of the Just Too Much. Humor, for him, is a remarkably fraught enterprise. Making a social comparison, he writes of "those forced moments when someone says 'Do you want to hear a joke?' -- at which point most of us freeze, alarmed that we won't get the punch line, and nervously aware that we are now inhabiting a 'comic moment.'" Actually, most of us probably think something more like, "Ah, a joke. I hope it's funny," and stand prepared to groan good-naturedly at the teller if it's not. That could be just the brash American in me talking, but I've watched enough BBC America to suspect that in this department Wood is morbidly sensitive even for an Englishman. Why?

By now, it's become commonplace to state that Wood, who was raised as an evangelical Anglican, has replaced his lost faith with his belief in literature. For an apostate, he is one God-haunted guy; religion is still the stick by which Wood measures all of human experience, which may be one reason why jokes make him nervous. He calls satire the "comedy of correction" because it judges its characters by the unyielding standards of a deity, specifically the scornfully laughing Yahweh of the Old Testament.

Although Wood doesn't go so far as to draw the obvious parallel, note that the compassionate "comedy of forgiveness" requires that the writer surrender his status as lofty creator and enter his characters, his creations, to the degree that his words, thoughts and being effectively merge with theirs. He becomes them. Remind you of anyone? Yet for all the New Testament overtones of this model, Wood labels it "secular comedy." Satire, he writes, is "religious comedy," because it doles out "punishment for those who deserve it" as opposed to "secular comedy," which offers "forgiveness to those who don't." In Wood's secular comedy, characters are "free to contradict themselves without being corrected by the author, are free to make mistakes without fearing authorial judgment."

There's nothing especially secular about any of this, if by secularism you mean something more positive and humanist than the mere absence of religion. Are these characters truly free, or are they merely unsupervised? The signal quality of Wood's comedy of forgiveness isn't liberation but relief -- at the departure of a prosecutorial God/author whose chill shadow still makes Wood shiver.

Though not technically religious, Wood thinks about literature religiously, and this, as much as his obvious intelligence and erudition, endears him to literary people, particularly authors, even when they disagree with him. It's not hard to see why. If literature is a religion, then what does that make novelists? For the chosen few, something akin to gods. Of course, hardly any contemporary writers are permitted to enter Wood's kingdom of heaven (only Monica Ali, in this collection), but many would rather see themselves as taking a long shot at divinity than as laboring in a quaint niche at the margins of a pop-mad society.

Wood is very, very serious, which makes literary people feel important, but also makes the topic of this book an odd choice. He's not known for his sense of humor, to put it mildly. Some of the funniest bits in "The Irresponsible Self" are inadvertent, such as Wood's attempt to encompass within his definition of "comedy" a novel described by another critic as "certainly the gloomiest in all Russian literature." He is always interesting, but rarely convincing. No one can beat him at making literature seem a matter of moral consequence, but he's not actually very good at making you want to read the books he loves.

Wood's taste is so monkishly circumscribed, so painfully attuned to the most delicate of registers, that he winds up depicting the reading of new fiction as a strenuous effort to soldier through a few books without having your sensibility brutalized. Editorially, this is a bit like sending an agoraphobe off to write about adventure travel. The hysterical realist novel, Wood insists, is a noisy "perpetual-motion machine" engaged in "the pursuit of vitality at all costs." Its authors produce "books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books which know a thousand different things -- How to make the best Indonesian fish curry! The sonics of the trombone! The drug market of Detroit! The history of strip cartoons! -- but do not know a single human being."

Without a doubt, some contemporary novels are overly frenetic and data-stuffed. But Wood doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between the frankly bad specimens (Salman Rushdie's "Fury," a book that, contrary to Wood's predictions, was widely panned) and those that enjoyably gratify readers' curiosity about things like the drug trade in Detroit (why not?). They all strike him as inhuman because he has no interest in their struggle to describe what it feels like to live in a jittery world where authenticity has disappeared in a maze of electronic screens, and people often feel that the freedom to choose between multiple identities leaves them unsure whether any of those identities can be real. Wood is a great champion of the real in fiction, and particularly of characters who believe so entirely in their own reality that they convince the reader of it too. But how, then, do you write about a world where so many real people feel unreal?

Wood's horror of this world so blinds him that he wrongly singles out as an example of mere "smirking" a passage in Franzen's "The Corrections." In it, a character ruminates on "corporate gardens," manicured spaces he has enjoyed as "backdrops for the pageant of privilege" while knowing that it is "vital not to come to them in need." The lines reflect this man's wary attitude toward the business he works in. Minus one (admittedly too fancy) word, the passage conveys just the sort of revelation that Wood would marvel over if it instead described Sicilian peasants or the withering remnants of the pre-Revolutionary Russian aristocracy. But he can't see this because he is offended at being made to consider corporate plazas as an unavoidable fixture of life. "Who would ever 'ask too much'" of one, he asks furiously, when the answer is obvious: Someone who had noplace else to go at the moment -- that is, a disconsolate white-collar worker, the sort of person this character half-fears he may one day be.

The line between the amusingly clever and the too clever, between the interesting description and the egregious info-dump, can only be plotted subjectively. Criticism's task is to articulate that subjectivity so that even those who don't share it can see it in three dimensions. Wood does this beautifully, he erects a critical structure that's undeniably coherent; you can walk in and have a look around. It's just that once you get inside, the accommodations turn out to be pretty Spartan and the window shades are always pulled down.

With Dale Peck, we're talking about subjectivity of an entirely different order. He is notorious for commencing his reviews with rhetorical detonations ("Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" being the most famous example). What provokes less comment is his penchant for backpedaling later on in the piece (or in later statements), allowing that the author in question has talent or something valid to say, and is simply so grievously misguided that only a fearsome critical walloping can possibly knock him back on track. Critics have not hesitated to point out that Peck's "I'm only beating you for your own good" stance resonates creepily with his autobiographical writings about his abusive father.

But Peck isn't merely a bully, and he certainly isn't stupid. Whatever authority others invest in him as an occasional reviewer at the New Republic, he still feels like an outsider, and with cause. He is a gay man from a working-class background and, perhaps hardest of all, a minor novelist, well acquainted with the business end of a stinging review. When he isn't hopelessly enmeshed in his own tangled motivations, he can be an astute and even sensitive critic. His essay on Kurt Vonnegut, one of only two approving pieces in the otherwise aptly titled "Hatchet Jobs," is moving and rather brave; for a critic so intent on demonstrating his own intellect and discrimination, it takes some guts to embrace an author often written off as middlebrow.

Most of the essays in "Hatchet Jobs" lack that kind of courage or clarity, however. Whatever flashes of wit and perception Peck shows, and notwithstanding the extensive knowledge of English grammar and nonreproductive sexual practices he makes a point of showing off whenever possible, the emotional tone here most powerfully suggests the diary of a bright but angry 14-year-old girl. It is petulant and muddled and, underneath that, hurt.

So great is the sway of these feelings that Peck, who obviously prides himself on his close readings, makes a particularly telling mistake. He's quoting a passage from Franzen's 1996 Harper's essay that in turn quotes a letter from David Foster Wallace, whose novel Peck is reviewing. Wallace is lamenting the difficulty of finding "any real sort of felt community" in "a contemporary culture of mass-marketed images and atomized self-interest." Wallace writes that "we're all alienated," but that "the guys who write directly about and at the present culture" -- who are, he says, mostly straight white men -- are particularly confused because they are supposed to constitute the mainstream and therefore can't even find solidarity in an oppositional subculture. "It's not just something to bitch about at wine-and-cheese parties," he insists.

The bit about "wine-and-cheese parties" really sets Peck off. It seems a pretty obvious reference to faculty parties and the university teaching jobs where the writers of a previous generation of postmodern novelists -- Robert Coover and John Barth are two -- ended up when their work failed to set the world on fire. It's pretty easy to imagine the routine griping that goes on in such environs. But Peck mistakenly thinks that Wallace is imagining happy clans of gay and lesbian or immigrant or African-American novelists "who seem to be living it up with our 'subcultures' at wine-and-cheese parties he's not invited to." This tumbles into a tirade about Wallace's book advance and the awards he's won (and even a weird fillip at the end about how many dicks Gore Vidal has sucked, presumably because this lends greater credibility to Vidal's own complaints about the irrelevance of the novel).

This is only the most white-hot example of how Peck's own sense of exclusion effloresces into incoherent rage. In the same essay, he dwells on Wallace's sales figures (as compared to Norman Mailer's) and enthusiastic press. In the book's introduction, he lays into Believer magazine editor Heidi Julavits for deploring the "razed landscape" of contemporary book reviewing. "Such a sentiment," Peck retorts, "seems slightly out of place in the context of Richard Ford, Rick Moody, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace -- not to mention Ms. Julavits and [Dave] Eggers -- who all earn millions of dollars by selling many, many copies of their work." This is delusional. Only one or perhaps two writers on this list could reasonably be said to earn "millions of dollars" in this way, and some of them are, I'm sure, painfully aware that the copies sold of their work cannot be described as "many," let alone "many, many."

But they sell more copies than Dale Peck, and this seems to be the point of such outbursts. What's more, quite a few of the writers Peck lambastes in "Hatchet Jobs" run in the same crowd and get celebrated (sometimes) by the same critics. It is Peck who hasn't been invited to the wine-and-cheese party, and while you can't blame him for resenting this (he's only human), it's impossible to extract the resentment from his criticism of their books without the whole fabric unraveling. His afterword, in which he claims to be fighting for the liberation of contemporary fiction from its disastrous enthrallment to the modernist model epitomized by James Joyce's "Ulysses," is just silly bravado (and I write this as someone who thinks such a liberation wouldn't be a bad idea).

Peck refuses to elaborate on what this rescued fiction might look like, because, he says, he wants to avoid the "trap of reification, of contemporaneity, an inability to react to changing circumstances." When reading such a funny, colloquial and visceral critic, you can be pretty sure that the length of the words he uses is in direct proportion to the bullshit he's dispensing. More likely, such evasions are his "education in deconstruction," mentioned earlier in the book, coming to the surface. In the academia of poststructuralist theory, you learn to stay always on the attack; those who risk standing up for something will soon become a target themselves, and Peck hasn't even managed to save himself from that.

So there's a lot of attitudinizing to hack through before you get to the core of Peck's objections to recherché postmodernism, and it turns out to be much the same as Wood's: The maximalist novel is too long and too digressive, and it is about ideas not people. (One difference is that Peck thinks this is elitist, while Wood thinks it's not rarefied enough.) If you disagree (and in many, if not all, instances, I do), you hit a wall. "Infinite Jest," "The Corrections" and "White Teeth" are in fact ripe with humanity, and their digressions and disquisitions are not tiresome but delightful. So there.

It is a silly impasse, the one where taste cannot be accounted for and the sides resort to hurling insults. That's where, for all his textual analyses, you wind up with Peck, but not with Wood. Wood's criticism enriches the understanding of those who don't agree with him; Peck's is content to stoke the righteous indignation of those who do.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Dave Eggers David Foster Wallace Fiction Jonathan Franzen