When I first arrived at Naropa University, I felt deeply out -of-place. One of the first lectures I attended during the Summer Writing Program was one by Thalia Field (I’d give you a link, but for all her avant-garde-ness she doesn’t seem to have her own web presence outside interviews on other people’s and institution’s websites). She was discussing her first book Point and Line and, as she whirled about in increasing philosophical and theoretical lines and circles, I wrote in my journal that my acceptance to graduate school had been a fluke, and that I didn’t belong. I didn’t understand a single thing she was saying, and more over, I wanted just to raise my hand and ask the simplest question ever: “What is your story about?”
Years later, after finishing grad school, but still several years before I sold my first novel, I picked up my then-girlfriend’s copy of Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” because it had been on the bestseller’s list for nearly three years and I figured I would see what the deal was. I was shocked at how easily and frequently he insulted the reader’s intelligence.
Now, sure, I may have been a bit overly sensitive because I’m not your “average” reader. I don’t mean that ironically, or snobbishly, it’s simply that I have a BA in Creative Writing, and an MFA in Writing & Poetics and I’ve spent years studying novels and short stories and how they are put together, how certain effects are achieved and so on. Now, since I still don’t have a clue what Thalia Field was talking about that day, maybe I don’t know as much as I sometimes like to think I do. But here’s a subtle truth that I am very certain of: the only difference, really, between writers and reader is that writers know the names of the tools and the tricks. Readers know, even if they can’t say exactly what it is they know or why they know it, when they are being jerked around by a writer, or when they are being insulted. Some rightfully get angry about it, but some, I think, sigh and accept it, believing perhaps that they are, indeed as dumb as some writers think they are.
See, I believe that the average reader is an emotionally and psychologically abused person. I believe this abuse is the reason that the readership for literary works is declining (here’s a link to the 2004 NEA survey that has started all the recent handwringing about the future of the novel).
On one side, there are the writers of “Literary” works (note the capital L) who range in popularity and renown like Thalia Field, David Shields, Jonathan Franzen, Tom McCarthy, and the late David Foster Wallace, to name just a few. These are writers with a lot of education, some of it in what amounts to hardcore philosophy in addition to literature. These writers, at times, seem to be in love with irony, so much so that in seeps into and permeates their writing so deeply that it can be almost impossible to tease out anything that they really care honestly about except being ironic. These writers love the avant garde, and metafiction, and, in some cases, plagiarism - like David Shields. They see the decline of literary readership, and think that in order to compete TV, movies, video games, and the internet’s user-generated-content they need to write about that particular angst, wrestle with narrative identity, or create radical forms no one has ever seen before. Confronted with the seemingly endless variability of video games, the old idea of story, they seem to say, is lost to us and so we need something wildly different to win back readers and save the novel.
The average reader runs away from such work because they assume, and possibly rightly so, that it is way beyond their ability to grasp. The kind of novels written by the Literary elite have become geared for an audience of the literary elite. A writer writing a piece of fiction with the intent of challenging, upending, or altering the readers ideas about the “form and function” of narrative isn’t writing for the average reader. A writer creating a fiction that seeks to awaken us to the blurring of fact and fiction, and how that effect our sense of reality isn’t writing for the average reader. Sorry, they just aren’t. They’re writing for people like them, people like me with degrees in writing or literature, or philosophy.
They aren’t writing for a nurse with a couple of days off between three 12 hr shifts. They aren’t writing for an Engineer on a flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. An intrepid nurse or engineer might give them a shot and might even like the book in the end, but on their next day off, or next flight, they’ll probably go with someone from the next category.
On the other side, there are the writers of “sub-literary” works who have almost no concern for avant-garde angst, or philosophical dilemmas, or even, really, “the future of the novel” because, frankly, they’re making a shit-load of money right now and the future looks bright for their type of book. I’m talking about your writers of “popular” fiction, like Dan Brown, or Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, or James Patterson. They could care less about challenges to form and would never torture their publisher with demands that text be printed vertically on the page just to change how the reader must “approach the text.” These types of writers are perfectly fine with the form of the novel as it has existed for the last several hundred years. The last major changes they adopted were the fetish for “realism” and the short (or shortish-long) declarative sentence. The problem is that their lack of interest in form has lead to their embrace of the formula and a complete denuding of any societal, emotional, or spiritual subtext or context to their work. There might be some echoes of life as we know it, some gestures in the direction of things we readers are wrestling with in the real world, but there is no true confrontation with those issues, except via violence or some other stunning, thrilling improbability. Another thing the formula lends itself too is dependence upon over-repetitive qualification.
For example: in Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” , a character arrives in a house that has, for all intents been previously described in detail - all two stories and secret basement of it. The character, we are told, searches the house, which leads to my favorite two sentences in the whole of Brown’s book. “The house was entirely uninhabited. Upstairs too.” -- as if the writer isn’t sure the reader will understand what the word “entirely” means. Whether this is a result of the writer being unsure of his powers of description, or the writer’s assumption that the reader is stupid is hard to say. Either way, it has the same result: the reader acquires a kind of learned helplessness. After a long enough period of being talked down to in this fashion, they come to rely upon it and when a writer doesn’t over-explain, they give up and claim the book is too difficult to read.
One group refuses to tell them a story, but give them a bunch of elitist attitude, and the other group tells them a story but treats them like they’re stupid. No wonder people prefer movies, TV, video games and the internet to reading a book.
Now, there is a middle way. The problem is that right now the only people practicing this middle way are writing Young Adult novels. Here are books with compelling stories, compelling characters, and, more over, wrestle with serious issues that are connected to the world that we readers actually live in. Some of them even make interesting formal choices.
My question is, why aren’t there writers writing stories like that for grown-ups? Or, more to the point, where are they?