- It must be 'realistic.'
- It must be contemporary in setting.
- It must concern itself with 'the matter of America.'
- It must be self-conscious (but not too self-conscious).
- It must be ironic (but not too ironic). [This might be called 'Booth's Law' in honor of the late Wayne Booth, American literature's premier irony cop.]
- It must criticize contemporary American life (but neither too much nor too blatantly).
- It must ultimately validate the middle-of-the-road liberalism that most American readers bring to it. (Reading, a potentially self-critical act, is thus reduced to an exercise in self-congratulation.)
- It must depict strategies for 'coping' with contemporary American life as rational and necessary.
- It must depict strategies of resistance to contemporary American life as naive and/or insane.
- It must bite the corporate hand that publishes it (but only with the foam rubber teeth of irony).
- It must contain within itself its own ironic self-criticism (thus short-circuiting anything Michiko Kakutani might say).
Sunday, April 10, 2011
LOOK AT ME by Jennifer Egan
Look At Me is a good, somewhat underrated American novel. Published in 2001, the same year as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, it deserved at least as much hype and praise as that good but decidedly overrated work. Like Franzen's novel, Egan's is an intelligent, efficient, highly competent example of contemporary American literary fiction. Also like The Corrections, it is disappointingly unoriginal. And pushing the comparison a bit further, we can say that the two novels are, in at least one respect, unoriginal in the same way. Both appear to have been constructed according to the standard recipe for contemporary upmarket literary fiction: Take one or more Joyce Carol Oates-style plots and season to taste with the satirical irony of Don DeLillo. The fact that much of today's most highly-regarded LitFic can be called 'Ironized Oates' (available next to Quaker Oats in the Barnes & Noble cereal aisle) indicates the extent to which this fiction has hardened into genre--a genre with rules almost as transparent as those of the mystery or romance genres. And what are these rules? With apologies to Wallace Stevens, here are a few Notes Toward a Less-Than-Supreme Literary Fiction: