A new beginning for American literature
For the nineteenth time in nineteen years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to a writer outside of the US. As with most people in this country, the members of Still Eating Oranges were previously unfamiliar with the work of Chinese author Mo Yan. If he is as talented as last year’s winner, Tomas Tranströmer, then we have reason to be excited. As usual, though, a certain group (comprised mostly of Americans) has come out to criticize the Nobel committee for snubbing Cormac McCarthy or Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth. Those familiar with this annual tradition will remember that Roth, in particular, has become the cause célèbre for angry American pundits. The US has not had a laureate since Toni Morrison, the logic goes; and so there must be bias afoot.
Recently, The Guardian’s Jason Farago wrote a piece on this phenomenon. Therein, he recalls an infamous, almost legendary 2008 comment made by Nobel spokesman Horace Engdahl: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Every year, US publications trot out this quote as evidence of the Academy’s favoritism; but Farago sides with Engdahl. He decries our country’s writing as “formally retrograde”, “frequently narcissistic” and lacking in “insight or rebelliousness”. He remarks that a new avant-garde theatrical work by 2004’s winner, Elfriede Jelinek, would likely be returned for improvements in a US MFA program. It’s no secret that US writers’ workshops stifle experimentation, but Farago is hinting at a far deeper problem.
A certain literary culture dominates contemporary American schools and publications. In the past, we have considered a few of the effects—brutish, ironic and conflict-based stories—of this establishment. Its heroes and models are the world’s Roths, Raymond Carvers, John Updikes and Jonathan Franzens; its laws are “subtext over surface”, “sincerity kills” and “realism trumps exaggeration”. It began to take off in and around the 1950s, popularized by the writing of Norman Mailer, Roth and others. It took root irrevocably in the following decades. This coincided with the rise of ever-more-unavoidable, ever-more-strict MFA programs and writers’ workshops, which indoctrinated at least two generations of writers into the same mentality. Today, peer pressure, school curricula, editorial taste and online writing guides ensure that new American writers all feed from the same trough.
The culture in question has largely anathematized rival narratives of the American ’50s. This includes Beat experimentalism, with all of its outsize emotion and immediacy. Certainly, some pay lip service to On the Road; but Jack Kerouac’s writing, so academic consensus holds, is sentimental and unrealistic, and his methods precious. One would be hard pressed to find a writers’ workshop that teaches Kerouac’s Belief & Technique for Modern Prose, no matter how revelatory advice like “[i]n tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you” might be. His focus on surface content and feeling has led to the widespread view that his books are for teenagers—to be devoured and then outgrown. J. D. Salinger, another ’50s writer of human drama and exaggerations, has suffered a similar fate. Adults, at best, find The Catcher in the Rye interesting for its over-analyzed symbolic content. Nine Stories has not fared much better.
To put it in Farago’s terms, the “insight or rebelliousness” found in writers like Kerouac and Salinger has been suppressed, replaced by the “formally retrograde”, “frequently narcissistic” work of Updike, Roth and their descendents. Contemporary American writers are suspicious of sincere portrayals of humans, and of attempts to inspire “unearned” (read: non-violent) feelings in the reader. Their characters are not people: they are clusters of meanings and ironic character traits. What is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the quintessential contemporary protagonist, but a bunch of symbols? Updike himself has admitted that Rabbit’s nickname symbolizes his unstable behavior, and that his last name literally means “a storm of angst”. Rabbit is not any kind of person, but is rather a set of signs to be analyzed. Ditto for the casts of more recent American “classics” like The Corrections, The March, Middlesex and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Yet, Saul Bellow had already pegged the direction of this American literary culture by 1959, when he published in The New York Times his article “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story”. He gives the name “deep reading” to this obsession with subtext, this process of digging past the immediate surface to find symbolic content. Deep reading allows every type of person, he writes, to interpret a story according to her own worldview. He states, “A travel folder signifies Death. Coal holes represent the Underworld. Soda crackers are the Host.” However, Bellow calls this “dangerous to literature”. He offers an example from the Iliad—Achilles dragging Hector’s body in circles around Troy—, which he breaks down into a symbolic analysis of circularity. The fact of Achilles’ anger is lost, the surface destroyed by the excavation.
Bellow argues that the true meaning of fiction is its surface content—not any additional “meaning” beneath it. The events of the story, along with the immediate feelings and reactions that they bring out of the reader, are the point of literature. “The beauty of the book cannot escape you if you are any sort of reader,” he writes, “and it is better to approach it from the side of naïveté than from that of culture-idolatry, sophistication and snobbery.” However, he remarks that the intensity of feeling often inspired by the “naïve” reading is too powerful for a deep reader. Bellow makes the bold claim that deep readers, under the pretense of intellectualism, in fact seek to avoid the difficulties presented by “passion and death”. The surface is not too shallow to be worthy of attention, but is rather too deep for the deep reader to bear.
In one of his essay’s most important passages, Bellow writes,
“Novels are being published today which consist entirely of abstractions, meanings, and while our need for meanings is certainly great, our need for concreteness, for particulars, is even greater.”
Meaning is not meaningful: this title is held by the bare particular, which is itself devoid of “meaning” in the modern sense. The most important function of literature—the very thing denied by contemporary American literary culture—is the connection between the “meaningless” surface and the “naïve” reader. Today, we are trapped in an endless holocaust of the particular, to repurpose a phrase from the Radical Orthodox writer David Bentley Hart. We see readers and writers alike burying themselves in subtext to escape from the overwhelming feeling and sincerity of the surface. Bellow suggests a different path. Concluding his essay, he asks us to “let the soda crackers be soda crackers”, which “are mysterious enough as it is.”
It makes perfect sense that, in this literary climate, exaggerated writers like Kerouac would be ignored. Exaggeration is an enlargement of honesty; an expansion of the surface. It glorifies the particular. The fiction with the most subtext must also be the fiction whose surface is most impoverished. As a result, we are left with the US culture of so-called “literary realism”: work that is neither realistic nor literature. If we want to understand why American Nobel laureates have been so scarce for the past twenty years, we must take a hard look at the literary culture that has caused this state of affairs. Engdahl and Farago sense that it must be done; Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, offers us a blueprint. It is time for change.
Still Eating Oranges