Category Archives: THE BLOG

Is there any hope for the novel?

I ask because I’ve spent time this summer with crawdads and Evvie and stupid self-involved conversations with idiotic young women, and I wonder if the whole art form is over, and even if that’s maybe a good thing whatever my personal preferences.

Which are to passionately clutch my book to my heart and spew invective at the uncaring universe.

Only, if the novel can survive this current self-referential vapidity, what then? Where to, what next, and more to the point, how? And what is it, exactly, that’s savorless here: the form, or the stagnant, artificially sweetened thinking poured into it? 

I know, I know: I’ve been down this road before, but I think I’m a proven, trustworthy pathfinder for this particular journey. (Those who’ve encountered my own fiction might disagree; I’ll take that argument.) But there are plenty of fellow travelers: this blog was inspired in part by a comment by Ross Douthat on the passing of Toni Morrison, quoted by Brigid Delaney in The Guardian:  “Something has changed in the cultural status of the novel.” What a genteel little understatement! Delaney wonders about the impact of social media; I suspect that’s symptomatic of a wider, even more critical disturbance.

This is only a quick post on an off week, which is to say I haven’t thought all this through yet, but next weekend’s a holiday and I hope to post something better Labor Day. Until then, it’s a matter of letting the questions themselves point the way: is the novel still an important form, one that can move or enlighten societies, even nations? If not, why not? If yes, what the hell happened?

Suggestions welcome.

MM

 

Photo credit: Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What’s Not New in Fiction

Ah, sour grapes. Listen, I read a fair amount of fiction, but if I wanted to describe what I’ve seen in the past few years I could do it with  a sadly short list of topics and types. They tend to overlap, I presume by necessity, which means they can be freely combined should you wish to construct a generic bestseller:

1. The woman who discovers / recovers herself. These stories tend to be pretty straightforward, even Little Women grade straightforward, which is really odd for a contemporary theme. They’re all: When will she finally figure out what everyone’s known all along? She never, ever figures out anything everyone hasn’t known all along, except maybe a relatively unimportant plot point. 

2. The New York or California novel (can be Dublin, etc.). This is what I think of as a DIRTY book, one you find again six months later and wonder: “Did I read that yet?” It’s highly intelligent and wannabe edgy, drops the names of artists and rappers, invariably details what the protagonist has for breakfast, if rife with job dissatisfaction, has a troubled but uninteresting romance, and  why the hell am I reading this pretentious, self-involved crap anyway?

3. The psychological mystery, increasingly feminist, although I suspect that tag is sometimes added after the fact. Here the violence is extreme, the danger real, secrets often span generations, and if it’s set in a small town things aren’t remotely what they seem. You know where you’re heading with this one; it’ll be unpleasant but cathartic. Have a fun trip.

4. The immigrant experience, which turns out to be difficult and often depressing. There’s generally a return to the home country, where strangely, things seem to be going better. This one is important, but on its own too familiar.

5. The fantasy element book, usually employing some kind of convergence or warp in time, and interesting because it exists. It hasn’t been done right yet. This renewed interest in the way time works is about something actually profound that deserves a decent book, and I think I’ll write it.

6. The adolescent experience, inner city or rural, featuring drugs and/or incest and/or physical abuse. It will end with the protagonist in a new if not necessarily more favorable situation.

7. The book about the gay / trans experience. This overlaps one or more other categories; I don’t know that I’ve seen it standing alone, but maybe that’s just me.  A couple of weeks ago I read a novel / memoir about a gay semi-rural immigrant dealing and the opioid epidemic. It was valid and quite decently done, simultaneously fresh and tired.  

8. The science fiction book about the Internet or else a dystopian future / the science fiction book about alien invaders or a mission to Mars. Sometimes a random gleam of light, an actual idea, winds through the simple survival mechanics of this genre; merely an invention, mind you, not an insight or revelation, not that kind of raw concept.

None of the above are anything like great, although they’re constantly described as such. All those pages, all those characters, and not one truly tears the heart. Compare, for example The Goldfinch, which is objectively a terrible book, derivative and sloppy, and I loved it.

Well, once artificial intelligence takes over the publishing business along with everything else, it will automatically select only excellent works of fiction precisely fitted to the above urgent topics. That’s because  AI is entirely self-referential. And after all, if you have to choose between equally good books, and you really can’t tell which is best, or why, go for the one that’ll make it a better world. The book-buying public, passionate adherents to the cause,  will naturally love it. 

I suggest AI favor climate change as well. I definitely need some fresh air.

And speaking of fiction, see the Home page for a link to purchase Worthy of This Great City, or read the Prologue on the Excerpts page.

Photo credits: Giang, Bookstore (CC BY 2.0) / Bovee and Thill, Artificial Intelligence (CC BY 2.0) / Sparsh Ahuja, Genius (CC BY 2.0)

A republic, if you can keep it.

A Bastille Day update: Today in America we postulate a living, evolving, and therefore potentially inclusive constitution. We place our faith in its imperatives, expecting them to supersede the dictates of the past: of race and religion and political belief and individual need. If our faith is so strong, why should we fear the immigrant?

(The sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City has ended, as advised, and it’s back to $7.99. Hardly a fortune; how about a little support for the arts!)

July 7, 2019: So Mr. Franklin reportedly replied, when asked what form of government this little invention of a nation would take, and he had reason to wonder. We were so scattered, so lacking any kind of cohesion or clear purpose beyond just getting rid of the Brits.

Declaration of Independence, Independence Hall

I spent the 4th wandering my city, taking bad photos with my phone, wondering what all the revelers were celebrating. Certainly not the same thing. It reminded me of the Bicentennial, another scattered, regional or local event. Each to his own, baby. For liberty, for a day off from work, for a concert or food on the Ben Franklin Parkway, for splashing in a fountain or in the jets at Dilworth Plaza, or waiting in line to tour Independence Hall. For fireworks, of course.

Ben Franklin Parkway, July 4th 2019

 A republic, and not to push the old “as opposed to a democracy” argument, but here we are decrying the electoral vote because it did exactly what it was supposed to do; it provided  some measure of solidarity by forcing us to actually look at each other, if not willingly or with respect. Is it better to look away sometimes, and simply forge ahead? Is that necessary? Perhaps it is, but these things must be carefully weighed. 

Dilworth Plaza, 4th of July 2019

Then think about upholding ideas carefully crafted out of compromise and intelligence and forethought down in Philadelphia’s historic district, and whether those familiar, hallowed concepts could possibly endanger their own existence. Because that’s what I hear.

And this is no time for a crisis of faith.

 

(The sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City continues one more week only ($2.99).

 

Fountain at Logan Circle

Penn’s Landing

MINOR UPDATE: June 30th of Welcome America week here in Philadelphia, and I’ve spent much of the past ten days with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. It’s a detective story that speaks to my soul, tracing out a vision of light and liberty feared and maligned, then almost miraculously unearthed and honored, a literal line of thought connecting Epicurus to Lucretius to Jefferson in Philadelphia, declaring the fundamental right to pursue happiness. I’m excited for this holiday, and I’ll be afoot and wandering much of the week, camera at the ready, listening to the tourists and trying to understand what it is they find here, and what they miss, and why.

Meanwhile, I put the Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City on sale, not quite free but $2.99. The link’s on the Home page, for those of you interested in rule of law and all that kind of stuff. The book is snarky and meant to be fun, a kind of romp about scandal and politics and the mob, but it does have pretentions to literary merit, it requires conscious reading, and it might even be dangerous. The Prologue is on the Excerpts page, so start there, but don’t make assumptions because things probably aren’t going the way you think.

From June 23rd: I wrote a good deal about the landing in Worthy, so when it turned summer, and I happened to have time, I went down to see all the changes that haven’t been made. Philly, you’ll get this. 

It was sort of reassuring, that same old decrepitude, the general abandonment there under the beautiful blue arch of the Ben Franklin bridge by the dark, efficient Delaware: lackluster patrons at the kiddie rides or around the Seaport Museum, disintegrating concrete, a sense of emptiness. Everything exactly as I wrote it, and I wrote decrying the general corruption, inertia,  and just extraordinary, even hilarious bad luck that’s kept this site an opportunity waiting for sensible hope.

The ships are anchored right where I left them, the Becuna lurking there in the shadow of the Olympia. The Columbus monument still towers over the waiting swan boats. The river stage is empty on a perfect Saturday afternoon, swathed in blue plastic, and most of the food booths are shuttered, too. This sameness was reassuring the way the sickness of nostalgia is comforting when it beckons to the past. Anyway I didn’t come for  validation; I knew it was true the first time.   

When I first wrote about the landing, I was interested in the morality behind the failure here, about the impulses pushing this city I love and how they shape its citizens as much as its infrastructure and commerce, its art and its intentions. I know we’re advancing on some fronts, but I also know cities die. Just trying to get through the day isn’t going to save anything.

It’s summer, and I want to hold onto the summer the way I want to hold onto this city, but the days go so fast when you get older, and it’ll be freezing cold tomorrow. Come on out and play with me. Let’s do something.

Click here to purchase Worthy of This Great City  at Amazon.com.

 

Who’s story?

Yesterday I was in the city to see The Book of Mormon at the lovely old Academy of Music, using some extra time to snap photos along the Avenue of the Arts: the Walk of Fame, the Wilma and Merriam theaters, the Kimmel Center. It was a mood, delivered in large measure by participants from the pride parade, a sporadic rainbow, joyfully controlling their own narrative.

Now in The Book of Mormon there’s this matter of story-telling, myth, and whether it’s perfectly fine or even admirable to mix a little Star Trek or maybe a hobbit into the otherwise perfectly reasonable epic of Christ’s American stopover, just to help get the point across. Reminding my admittedly addled brain of some recent Internet rants against those entitled,  interloper superfans who think they know what should have happened in the Star Wars movies and GoT, and are actually demanding rewrites. I mean, who do they think they are, anyway?

Now listen, I write with specific ends in mind, and they are not to be questioned. This is sacrosanct.

But at the same time, I have creeping, premonitory doubts about all this. Obviously, no one creates in a vacuum; communities do determine narratives, and there are plenty of national epics to prove the point. The input of the world is everything, only it hasn’t quite got it together yet, so we’re able to flatter our little egos. 

This is where the Internet comes in. What it does is, it builds and gives voice to powerful communities, whether incel or #MeToo. The world, the society, is starting to speak.

So what happens to this concept of the individual? You remember, that other modern invention that thinks it has rights and can own intellectual property, all those barriers to communal will? That proud individual who, almost by definition, disowns the ignorant community? 

And then there’s this whole notion of Art, you know. Does it ultimately belong to the people, and serve them, particularly when it hugely influences the zeitgeist? It’s all about that tired communitarian versus libertarian argument from philosophy and political science classes.

So who really owns the narrative? It’s clearly a collaborative dynamic. We can’t escape each other, but fortunately we don’t need to, because right this minute there’s room to expand and experiment with  fan fiction or just fan complaint. We’ve managed to construct an entirely new dimension, one with ample room for leniency and even acknowledgement.

Anyway that communal voice is gaining strength, so best to start paying attention.

But still I insist the originals remain inviolate, especially mine, because they express evolved intentions born out of whatever mutual impulse it was that birthed them. Mine are copyright, all rights reserved.