Tag Archives: fiction

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)

My Own Eve Babitz Obsession

Probably it’s too soon for me to me to be diving into this trend, but Eve is very much on my mind right now. For one thing, I have a massive hangover. For another, I’m in a February funk and inclined to be jealous of those sunny, smoggy L.A. days she describes in those books of hers that pretend to be fiction but are blatantly based on her own utterly insane life.

Wonderfully formed pieces lacking remorse, just right there in your face like her take on sex. So many of her love affairs are public record: Harrison Ford, Jim Morrison, Paul Ruscha, Steve Martin (she told him to wear that white suit), and on and on. There’s never any hint of coyness or manipulation, she’s just fully there, shockingly entire yet pure. No wonder that famous photo with Marcel Duchamp works so well: Eve with her face hidden but her fulsome nakedness on display, him bent over his chess game, entirely in his head, and both divinely oblivious.

I am so envious of her days with no pleasure declined, no curiosity unrelieved, everything just see and take. I love it, the whole sex and drugs scene of the late sixties and seventies. What a perfect vicar she is for all of us so weighted down with responsibility and stratagems and fear. Worrying about getting hurt and also about who we might ourselves hurt, entrenched in our rules and laws and other boring nonsense.

It takes a narcissist I suppose, but Eve’s got an unflinching and unmistakably loving eye, because that’s what loving means. And she’s got the language of a woman raised on the best literature, the sense and rhythm of it is in her blood and bone, all that instinctive selection and refinement and pacing and purpose. She’s an artist in the service of art and nothing else ever, and so she’s also separate, isolated. 

And she’s all the craze these #MeToo feminist days, especially among the millennials, and I suspect for all the wrong reasons, taken totally out of context. Naturally there’s a recent biography (Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik), a truly pathetic if unintentionally hilarious one worth reading for its key to all those roman a clef identities, but equally for its wonderful subtext. The author practically harasses her legendary but reclusive subject in order to promote herself, to claim literary equality with Babitz and Joan Didion to boot with a rudely inserted thesis on the novel to justify it all, and just – no. Lauding Slow Days, Fast Company over the fresher, freer Eve’s Hollywood because who needs all that joy? Oh, you have to read it to enjoy both these woman playing each other, and for the way Eve somehow forgets the other’s name every time they meet, and cadges meals, and then flicks her away like cigarette ash.

Not that Eve smokes or does drugs or even drinks anymore; AA helped there, and others have stepped in to steady the always wobbly writer now this resurrection is bringing in some fresh funds.

But Eve, following a devastating accident in which half her body was burned (thankfully not her face or feet), took a hard right turn, politically. I find this interesting and perhaps disturbing, speaking here as the author of an entire novel concerning a woman who took a hard right turn, and why, and what happened afterward. So I’ve been examining Eve through her writing to try to figure this out, in effect to remember what I was thinking then myself.

Is Eve’s conservative stance a defiant declaration of independence, a projection of her old fear, as she put it, of being adjectivized? I think that’s part of it. But Eve, who noticed everything (the black music blaring over a very white party in Sex and Rage) apparently never feels the urge to interfere; she observes, and that’s it. Why bother with politics when you have a life? So instead she watches the L.A. riots from a suite at the Chateau Marmont, merely regretting the destruction of familiar sites. Or so she implies, and it matches what we know of her. So maybe the ground was tilled all along, just waiting for the right seed. Maybe it has something to so with what’s always been missing from Eve, all the usual internalized cultural crap, the need to be good. But what do I know?

Except I know that the artist always protects the artist, whatever it takes. So that’s happening.

Photo credits: Chateau Marmont by Kelly Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Hollywood by LWYang (CC by 2.0)

(PLEASE NOTE: The sale on the Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City ends on February 15th, so right now it’s as low as it goes. BUT before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Really, do that.)

My Year In Fiction

From delightful discoveries to over-hyped disappointments, counting down a year’s fiction reading from best to worst:

Milkman by Anna Burns: what goes through a young girl’s mind when male sexual privilege inexorably encroaches, endless partisan violence cautions against caring, and virulent rumor ruthlessly inflates the innocent into the unforgiveable? Milkman is a word-loving but miraculously never word-drunk narrative, and while everything’s a little too conveniently resolved, this stream-of-consciousness barrage from an exaggerated rather than unimaginable everywhere is outrageously relevant and involving.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: in which an author sets off on a road trip comedy of errors, all to avoid the painful wedding of his ex-boyfriend. First I kind of poo-pooed this extended pun, and then I realized I’d fallen in love with it.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: exquisite, memorable, a puzzle with music that’s much more than the sum of its parts. (The answer is right on the tip of my soul.)

When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: the first an unanswered question, a numbingly brutal immersion into war in Japan; the second an unrelenting yet placid nightmare, a hellish, accurate analogy of the human condition. Read them both.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Like Dickens for grownups, this grudgingly adventurous bildungsroman takes a young slave from Barbados by balloon, to Nova Scotia by ship, then on to the Arctic and America and England. Science, art, and romance are on board, while a nicely reasoned maturity awaits on shore. It’s all fairly preposterous but wildly imaginative, insightful, and sane.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano: a bit of a letdown in that I could see where it was going, and far from Bolano’s best, but nevertheless a superb trip through the conscience of a country.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: this one has the best depiction of malignant narcissism I’ve ever encountered, plus a compelling young heroine and tense, edge-of-your-seat action.

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeliene Thein: a child’s experience of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, a memory journey of both miles and years, a cyclic reaching out for recovery.

Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan: the very best snarky escapism, and thank you for the footnotes, Mr. Kwan, they were lovely.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo: Bejing, youth and eagerness, movie making, struggles – it’s slight but nothing can squash the delicate joy infusing this novel.

Alias Grace by Margret Atwood: NO, NO, NO! What a cheap, cowardly solution, and it matters. Show her as she is, what she was forced to become, because there’s the true tragedy. The factual history of Grace Marks, the 19th century maid convicted for her part in a murder, carries this book despite a nonsensical, mitigating out.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko: an oddly moving book on Chinese immigrants and a boy deserted by his mother, having to adjust to adoptive parents, to become another person with different tastes and perhaps expunged memories. I remember this one clearly despite myself, despite not even liking the characters that much. They keep hanging around like unwanted friends.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson: here’s a writer just having some fun, so I did too. As with The Diamond Age it starts with an absolutely genius concept but kind of runs down. He does this, and it makes me furious. 

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn: a suspenseful novel featuring some nicely timed surprises, one of which works quite well. I guessed the villain of the piece immediately, but still a pretty neat little thriller.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: an atmospheric WWII tale with a mild shock to catch you up with this business of war, adolescence, and the overlooked consequences that filter down to disregarded lives.

Nobody’s Son by Mark Slouka: this one was odd, but interesting. It’s the usual look back at troubled parents and a traumatic childhood, but it carefully constructs its narrative in order to abruptly refute it – the end. What?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: contemporary feminism in the style of Little Women. See my Literary Rant here. Want to talk about the difference between organic writing and writing about whatever’s in the headlines?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple: fun enough, I guess, but the satiric and the serious seemed out of step, and neither idea quite got where it needed to get. All in all an interesting trip to a decent if not exactly valid resolution, so fine.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: cultural appropriation, time, and race music on a literal and very dark ride into the Deep South.

What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin: a just okay Hollywood mystery in hindsight.

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: this story of two female filmmakers bored me; an earnest examination of two basically uninteresting people.

The Girls by Emma Cline: a major disappointment, a pale, exploitative effort that plays around the edges of the Manson insanity but never uncovers anything central or compelling.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: a husband loses himself in Greece, the wife follows, and nothing much else happens, certainly nothing interesting.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: damply disappointing, just no fun.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind: I hated this book.

Bonus: New additions to some favorite mystery series:

The Knowledge: A Richard Jury Mystery by Martha Grimes: it’s exactly what you’d expect, with a black cab ride to a secret pub, and Melrose Plant with a clever little girl on safari in Africa. So basically all’s right in that particular world, thank you very much.

Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel by Robert Galbraith: what a relief to see these characters getting their silly lives back on track. Also there’s a mystery at Parliament and some upper and lower class characters and so on.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton: her excellent last letter.

The Inspector Gamache series (all 14 books) by Louise Perry: because I needed a rehabilitative stretch this summer so took a virtual vacation in Quebec, then suffered some months waiting for the final Gamache adventure, a satisfactory farewell. If you’re not familiar, there’s a perfect hero, a quaint, near-magical village, mysteries of the usual type, political machinations, intelligence, and a rather wicked wit.

(PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special, priced as low as it’s going to go. (I was planning on a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Dorine Ruter, Book (CC BY 2.0) / aehdeschaine, Books about books (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A Literary Rant

Here goes, then.

Genre fiction is just lesser literary fiction, okay? There are numerous pretentious opinions out there on what these terms mean and how they differ and which is better if either. The two dominant theories are: ‘literature is whatever doesn’t fit into a genre’, and ‘genre is escapism, while literature examines reality.’

I take a different approach: there’s genre fiction, and then there’s really good genre fiction which is literary fiction. (And also there’s ‘whatever doesn’t fit into a genre’ which can be good or bad literary fiction, depending on whether it’s good or bad.) My point is, if you think the publishing gods discount your books because they’re genre, you’re probably wrong. The problem isn’t the misogyny or ethnic bias or elitism or greed rampant in the industry, although misogyny and ethnic bias and elitism and greed are rampant in the industry.

The problem is you need to write better.

Or not exactly, since pulp magazines can and often do feature highly skilled writers. Technique – ability – is one thing, but talent is another. What we’re really talking about here is degree of talent.

Also, books with great ideas can be written by pretty miserable wordsmiths, but those aren’t often published so you rarely encounter them, which now I think about it is kind of a shame and maybe now there’s self-publishing this particular faction will come into its own. But I digress.

Back to genre: take, for example, the Western. Much of it is respectable in a Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour kind of way. And then there’s Larry McMurtry. There’s Charles Portis. Okay? Do you want to talk mystery novel? Can you really not tell the difference between the recent two zillion variations on Murder in a Cozy Village and anything whatsoever by Agatha Christie? Or science fiction? That one’s almost too easy, given Jules Verne. Given H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, never mind Kurt Vonnegut, and Mary Shelley, and William Gibson, and Isaac Asimov. Romance: Harlequin or Jane Austen? Women’s issues? Well-written, opportunistic soap opera presuming to be pertinent or, oh, I don’t know: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary? 

Here’s my definition: literature makes the specific universal.

And while I’m more or less on the subject, we need to stop assuming every tedious tome detailing the meaningless existence of entitled bicoastals is necessarily literature, because it isn’t and it’s boring. Also every merely adequate volume about the immigrant or trans experience or any other trending and genuinely worthy topic is not de facto brilliant, although it might well be. If you can’t differentiate between an average book on an “important” topic and an excellent book that’s not, please find a new career. Fiction curated by perceived social relevance claims the high moral ground while shamelessly pandering to the market, meanwhile insuring a closed value system with no tolerance for anything better, strange, controversial, or contradictory – you know – art. Beauty is immoral and purposive, and you need to get out of its way.

Anyway, like I said, simple. There’s some person’s story, and there’s everyone’s story: every cowboy’s, every woman’s. Yours, not just theirs.

We all got that? It’s the holidays. Go buy someone a good book. I’ll be taking next week off, then posting wrap-ups of my year’s movies and novels. Boy, I can’t wait.

(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Eric Golub, Anna Karenina (CC BY 2.0) / Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)