Avoiding Obsolescence

Laura Miller has written a review of two books whose common denominator is that they are written by critics who despise the genre loosely referred to as hysterical realism. The two authors fighting against against the menace of hysterical realism are non other than the unholy alliance of James Wood and Dale Peck (the most respected and most reviled critics working today, respectively, in Miller’s words).

Miller notes (as many other critics have) that Peck, for all his vitrol, can’t really express what kind of literature he thinks is good. Wood, however, can:

For Wood, the ideal author appears to be Anton Chekhov (a curious choice for a writer so prone to expounding on the novel, since Chekhov mostly wrote short stories and plays). In the best fiction, Wood argues, the author submerges himself utterly in his characters, so that no image or idea surfaces in the text that would not occur naturally to them. The goal is to achieve a style of transparent "innocence," purified of the author’s voice, thoughts and sophistication. The only proper subject for such a book is family relations, or perhaps the relations in a small, immediate community.

Assuming that Miller is accurate about Wood’s preferences, I see a couple of problems. I’ll take the second part first, the part about family/community relations. Two of the most recent, most successful books in the genre referred to as hysterical are The Corrections and Infinite Jest, both of which are centered around family relations. Clearly these books expand far, far out from the families at their center, and these families do act as metaphors for America, but the fact remains that despite all the ideas they are crammed with, these books are dramas about families. More on this in a moment.

The first preference Wood mentions, to expurgate any idea or thought except that which would occur to a character naturally, seems ridiculous. First off, this completely ignores the role of the supernatural in literature. Regardless of whether or not one believes in ghosts or a god, it seems unreasonable to ask authors to withdraw spirituality from their work. Is there no role for divine inspiration, for those sublime moments in life that transcend the bounds of logic and rationality? Must everything be brought down to earth, explainable by the bounds of "real life"? (whatever that is)

Secondly, Wood’s preference would necessarily eliminate all of metafiction.  If an author can’t have ideas that aren’t in her character’s heads, then she can’t ever step away from the narrative and write directly to the reader. This seems a rather draconian imposition on an author, and I don’t see what rationale Wood has for insisting on it.

I suppose it could be argued that it’s more "aesthetically pleasing" to not have a clunky authorial voice constantly mouthing off to the reader, but then again, the oppostie could be argued as well. When correctly used, metafiction can have very pleasing effects. Allowing for the metafictional voice creates all sorts of opportunities for beautiful ideas and structures to emerge, as in the work of Paul Auster, who Wood certainly can’t object to for being too preoccupied with writing the social novel (as he does Franzen and Wallace).

But to get back to the families at the heart of Franzen’s and Wallace’s biggest books. I recently finished Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion. Like The Corrections, Strong Motion is very much a novel of ideas. In its search for a consistent morality, it engages with both corporations and abortionists. Frankly, I believe that some of the things Franzen wrote about corporations and abortionists were far more interesting in 1992 (when the book was published) than in 2004.

However, what makes Strong Motion a viable work that I enjoyed reading are the social relations of its central characters. If it had been simply a book of ideas, an illustration of evil corporations and the struggle over abortion, it would have been rendered obsolete by the passage of time. But Strong Motion was a compelling read because its characters engaged me on an emotional level–I could empathize with their stories and found that their lives and their issues drew my interest.

It’s true that books refered to as hysterical fiction do often engage with contemporary America and are often about ideas, and to the extent that this genre is defined by these things, there is a danger that these books may be made obsolete by the passage of time. But as somone who has read many of the most prominent authors of this school, it is clear to me that many of the books in this school artfully construct narratives and characters that work as aesthetically pleasing literature. Even if the ideas and social situations of these books are one day outmoded, these other features will keep these books vital and worth reading, just as in Strong Motion.

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Interesting points about the role of “ideas” in so-called hysterical realism. I’m not sure, though, that familial and socio- economic relationships (expressed in fiction) are themselves anything more than ideas about how these relationships might actually work.
Also, consider Pynchon. It seems to me that “Gravity’s Rainbow” qualifies as much as anything for being labelled hysterically realistic, but the larger ideas contained within it are hardly less appropriate or interesting today than when the novel first appeared.
So is the interest (and is interest the same as importance?) a novel obtains generated by the timeliness of the ideas expressed, or by the newness of the idea for the reader? Put another way, does French new wave cinema (for example) dull the effect of contemporary Marxist or socialist cinema? The trope of the evil corporation was hardly new in 1994, nor was it new in 1964, and it was certainly not new to directors like Goddard.
So upon what can an idea, expressed in literature, be recieved and evaluated? The idea of timeliness can really be only utilitarian (in the case that the work’s subject has passed its social denouement) or personal (corresponding to the reader’s social and educational background or preferences). Correctness can be eliminated out of hand, for any literary work whose idea can be judged on fact offers little in the way of literary purpose to begin with. Of course, if literature cannot be evaluated from a factual or logical basis, what is left? Some comingling of opinion with rationality employed to better argue one’s own position on an enigma whose nature can never be truly known? Or like God, not known in this world?
This is why I am amazed when critics of Wood’s stature make pronouncements on what a novel must do, and must not do. It is ultimately a failure of imagination on their part to view a work solely through the lens of their own devising, estimating the success of the author’s vision only in its relevance to the critic’s. Such didacticism serves to deepen our understanding of the critic alone, not of the work, nor of literature.

You’ve raised several questions and I’m just going to respond in a very general way to the idea of ideas in literature staying fresh. I think it has a lot to do with seeing the funadmental humanity in a given situation. For example, I found “Anna Karenina” to be wonderfully insightful w/r/t contemporary America. Obviously our world is much different from the agrarian monarchy Tolstoy wrote under, but his book tapped into some of the funadmental conflicts that are present in his sociaty and ours.
I’d say that I enjoy ideas in literature when they’re skillfully layered into a narrative. It takes some talent to integrate an idea so that it resonates on multiple levels. That avoids making an idea a simple pedantic device and, hopefully, gets it to reach something deeper that will resonate in years to come.
I agree with you that “Gravity’s Rainbow” is one of those books that has stayed relevant past its historical epoch and probably will stay relevant for some time to come. I think that book will also stay relevant because Pynchon has infused it with so many interesting ambiguities that it can be endlessly interpreted. That’s something that critics of hysterical realism seem to forget, that there’s more than one way to interpret the ideas in a good hysterical text.

I noticed that the article mentioned Jonathan Lethem as being an hysterical realist. He’s been criticized for not sticking with one “genre”, ie crossing the boundaries of literary fiction with genre lit, ie science fiction.
In “The Fortress of Solitude” one of the characters runs across a homeless man who can fly, jumping from buildings, and occasionally landing too hard and injuring himself. By using this man’s ring, the main character, Dylan is also able to fly and become invisible. He shares his secret powers with his best friend Mingus. The more-than-real element seemed to fit logically in with the story as it developed. I wasn’t jarred by it, and within the context of the novel, it did not seem “hysterical.” In fact, it seemed to work very fluidly and reasonably. I’m a big fan of magical realism, and surrealism. So, calling “expansive” works “hysterical” does not sit well with me.


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