The Provincialism of Modern Novelists

prolific-english-novelist-charles-dickens-seated-writing-with-a-quill-pen

NOTE: This article was originally published at 2Blowhards on September 30, 2009.

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A few years back, I was waiting at the dentist’s office, thumbing through a copy of Time, when I came across an article entitled “Who’s the Voice of this Generation?” The author was lamenting the fact that not one of the “young novelists” writing today is representative of the attitudes and neuroses of this generation. As is the nature of modern journalism, this reporter was trained to ignore the truth in front of her face. The reason that not one of these “young novelists” can claim to be the voice of this generation is because all of them are nauseatingly parochial in thought and style.

Anyone involved in the world of literature is aware of the old cliché, “Write what you know.” There’s an unstated implication in that phrase; make sure what you know is interesting. The best novelists had no trouble grasping this concept. Ernest Hemingway only wrote what he knew, but the breadth and depth of his life experiences—fighting in World War I, living in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, reporting on the Spanish Civil War—was a large part of what made his novels compelling. Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (as well as his other works) was a glorified retelling of his experiences during WWI and later working in colonial French West Africa and the U.S. The list of great novelists who infused their writing with their varied life experiences is endless: F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Tim O’Brien, etc.

No more. Today’s crop of popular novelists, having missed the subtext, are “writing what they know,” the likes of which is small enough to fit into a shot glass. Let’s take Jhumpa Lahiri as an example. Lahiri has been widely acclaimed for her depiction of Bengali immigrants in the U.S. in her works. Beyond the fact that the “immigrant adjusting to life in a new land” trope is so burned out at this point its unbearable, Lahiri is incapable of writing anything beyond her dull life as an American of Bengali descent. Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, was about Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, beyond being poorly written and having improbable plot elements (Indians nicknaming their child “Gogol”? Uh-huh), was about the exact same thing: Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. Her most recent short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is about—you guessed it—Indian immigrants acclimating themselves to American culture. The cherry on top of Lahiri’s solipsism sundae is that she has zero desire to write about anything else:

But Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon. Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England, and so is the novel she’s working on. “ ‘Is that all you’ve got in there?’ I get asked the question all the time,” says Lahiri. “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”

This narcissism affects even the good writers. Take Gary Shteyngart, one of the best satirists working today. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was hilarious and riveting, as was his more recent Absurdistan. Unfortunately, Shteyngart is afflicted with the same myopia that wrecks Lahiri’s writing. Shteyngart is a Jew of Russian descent who grew up in New York City. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is about Vladimir Girshkin, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York who later visits a fictional ex-Soviet republic. Absurdistan concerns Misha Vainberg, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York who later visits a fictional ex-Soviet republic. Shteyngart’s forthcoming third novel will revolve around Absurdistan character Jerry Shteynfarb (har har har), a nebbish Russian Jew living in—wait for it—Albany. In the year 2040. No word on whether a fictional ex-Soviet republic will be involved, but I wouldn’t doubt it.

There are other examples of unbearable self-absorption among the novelist class (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Safran Foer), but the question here is this: why are today’s writers so unwilling to expand their horizons? At least part of it is outright laziness, as Robert Stacy McCain explains in this article on the fall of Culture11:

These young wannabes can’t write gonzo because they’re too cowardly to live gonzo. They want to do their internships and their fellowships and sit on seminar panels while they suck the milk from the non-profit teat. God forbid they should ever actually have to work.

But that’s not the whole story. The acquisition of publishing houses by larger media corporations has worked to kill innovation and make everything safe and marketable. Novelists themselves have to remain safe and marketable if they want to be published. There’s no room for the characters of yesteryear who made writing interesting. If the womanizing spendthrift Lord Byron was writing today, for instance, no editor would touch him. Truly talented writers who upset popular shibboleths such as Maddox and Tucker Max had to go the indie route in order to get their books published at all. The Nobel literature prize judge Horace Engdahl accurately described [in a London Telegraph article, link apparently lost] American writers as too “insular” and “isolated,” and the controversy-free nature of modern publishing has done its best to ensure this.

Fortunately, there ARE good up-and-coming writers who understand the true meaning of “write what you know.” I recently reviewed Roosh Vörek’s new memoir, A Dead Bat in Paraguay. The book is a travelogue of a six-month trip through South America that Roosh took after becoming dissatisfied with his middle-class lifestyle. But then again, Roosh is a guy who bucked the system and expatriated to Colombia: a show of courage that the Jhumpa Lahiris, Jonathan Safran Foers, and Gary Shteyngarts are incapable of managing.

Read Next: How to Become a Better Writer

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  • http://joselromero.com Jose

    As always Matt great post!!

  • Aaron

    Worth remembering that Hemingway did not fight in WWI (he was an ambulance driver who got hit by a trench mortar on his first visit to the front line) and Celine, while a war veteran, used the unpublished memoirs of a friend of his as the basis for ‘Journey to the End of the Night’. So neither were really writing about what they knew, although both had undoubtedly lived more than any contemporary graduate of a creative writing program, and this infused their books.

    Otherwise, good point, well made.

  • http://gravatar.com/scatmaster scatmaster

    The publishing house of today are run by what sex

  • Pingback: The Provincialism of Modern Novelists - Matt Forney | Jackson Halbert

  • http://twitter.com/AnnKSterzinger AnnKSterzinger (@AnnKSterzinger)

    It’s been going on for some time now… I remember being about 18 and reading James Baldwin’s first book about a guy whose brother died tragically young and thinking, hey, this guy is pretty good. After reading book #3 about a younger brother dying tragically young, I was fairly close to being disgusted with him.

  • anon

    “The acquisition of publishing houses by larger media corporations has worked to kill innovation and make everything safe and marketable.”

    What explains the success of Michel Houellebecq?