Photo credit: Fred Filkorn
I like books more than almost anything in the world. They pay my rent! So I feel guilty for liking so few of them by other people.
My favorite novelist is Andrei Platonov
(1899-1951). His adorable masterpiece Chevengur
has never been translated into English.
Of my contemporaries, I thoroughly approve of Tom Drury
. I think Anne Tyler
is good. Tony Tulathimutte
just published an excellent first novel. Justin Taylor
, Elif Batuman
, and Keith Gessen
have deep thoughts and I feel they will do great things. Jonathan Franzen
’s books sometimes make me feel a little grimy, but I respect what he’s trying to do.
The Patagonian Hare
by Claude Lanzmann is tremendous.
In short, if you really get me going, I can name several good books from the last 50 years of American literature. It’s a recurring problem. People always want to hear about my most favorite recent books. It’s usually a very short list (no books).
For this essay, I decided to think about why that is.
Potential reason no. 1:
Literature is like music and art and you’re not supposed to like all of it.
Makes sense to me.
Potential reason no. 2:
Many ambitious novelists dehumanize their characters.
As in, I start reading some book that’s wonderfully well written, et voilá: vampires, zombies, supermen, conscious machines, aliens, super-smart dogs, divine children (a Jungian archetype) — creatures, not characters, borrowed from the storehouses of folklore. Arguably human, but inanimate, indestructible, immortal, telepathic, bulletproof, and stacked like fascist lobby murals, or intellectual and emotional prodigies who retail insights into death and the nature of being at the age of eight.
They’re unlike me in essential ways. With the lines blurring between young-adult fantasy, speculative fiction, and everything else, they’re all over the place.
You’re probably thinking, “So what, smartass? Got something against nonhumans?”
Yes. I truly believe their introduction hamstrings the work of writers who could be great.
The child gods are the worst. There’s something proto-pedophilic about believing kids are more mature than adults — that the wisdom of a fourth-grade “old soul” can get you through a divorce or whatever — even in fiction.
But I forgive those writers, because they’re good parents. As a rule, they’re especially good parents who carry on long, involved conversations with their offspring. It does things to you, conversing for hours on end with someone who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. Convinced of their children’s miniature adulthood, they compulsively plow through exchanges on the pattern of:
DAD: “I know you admire him for surviving. In the words of Ecclesiastes, it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion. But Kaganovich wasn’t any kind of hero for escaping the purges! Stalin was a latter-day Robespierre! It was a reign of terror that could have affected anyone. Even us, or mom. Do you understand?”
The wise child can crop up anywhere, following you from genre to genre like a nightmare. But zombies are also bad. I’m openly prejudiced against zombies. I’m not ashamed to say it, in this forum or anywhere else. If you rose from the grave to eat brains, we have nothing to talk about. We’re done. I don’t think I need to tell you why.
And that’s my case in a nutshell.
How can any writer, no matter how talented (e.g., Kelly Link
, Fiona Maazel
, China Miéville
), explore intercultural and interpersonal difference in a fictional society divided by species, nation, “race,” intrinsic goodness and evil, superhuman qualities, or states of enchantment? The fantasy genre liberates the reader for implausible adventures — sure, fine, but don’t we have better things to do with our limited time on earth?
As Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in Sad Tropics
, there is no “I” and no “other.” There’s just “we.” Your mind sees the world through an invisible filter of culture. You didn’t make it yourself, and you can’t see anything without it. What we see is always ourselves — our artificial environment of houses and roads and clothing, obviously, but even the natural world, and especially history.
He was reacting against people who insist that it’s most important to grant parity to the “you.” The “other” is separate but equal. If we’re both human, that’s not good enough.
Here’s a nice novel as an example of wonderful (not flawless) writing: The Confessions of Nat Turner
(1967), William Styron’s meditation on the reasons a perfectly reasonable slave might haul off and brain a white girl with a fencepost. Turner’s 1831 rebellion-slash-massacre, prompted by Old Testament prophecy and stress-related insanity, left ca. 300 dead including Turner. When Styron’s version of the story makes me identify with Nat Turner
, it’s not with “you.” I mean, “you” would so totally be braining “me” with a fencepost! In Styron’s world, Turner and I are “we,” on the same team.
That’s the essence of humanism. It’s what can give a novel — a genre built for entertainment — the status of literature. It becomes nonfiction. The author gets things right, the result is true, and the work is poetry.
warned Styron (they spent a lot of time together) that he’d catch serious flak from the civil rights movement for having Turner fantasize about raping a white girl. And he did. Meanwhile, Eldridge Cleaver was publishing Soul on Ice
. Plus he doesn’t rape her in the first place. He just brains her with a fencepost. So it’s sort of weird anybody would complain that his fantasy went too far.
As you can see, our strange planet provides abundant food for thought, and so does its literature. Take a break from fantasy. By definition, no genre ever broke its own glass ceiling. So leave the greenhouse!
If you truly don’t like human beings, you could study a wild animal population, or learn a rare language so you can translate texts no one else reads. I mean, if you’re sophisticated enough to consider gender a societal construct... Alas, somehow it’s always readers and writers smart enough to reject biological male-female difference as essentialist who are prepared to divide intelligent life into 10 competing species plus the undead, the divine, the artificial, and dragons. The best minds of my generation, strung out on racism! Reading and writing as if they felt unconscious nostalgia for a more stratified society! While the oppressed are crying out everywhere, “Read my stuff!”
Fiction should be an ethical exercise. Read and write about others as you would have them read and write about you.
If you’re a writer and don’t know where to start, first pretend you’re a jaded hack doing a script about cops and organized crime. Where evil is obviously structural (anyone can become implicated in systemic evil on TV, and it’s always too late to say no), innocents are exposed as naïve beings who simply haven’t had occasion to plumb their own depths. Now bring that same solidarity to bear on your own characters. Uncover the systemic forces that make them act the way they do, so you can cut them some slack.
Do not emulate those authors who, striving for depth but lacking the resources to launch a political or ethical critique, resort to the close writing, akin to close reading, that rejects ethical humanism in favor of a universal kinship anchored in the physical body. Gross descriptions of bloody loose teeth and rippling farts are meant to unite us in mutual identification, because we all know how those feel.
All I can say is dude, NO! This is not what we have in common! What we share is a bunch of abstractions: our humanity, our solidarity, the freedom we freely grant each other. Reducing us to our bodies is what Nazis do! It’s degrading! Get a grip and read Between the World and Me
or Homo Sacer
or Sad Tropics
Potential reason no. 3:
Most books are boring compared to my books.
My new novel, Nicotine
, is nothing like this essay. It has zero long speeches and the hottest sex scenes ever written, according to my agent and my best friend. I often sit around reading it for fun. So that’s a theory.
If you can’t afford it (brand new hardcover!), get The Patagonian Hare
÷ ÷ ÷
grew up in rural Virginia. She has worked in a variety of trades, including masonry and technical writing. In the early 1990s, she edited an indie rock fanzine. Her writing has also appeared in n+1
. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper
, was published in 2014. She lives near Berlin, Germany. Nicotine
is her most recent novel.