It was even worse than I thought: some lit criticism I wrote ten years ago

I’m working on a book review and essay on the state of writing in the United States for a top-secret, world-destroying* project headed by Chip Smith of the still-criminally-undernoticed Nine Banded Books imprint. In order to get the reader up to speed on my previous thoughts on the matter, and also to remind myself of what I’d already written—both in order to avoid repeating myself excessively—I’m embellishing the essay with a link to an old piece I wrote for the Chicago Reader, literally a round decade ago. Looking back, I’m not only not embarrassed by what I had to say (although a few of my youthful turns of phrase do make me blush, and can you find the error added by a too-clever-by-half top-editor?), but I think I went too easy on litfic. It’s only gotten worse. Anyway, you may enjoy this essay, you may disagree, or both—or you may be fortunate enough to not know what the hell I’m talking about.

*It’s neither, probably; I just wanted to say that to make you curious enough to go check out his site, if you haven’t (; my last book is still available there.

Songs of Themselves 

Literary fiction is thought to defy
classification, but thanks to decades of workshopping and inbreeding,
litfic’s got as many trademark tics as mystery or sci-fi.


“Don’t write genre fiction” is the first rule you learn in a creative
writing program. I heard this from a friend with an MFA, who told his
own students that beginners should learn fundamentals like character
development rather than lean on the codified tropes of their favorite
junk books to churn out plots. But in workshopping his own work he found
that though he wasn’t writing anything like genre fiction, his plotless
and ruminative stories didn’t sit well with a majority of his peers. In
the face of feedback such as “this isn’t teaching me how to read it,”
he wound up grousing after every class with a couple of like-minded
mates, talking one another out of stomping away from school altogether.
“There was an orthodoxy in place that did not respect what we did and
didn’t even recognize itself as an orthodoxy,” he says. “I didn’t think
my writing was all that weird.”

Literary fiction–or “litfic”–is descended from the late-19th-century
realism that Grecophiles like Oscar Wilde enjoyed making fun of.
Realist plots are limited to possible and usually ordinary occurrences,
the narratives driven by nonidealized characters who tend to wind up
learning a lesson about life.

Wilde called such stories “teacup tragedies,” as they revolved around
traumas as petty as broken heirlooms. The form is fairly young, but it
requires less abstract inspiration than religious, fantastical, or
mythological art does, and fast came to overwhelming favor among
fine-art fiction writers–after all, learning to write prose at a high
level is hard enough without conjuring a mythology to boot.

Litfic and “workshop fiction” are not identical, but they’re closely
related and have supported each other’s ascent. After the founding of
the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936, university creative writing programs
began to embrace litfictional realism as paradigmatic. By the mid-20th
century allegories seemed experimental, religious art reactionary,
social realism boring and polemical. The specter of the ubermensch that
hung over the West after World War II understandably made idealized
characters a bit scary. But if the hero is generous rather than
xenophobic, isn’t it possible for an ideal vision to make people better?

Ever read anything like this before? She looked down her chest, then
surveyed her paint-stained palms as though seeing them for the first
time, seeing what hands can do.

No? How about this? “Your father’s been a little depressed lately,”
[my mother] whispered quietly. Previous conversation forgotten. Erased.
Next topic….

“What’s going on?,” I asked.

“He still has dreams about Hitler, you know. Almost every night.”

Sound familiar? Kind of?

OK, OK, both are quotes from a new novel, Some of the Parts, the
literary fiction debut of New York resident T. Cooper, a drag king and
zinester with a terrible haircut and an MFA from Columbia University.
The combination punches of familial self-absorption and insulting prose
(it’s pretty hard to whisper deafeningly) are standard issue in the
litfic game. So is quasiautobiography. Some of the Parts is the
coming-of-age tale of a sexually ambivalent 30-ish drag king.

Though there’s not a sharp, adept, original, or intentionally funny
line in the text, Cooper’s dopey play with gender is
entertaining–barely–and there’s some pleasure to be had in watching
her shadow characters go through the motions. Halfway through the thing a
light went on in my head: Cooper is close enough to conscious of the
fact that litfic is just another genre to make its cliches work the way
they’re supposed to–pulling the reader along from plot point A to plot
point B with a minimum of fuss. As there are squads of writers out there
mining the same vein as she is, I should cop to the fact that my
singling her out for abuse is as solipsistic as litfic itself. Her book
simply happened to be in my lap when the notion congealed in my melon
that we could be witnessing the birth of a generation of readable litfic

Any genre has its predecessors and progenitors, its great books, its
great failures, its hackwork good and bad. Cooper’s the good hack. She’s
not as skilled as, say, Douglas Coupland, who writes catchy prose, but
in her way she’s so likable I want to think her determination to see the
extraordinary in the ordinary is some sort of elaborate Alice
Munro-inspired spoof.

Many litfic writers–even the talented ones–appear to be so terrified
by the thought that they might not be geniuses that they labor sloppily
to create “style,” shooting off the most far-fetched metaphors and
images they can concoct without regard to taste, logic, or their own
story lines. Take the example of master obfuscator Dave Eggers. Here’s
an overworked description from his second book, a novel called You Shall
Know Our Velocity: “With the face of a shovel and the eyes of a wolf,
he worked at a law firm.” I don’t know about you, but I would run for
cover if one of my coworkers were a talking garden tool and a pair of
squishy eyeballs. Recast the sentence as a line from classic pulp: “He
had a hard face and steel-colored eyes, and he worked at a law firm.” It
would have been a lot more straightforward, and no more cliched than
the observation Eggers is trying to make.

(A note to writers: If you think you’ve stumbled on a brilliant new
technique, chances are that people don’t write things that way because
it doesn’t make sense. If it’s not worth writing something that won’t
make you immortal, you’re not going to be able to force it; for God’s
sake either live with your humanity or go do something else. The book
market’s cluttered anyway.)

The great 19th-century realists, like Dickens, tried to broaden the
form by rendering portraits of society on a grand scale. Aside from
changes in the middle-class mores it examines (teacup tragedians would
have had their stockings shocked off by Erica Jong) and the addition of
modernist language-hating tricks, litfic differs from classic realism in
that the scope of even the good works has collapsed. Modern
practitioners tend to fix the point of view in a single character–a
character who too often reads as an airbrushed self-portrait. Disdain
Eggers for his fashionably illogical prose, but at least he admitted his
first book was an autobiography. The second, while clearly an attempt
to emotionally process his wealth and fortune, is disappointing in part
because it’s hypocritical. His protagonist travels the world trying to
give away a wad of cash he feels he doesn’t deserve–or rather, he feels
everyone else suspects he doesn’t deserve. T. Cooper’s self-absorption
is less egregious–her story does rattle around among multiple
narrators–but the book’s still basically about her struggle to resolve
her gender confusion. Litfic is “I’ve got this friend who has a
problem…” writ large.

Any decent science fiction writer attempts to disappear from his work.
He’s assembling it for the pleasure of his readers, a pleasure he can’t
have because he knows every bit of cobbling that holds together his
effects. His work is generous by nature. Realist literature can show
empathy–see Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Hardy, even Bridget Jones’s
Diary–but it’s too easy to invest too much of yourself in the main
character. For a solipsistic story to be as much fun to read as it is to
write, the author must be not only such a wreck or an asshole that he’s
fascinating, but honest and a straightforward prose stylist, like
Martin Amis or Denis Johnson. Single-perspective realism encourages
every worst tendency of the writerly personality: the urge to
self-justify, the paranoid suspicion that you’re being treated unfairly
because you’re misunderstood or “different,” the siren song of your own
voice, the self-pity, and the eternal temptation to hole up in your
studio, close the curtains, and leave but a middle finger sticking out
at the world from under the covers. Bukowski’s good, but he should’ve
read a few romance novels.

Before the mid-20th century, universities accidentally produced
writers by introducing lots of English literature students to the canon
of greats and showing them how literature works. Litfic stole into the
universities when, borrowing ideas from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,
English departments got the bright idea of teaching undergrads to write
“creatively” by giving them a set of rules for doing so–while reserving
the discipline of composition for remedial students. Sounds
counterintuitive and silly (c’mon, show me one 19-year-old master
composer), but it caught on. Creative writing departments have sprouted
like warts on English departments all over the country–many positing
Raymond Carver, of all the downtrodden drunks to push on neophytes, as

Worse yet, in the 1980s and ’90s many English departments replaced the
dread old “dead white European male” canon with reading lists stacked
toward multicultural and women’s lit. Fairness GOOD, but the frustrating
truth is that some civilizations developed written literature earlier
than others, and men have been better educated than women in most
societies until recently; thus the DWEM got a greater pool of years in
which to accumulate published works for his filthy oppressive canon than
the rest of us. No, it ain’t fair–but since when does the distribution
of raw talent get put to a plebiscite, either? The wrongness of so
heavily weighting the most recent couple of centuries–thus sticking to
novels and short stories at the expense of their sources–when reforming
reading lists should be obvious, and it’s an insult to a student’s
intelligence to tell her that Joyce Carol Oates is as good or as much
fun as Milton.

In the October 7 Reader, I wrote about Mark Swartz, a writer who got
his master’s degree in art history. He balked at the suggestion that his
first novel, Instant Karma, was reminiscent of Benjamin Anastas’s Diary
of an Underachiever. Both novels take the form of their heroes’
diaries, perhaps a relative or one-note mutation of the epistolary
genre. “No doubt that my book could be grouped with books by David
Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Anastas, even Eggers,” Swartz said, as part
of a broader discussion of litfic as a genre. “But for many years I have
strenuously avoided reading my contemporaries, if only to preserve the
illusion that I’m not part of a genre.” The interview was via E-mail,
but hear the gears turn before he types the next line: “Perhaps that’s a
hallmark of the litfic genre–pretending it’s not one.” Ho ho! My
thoughts exactly.

If litfic’s ever going to make an honest living as a genre (and its
nonwealthy devotees, toting student-loan debt, need it to do so but
fast) it had best fess up and play catch-up. Point as it likes to its
roots in great novels of earlier centuries, the categories litfic runs
from are still kicking. Many writers who began reading genres in youth,
then grew up to read classic novels but avoided the litfic trap, are
bringing older traditions to bear on their childhood favorites; A.D.
Nauman, author of last year’s dystopian novel Scorch, for example, says
she’s deeply indebted to Aldous Huxley.

“The jump from the pile of mainstream books I’ve read would kill you
if you jumped from it to the pile T. Cooper’s read,” claims Nick
Mamatas, whose 2001 novel, Northern Gothic, was nominated for the Bram
Stoker Award for achievement in horror fiction. His favorite genre to
read is sci-fi, but he lifted a device from fantasy novels to power his
book: a wrinkle in time, given no technical rationalization but used
allegorically to let the ghosts of New York City’s past hover over the
present. The book is funny and historically instructive whilst scary as

Mamatas recently wrote an article proclaiming the resurgence of horror
(“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Evil,” July 10) for the Village
Voice. There, he conceded that horror fiction’s too often “cheap and
lazy, but it is also expansive, a genre named after its effect on
readers rather than its content.” Literary fiction, on the other hand,
he wrote later in an E-mail, is “the fiction of the emergent middle
class–about their thoughts, feelings and conditions.”

Readers tend to wallow in their favorites–litfic’s consumers just
seem the least likely to explore. “Books are expensive and
time-consuming,” says Mamatas. “Most of them are awful. Who wouldn’t
play conservatively in such a marketplace? Also, books tend to console
and reinforce–they make us feel better about bad things and offer some
validation to what we already believe, as long as we pick the books that
are marketed to us.”

Most genres facilitate mental masturbation with fantasy; with litfic
one explores the joys of self-love with the big pink dildo of memory.
Genre fiction’s often dismissed as escapist–its readers stand accused
of temporarily smearing out the mess of their laughable little lives
with ridiculous fantasies of power, lust, and intrigue. But any reading
is to some degree escapist. Jane Eyre (not a “feminist” novel, you
twits, but the prototype of romance fiction) just happens to get me out
of my personal hell more effectively than Danielle Steele. The relief of
reading is not so much that it provides an escape from pain as that it
provides an escape from oneself, and litfic’s obsessions aren’t
necessarily escapist. If the trouble in your existence isn’t sustenance
or even the struggle to get ahead, but simply the fact that you must get
married then die, a genre whose hazy characters’ reminiscences could be
those of any chronically comfortable person might prove sufficient
distraction. It keeps you smiling into your past, working out issues
with your parents as you go–it’s as good for you as therapy!

Litfic also functions, as Mamatas has pointed out, as an escape for
other, less secure readers, though in a different way: Rick Moody’s
lower-class fans can vicariously thrill to a money-cushioned drama of
leisure in the bits of free time they have to read The Ice Storm. But
litfic’s protagonists aren’t necessarily more psychologically true and
engaging than a fictional detective. I have the feeling that, for
example, if stuck in the same room with John Updike’s Rabbit and George
Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, I’d probably be able to converse only with
the latter without fearing I’d laugh rudely at his improbability.

“Realism is just about a very small sliver of the universe,” says
Mamatas, “whether it’s written by wealthy folks like Rick Moody or poor
folks like some zinester. I don’t care whether someone is sad and thus
gets drunk on martinis or cheap beer. It’s all nonsense. I’m interested
in exploring the rest of the universe, in creating new categories and
metaphors for understanding history, the physical world, notions of
philosophy and ethics within these new categories. Realism is all about
the individual–the middle-class individual, whether white or ‘third
world’– as the measure of all things, and that is a notion that the
size of the universe and the pull of history contradicts pretty
transparently. Even the most conventional space opera or monster novel
or Tolkien rip-off undermines the conventions of the standard adventure
plot as it goes along, as adding elements to the human experience brings
with it a set of implications that have to be tangled with,
implications that realism ignores.”

Litfic has had some interesting ancestors: Twain, Orwell, Faulkner,
O’Connor. And just as V.C. Andrews stole her crazy ladies in the attic
from Jane Eyre’s Bertha and romance novelists stole their charming
bastards from Heathcliff, it looks like modern litfic writers have
swiped stylistic tics from their sources and turned them into cliches.
Take the habit of narrating in the second person: yanked from the pages
of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Writing lists of possessions
or pocket contents rather than working details into the narrative:
somebody’s trying to use Tim O’Brien’s oppressive metaphor from his
‘Nam-vet chronicle The Things They Carried, where it worked (grafting it
onto stories where nothing happens to anybody is often unintentionally
funny). Condescendingly loving portraiture of white trash, usually
drunks: somebody’s been reading too much Faulkner, or O’Connor if
they’re female hicks. Self-avowed and unapologetic well-heeled sots:
blame Fitzgerald.

Speaking of blame, the old axiom says every plot needs conflict (or at
least complaint), and many genres lean on politicized strife. In
fantasy, the conflict is manifested in wars between peoples or races
(Lord of the Rings), while sci-fi tends to universalize one political
model, exaggerating modern real-world classes into an allegorical caste
system. Where the politics of fantasy strive for nobility and those of
sci-fi for intelligent anger, litfic–being all about the
personal–politicizes gender and generation, and while it’s every bit as
facile to drape a narrative around space monsters as it is to write
about a failed marriage, an eating disorder, a castrating mother, or
even a roamy-pawed uncle, the less fantastic conceits are more likely to
produce thin, claustrophobic metaphors that rarely resonate beyond the
level of the sentence. Preoccupation with the battle of the sexes is
better handled by comic novelists, who try to stare down on the champs
de bataille without taking sides; Martin Amis, son of Kingsley–the poet
and 20th-century master of the comic novel–says (in his memoir) that
his father’s worst books were produced when Kingsley had an ax to grind.

Should Cooper, Eggers, or Updike feel insulted if readers decide their
work is genre fiction? Of course not. Being a genre writer doesn’t mean
you’re in uniformly bad company. Sweet curiosity’s called the best
British writers thither for ages. Kingsley Amis wrote a James Bond novel
and a fine specimen of science fiction, The Alteration, along with a
book-length essay on sci-fi and a good deal of restaurant criticism.
Huxley, best remembered for his work in the utopia/dystopia field, also
wrote a delicious novel of ideas, Point Counterpoint. He made that form
sing by opening it up: Instead of starring his own ideas (his stand-in
came off as vaguely evil), he lived in every character’s head and let
them have at one another. If litfic belongs to those ideologically
camped in the middle class, the novel of ideas belongs to the slummers
and the bounders, people who are tired of their own neuroses and
prejudices and want to see what happens when they learn how the other
half thinks. As unique as Huxley’s approach seems even now, when you
really get going it’s hard to think of any work of literature that can’t
be given a pigeonhole.

So why are Americans so terrified of writing derivative novels when
they’re all we produce? The Brits don’t flog themselves so over
categories. Not only could Amis write a Bond novel, he could speechify
fuddy-duddily about preserving the canon of high English and DWEMs
without losing his public. It may be because England’s class system has
been entrenched longer–because they’re more comfortable with their
positions, less nervously pretentious–but I don’t think class
insecurity’s the only thing that scares American artistes away from the
genre label. Americans have always been obsessed with novelty and
originality. In the pioneer days, you needed new ideas because of their
problem-solving utility. On the frontier you couldn’t cling to
traditional ways of doing things just because you liked them;
necessity’s the mother of invention, and in uncharted territory
innovation’s just more practical than stubbornness. But even on the
frontier some traditions worked just fine, and there are always lousy
new ideas. As our civilization matured and grew more comfortable I think
we forgot why originality was good–we turned it into a moral instead
of a tool. Now we’re stubbornly, clumsily innovative, even in such
hopelessly impractical realms as art, and even when it makes the art
worse instead of better.

Also, American literature didn’t really pick up speed until the age of
the bourgeois novel–we missed the golden examples of early elite
fantasists and mythmakers like Milton. Chalk up another one for the
DWEM, I guess: No stream of American writing has had time to get
terribly deep. Perhaps our scribes are snobs for the same reason our
businessmen, seeing no venerable cathedrals around, put up imposing
skyscrapers. Whereas H.G. Wells, Huxley, and Jules Verne were printed by
respectable houses, Mamatas notes, “in the U.S. this stuff was born in
pulps, except for Poe, and there was a realist end run around Poe too,
to make sure that Lovecraft was obscured as his heir.”

Oh, those rotten bourgeois with their sneaking and their end runs!
They’ve murdered culture again! Pray don’t let such observations inspire
some dork at State U to shun clothing till the administration
institutes a sci-fi workshop. Homer help us. If you’ve scraped up any
degree of literacy you’re not all that screwed; books aren’t bread, and
besides, you don’t fight false pedants tit for tat. You laugh at them.
Then you learn your work, put your ass in the chair, and spin your
shining yarn.


  1. King Wenclas

    An interesting essay. There are at least five things wrong with it.
    1.) You say American fiction "didn't pick up speed until the bourgeois novel."
    Really? Like, what? Henry James?
    What distinguished American letters in general (see Whitman, or the Beats) from European lit was that American writing was populist. It took itself out of the stuffy drawing rooms of England into the world. The giants of U.S. lit, Melville, Twain, London, Upton Sinclair, Norris, Dreiser, Steinbeck, were hardly bourgie writers. The question is when this changed and why.
    2.) The problem isn't realism per se, but the narrow realism that "literary writing" has inflicted upon the reader. Washed-out, homogenized, putting craft over content and the sentence above meaning and ideas.
    The greatest novels ever written, after all, were realist (see Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) but they were also nothing like the withered version of literary realism today.
    3.) You glance at the rise of litfiction over the past sixty years, but you don't put this into proper context. Why did populist fiction have to go out of favor circa 1953? Why did George Plimpton and others begin to offer a distinctly non-populist brand of literature? Why did critics like Philip Rahv fall out of fashion? Why did the direction of criticism here undergo a sea change? Was there a worldwide ideological struggle taking place back then? Maybe worth examining.
    4.) As this essay is ten years old, it can be excused for ignoring recent happenings. You want fantasy? Genre? Well, we've got it. A tsunami of wizards, hobbits, vampires and zombies. It must encompass 98% of the market. Young girls in Minnesota are selling millions of copies of such mindless trash. (See Amanda Hocking.)
    Even sci-fi, which you laud– even at its best (see Asimov)– has always been escape or substitute for discussing the actual happenings of a civilization. America is large enough to provide as much material for the intelligent novelist as any imagined space galaxy.
    5.) Your conclusion remains as irrelevant and meaningless as when you wrote it. "–put yourself in your chair and spin your yarn." This means absolutely nothing if no one reads it. It'll be as significant to its time as the tracts of the Essenes were to their time– dug up in the dusty sands of a dead sea 2,000 years later. You have books. I have books. All God's children have books. With ebooks, this is almost literally true. Writing itself has little value. The trick remains how to announce that writing. If it's any good, how to get it out there.
    Just my inflation-adjusted 0.2 cents worth!

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