Friday, 24 February 2012

Welcome to the Literary New Boring

A few weeks ago, a Guardian journalist wrote a scathing attack on the tidal wave of boring, pedestrian pop music out there. According to Peter Robinson, Adele, Mumford and Sons (I saw them: very good musicians, deeply tedious album) and Ed Sheeran are guilty of making beige music acceptable. Dull ballads, no stagecraft and earnest craft had, he said, replaced excitement, adventure and really wild things in music.
 It may seem odd that Sheeran is so desperate to lay claim to his lyrics when they include clunky disasters like "Suffolk sadly seems to sort of suffocate me", "I'm up an' coming like I'm fucking in an elevator" and the epic "I've never owned a Blu-ray, true say" but one thing is certain: when borepop princess Birdycovered The A-Team for Fearne Cotton's Live Lounge that five minutes of music stirred up a vortex of boredom – a boretex, if you will – whose anniversary will be solemnly remembered by generations to come.
Now I'll put my hands up and say that the vast majority of my music collection is what people might claim is boring: minimalism, folk music, lads and lasses with guitars writing their own songs, but Robinson is on to something. Usually, depressions lead to interesting music - George Formby, punk, electro, but not this one: the kids are all working for free gaining valuable work experience stacking supermarket shelves rather than getting high and changing the face of music while living on £67 per week.

However, you can discuss the Aural New Boring in plenty of other places. The concept has also been extended to TV: it's wall to wall agonising aristocrats at the moment, fictional or not: that's what you get for voting Tory. But I'm going to extend the concept to literature. As you may know, I teach English literature for a living, and I also read widely, not just English. I have come to the conclusion that a lot of the stuff being published is very much part of The New Boring.

So here we go - I'm going to annoy quite a lot of my literate readers with this one by nominating a few quite well-known authors for the Boring Tank. In my defence: many of them are amongst my favourites.

John McGahern. He gets on the list solely for That They May Face The Rising Sun. All his other novels - stunning. TTMFTRS: beautifully crafted, sensitive, morally and emotionally complex, culturally profound. And boring. Like an Everything But The Girl album. You can admire it, but you sure as hell don't want to read it twice. McGahern knows this: 'the ordinary is the most precious thing in life', he said. Maybe it is. But I've read - at a rough estimate - 400 novels which deal with the cultural wounds of rural Ireland/Wales/insert country of your choice coming to terms with modernity. That's why Flann O'Brien exists.

Colm Tóibín: used to write novels about the Irish abroad joyously having lots of gay sex, mostly to annoy the Irish Times. Now writes novels as though he were Henry James which means, as you might guess, being a literate, perhaps even sophisticated and - naturally - psychologically ambiguous member of the trans-Atlantic bourgeoisie, very long sentences during which you make make yourself a cup of tea, check Twitter, disinherit your children and get through that final volume of Remembrance of Things Past before you reach the last disappointing word of the sentence.

I note that I've started with a couple of Irish authors - and could add lots more. I have to say that there's a certain school of Irish writing which has taken the postcolonial ball and run with it: throw in equal amounts of tall stories, twilight gloom, emigration, post-Catholic guilt, ambiguous feelings about the decline of Dev's Ireland and the rise of shallow Celtic Tiger Ireland, pepper it with subtle references to the distant Troubles (a source of much head-shaking but little passion in the Republic), put it all through the head of a mute Irish Mammy or marginalised gay younger son and bingo: The Great Irish Novel. Bubbling under: Banville, Barry, Boylan, Donoghue, Hamilton. As I say, all authors for whom I have some enthusiasm and regard but please: a UFO. A murder. A Flashman. Let the rain stop occasionally, for feck's sake. Fewer cillíns, more killings.

OK, away from Ireland, who are the New Bores?

Obviously the Most Boring Author award goes in perpetuity to Ian McEwan for his constant superiority. OK Ian, you've done a lot of research and you liked the Iraq War. Bully for you. But could you stop being so damn pompous about it? Just for me? Remember the old days, when every single word of everything you wrote was perfect - like A Child In Time? Can we get back to that? And Chesil Beach: even Philip Larkin would think that a step too far in the commemoration of sexual inadequacy. We get it: people then were innocent and trapped in cultural mores. A shame. I take the point, but it's a brief moment - read some Chaucer or any of the late medieval plays: not much sexual repression there.

Iris Murdoch. Again, someone whose work I admire, but she is definitely the Queen of the New Boring - or it's grandmother. Every novel: posh Oxbridge types get terribly distressed as they face minor philosophical conundrums. Mute suffering (again). Grey clothes. Rain. No car chases at all.

Jonathan Safran Foer. Every sentence like a bag of spanners on a roller coaster. Uses 9/11 for a bloody father/son gush-fest. Very very precious. Very very long books. Very very boring.

Essentially, I'm bored with what they call 'literary fiction'. I don't think much of it is very literary actually: very few of these books make me pay attention to the words they use, the references they make, the structures of their novels. Instead, they focus on the constricted social world of the élite university and the comfortable middle classes and their minor problems. Or they reproduce the same hackneyed, contrived situations, thinly disguised by - in McEwan's case, a medical condition (Enduring Love) or a self-consciously 'wacky' setting (hang your head Amis, you most tedious of men).

As with so much in the world, Amazon is here to solve our generic problems. Let's have a look at their Best Literary Fiction Sellers.

Julie Cantrell, Into The Free: A Novel.

Just a girl. The only one strong enough to break the cycle.
In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a "nothing mama," she struggles to find a place where she really belongs.
For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family's longstanding cycle of madness and abuse.
Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph. Bourgeois appropriation of excluded ethnic/class energies to comment on the moral failures of the bourgeoisie. With added God. The fact that she needed to append A Novel (and she's not the only one on the list) to the title implies that the text doesn't actually qualify on literary grounds.

Kathryn Stockett, The Help: white people end racism by saying 'please' to the African-American women who do all the work. Offensive, but still Boring.

Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants. Redemptive love between a man, a woman and their elephant (and no, it's not as interesting as what you're thinking about). Elephants never forget, they say, but neither do they seem compelled to rehash the same tedious bloody plots ad infinitum. No thumbs, no cynical publishers looking to flog the film rights to the bastards responsible for that hideous abortion Eat Pray Love (watch, beg, killing spree).

In at No. 4 of course, is Execrably Loud and Incredibly Contrived by the aforesaid Foer. A man who should be incarcerated with only looped recordings of his own teenage diaries for company - though I suspect that he'd enjoy that hugely.

Darcie Chan, The Mill River Recluse.
Disfigured by the blow of an abusive husband, and suffering her entire life with severe social anxiety disorder, the widow Mary McAllister spends almost sixty years secluded in a white marble mansion overlooking the town of Mill River, Vermont. Her links to the outside world are few: the mail, the media, an elderly priest with a guilty habit of pilfering spoons, and a bedroom window with a view of the town below.
Most longtime residents of Mill River consider the marble house and its occupant peculiar, though insignificant, fixtures. An arsonist, a covetous nurse, and the endearing village idiot are among the few who have ever seen Mary. Newcomers to Mill River--a police officer and his daughter and a new fourth grade teacher--are also curious about the reclusive old woman. But only Father Michael O'Brien knows Mary and the secret she keeps--one that, once revealed, will change all of their lives forever. 
The Mill River Recluse is a story of triumph over tragedy, one that reminds us of the value of friendship and the ability of love to come from the most unexpected of places.
Are there any phrases in that synopsis which you haven't read zillion times over? It's like some sadistic computational linguist has programmed an innocent Dell PC to condense the most over-used clichés in literary history into one Stratospherically Boring novel.

Stewie has some advice for you: try not to write like this:

I think I'll abandon the Amazon Literary Fiction chart. Clearly they mean by the term 'novels about adults who haven't told anyone that daddy touched them down there but will on page 200 if the author can't think of anything more, y'know, symbolic of our times'. As far as I can see, 'literary fiction' means 'fiction without spies, car chases, brand names or inheritances from distant cousins of whom you'd never heard'. Emotion. Secrets. Quiet suffering. Yada yada yada.

A few more New Boring authors for you: Jodi Picoult ('a family torn apart'), Jeffrey Eugenides ('thinly disguised other New Boring Authors used as sock-puppets to attack dimly-understood literary theories'), Lionel Shriver (can we please stop talking about Kevin, for the love of God?), Lorrie Moore ('nice structure… wanna admire it with me?'), late Julian Barnes ('literature about literature you say? Yes please!'), Sebastian Faulks (and anyone else who thinks using a genocidal war as a useful backdrop for a Mills and Boon romance counts as 'profound'). Any novel which even mentions 'the school run', 'our weekend get-away'. Anything hailed as a 'sensitive evocation' of anything.

Seriously, there's nothing wrong with Creative Writing courses, per se. Loads of them are brilliant. It's just that many of the New Boring writers did the same few courses. Dudes, if I can name the course and work out your reading list from the first paragraph of your novel, you're not a writer. 

What I'm trying to say is this: most of the authors I've mentioned above are very, very good. They know their readers, they have a polished literary style and sensitive ears. I read many of their books for pleasure. But there are just too damn many of them. They bleed into one another until I can't tell one author's exploration of a repressed family's dark secrets from another's sensitive revelation of transgressive love in a third-rate Oxford college. Taken individually, I've had a lot of pleasure from them. But don't you occasionally want to swap the literary equivalent of warm Chardonnay for a line of coke or some mushrooms?

If you haven't noticed, the world's falling down around our ears and these dull writers, all producing the same style of turgid prose, can't find anything to say about it. They are the Starbucks of literature when we need shots of literary gin: the people who can express the new dispensation. People who can do what Dos Passos and Steinbeck did in the last Depression, or writers who can wrench the world onto another track, like the wondrous Chris Adrian, Alan Moore, Angela Carter, Paul Murray, Kate Roberts, Fflur Dafydd,  Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, Gwyneth Jones, Pynchon, David Peace, Jeff Noon, Magnus Mills, Ballard, Jackie Kay, or China Miéville.

I want weird books by people who've read lots and lots of books across all the genres there are, not Boring Books by Boring People who've listened to some Boring Publisher telling him/her to 'write about what you know'. If all you know is a nice school, Oxbridge and a job in publishing/journalism/cupcake making or PR, you'll write Boring Books and be hailed by Boring Reviewers in Boring Papers. Then you'll be taught to Creative Writing students as an example of How To Write Literary Fiction and you'll be responsible for a whole new generation of New Boring Writers!

OK - comments very welcome!


Benjamin. said...

Ironically, I thought the very same thing the other day when my departing flatmate left me a copy of Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber'. Why can't literature always be as compelling & provoking? Also on my coffee table-Larkin's ;Collected Poems' which has inspired me to write my own also the Jackson Brodie novels by Kate Atkinson has led me to write a crime novel... rumours of JK Rowling writing one seem promising...

GMS said...

I'm with you most of the way here. There is a reason why so many well-read people are turning to Young Adult or 'cross-over' novels, particularly of the fantasy kind: things go on in them that you want to read about. Dare I say they have a story (pace Philip Pullman)? BTW, if you haven't yet, try Francis Spufford, The Child that Books Built.

ed said...

Agree. Agree agree agree.

Rustichello said...

seems to me that literary fiction is no longer interested in saying the things we shouldn't say, nor in the things that make us afraid. rather the whole show is obsessed with the experience of being afraid and what that experience might mean (will self, mostly, excepted)

The Plashing Vole said...

I really like Kate Atkinson. Got the Spufford book, not read it yet. Will Self's a huge favourite.

Rustichello: yes, literary fiction seems to have lost a) joie de vivre and b) a purpose. It doesn't seem very literary any more, and seems to have a more and more narrow focus and readership.

James said...

I've been searching for weeks for new writers to try and you're so right about the death of 'literary fiction'. Once upon a time it was a useful sweeping generalisation that would reduce your chances of purchasing total crap, now the reverse is true. However, I'm also deeply uncomfortable about venturing into fantasy or sci-fi as it's full of people who think Star Trek is better than Star Wars. (And yes Vole I'm aware that we share irreconcilable views on this. You're wrong, obviously.) I'm going to give Dan Vyleta a whirl - read any? Any other recommendations much appreciated.