Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sort of Muffled and Far Away

It's not that I'm such a Jonathan Safran Foer fan, but I did feel a little bad for the guy after reading the NYT review of his new book. Think poetry critics are conservative and intolerant? They've got nothing on your average fiction reviewer, who still holds up Psychological Realism as the holy grail of all writing.

And it's not that I have anything against Michiko Kakutani in particular--she usually seems reasonably intelligent--it's more that she's representative. That pining for someone who would write in an "earnest, straightforward manner" (code words for realism that turn into moral qualities) ought to show how remote that ideal is from anything like what writing looks like now--or has looked like for the past century.

In my extremely brief (about a year long) career as a fiction writer, I found myself more or less by accident as a member of what I was told was a very prestigious writing workshop, held at the home of a prominent editor. In retrospect, it's pretty clear that I wrote fiction like a poet: a lot more interested in linguistic riffs and the endless mining of specific moments of experience than in such niceties as plot and character. But that said, I produced what I thought were some reasonably accomplished passages from a third-person pseudo-autobiographical piece featuring a character whose chronological age must have been about six but whose brain occasionally played host to certain non-six-year-old thoughts and ideas. Or rather: it hardly seemed as if I could render the complexity of a six-year-old's experience if I were limited to a six-year-old's vocabulary.

As soon as I got the piece to workshop, though, I was reamed on precisely those grounds (and precisely the ones Kakutani faults Foer on): the story was not realistic; it contained thoughts a six-year-old couldn't possibly have; that wasn't really what elementary school was like; it was, God forbid, "contrived." (The distinguished editor, talking to me in the kitchen during a break, used the word "arch.") I wanted to ask if anyone had ever read Proust or Joyce or Faulkner, or, really, anyone but Updike and Cheever. That's the funny thing about realist nostalgia: it's nostalgia not for, say, 1750 or 1850 (do Dickens's children "sound" like children?) but for 1950, more or less as it happened in lower New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic.

So that's why I feel a pang of sympathy when I see even a writer as modestly "experimental" as Foer (oh! heavens! he's using magical realism!) get taken to the woodshed for being "contrived." I've been there. Though I don't sell as many books.


pam said...

"That's the funny thing about realist nostalgia: it's nostalgia not for, say, 1750 or 1850 (do Dickens's children "sound" like children?) but for 1950, more or less as it happened in lower New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic."

right on.

Roger Pao said...

I'm not posting in quite the right place. What are the ethics behind posting in the right place?

Anyhow, I'll give a shout out to Miciko Kakutani for writing entertaining reviews, even if I don't always agree with them.

Also, I'd agree that fiction critics should broaden their views of "fiction," just as poetry critics should broaden their views of "poetry."

There, now I feel better: Now I can ask my unrelated question which is whether people are still thinking about an Asian-American poetry listserv. As I noted, I think a discussion board would work better, and the blog format may also be superior to the listserv format. But I clearly don't want the last word on this. Clearly, I want the discussion to at least continue...

pam said...

When I've thought about the discussion idea over the past week or ago, I've also felt drawn to the discussion board or community blog format, over the listserv one. By all means, this discussion should be continued, if at the very least in squatter form in the comments pages of your guys's blogs...

pam said...

I have another squatter's comment but first I want to acknowledge Robert Creeley's passing and what a major loss it is... I have only read scattered selections of his poems but their immediate presence has always called to me to read more... sad that it has taken his death to jar me into moving his books to the top of my reading list.

quoth the squatter:
On the other hand, there's something to be said about just plunging in and posting topics to get the discussion itself started -- the Asian American poetics discussion itself, not just the discussion about how to have the discussion. Then details and niceties about the format can evolve from there... might be a quick guerilla way to get started, as I'm guessing that most interested parties also have insanely busy schedules?

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