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.