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Against Luminism

September 30, 2009

I can’t find the source for this link today – cut and pasted it into a draft email yesterday.  It’s a great article about the factory-fresh quality of modern fiction.  Author John Barry notes the omnipresence of James Joyces’s story “The Dead” in fiction writing courses, and how it’s functioning as a (pun alert) dead hand, repressing originality and encouraging the reuse of stock footage of “luminous” moments (quotes mine) in short stories.  He recaps the story’s final paragraph, in which the protagonist stares “wistfully” out the window at the snow, sad with the fresh knowledge that his wife wishes she was with someone else, dead long ago.

Right this moment, there are armies of writers going through workshops, getting their work ruthlessly dissected as they try to create that lyrical effect of waning poignancy. Students labor day and night trying to imagine themselves as Gabriel Conroy, looking out onto the snow-covered wasteland. Adjunct professors, desperately trying to squeeze into the Kenyon Review, are trying to imagine their careers as the Bog of Allen, their aging parents as relics of a bygone day, their own spouse wanting more from them than they’re willing-or able-to give. Michael Furey is the ghost of their aspirations. The distant music of their thought-tormented lives is the rattling piano of an aging piano teacher.

If that’s what they’re after, the short story isn’t a story anymore. What we come out with now, too often, is an architectural feat, carefully layered to texture a feeling that is, not coincidentally, the sort of feeling you might get after teaching short-stories for years, while writing the occasional book review. It’s the kind of story not many people read anymore, unless they want to learn how to write a story. It’s a story that many people publish, some of them so that they can keep their jobs.

Barry reminds us that “The Dead” was powerful because it captured its own moment in time, the dawn of the 20th century:  “the rampant alcoholism, the faux nationalism, the dying generations, the shallow hospitality, the end of decency, the emergence of feminism, the reaction of the boneheads.”  Rather than recreating the tone of the past, appropriate to the past, we should do as Joyce did and capture our own time.  Writers “should assume that 50 years from now, people will read stories to figure out who we are, not what we feel when we wish we could have been something else.” 

Barry doesn’t mention the wearisome habits of distant irony omnipresent in today’s short stories, the substitution of whimsically inserted brand names as substitutes for real social criticism or commentary, or the hackneyed ever-present present tense. (“Margaret goes to the Burger King.  She stares at the menu.  She does not know what she wants.” A made-up example, I think, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in more than one New Yorker story.)  The irony, as Barry notes, is that people still read “The Dead” because it was true to its own time.  Its distant tone was not just an aesthetic effect, but also “about a beloved country turned suddenly strange, in a way that fascinated Joyce, and yet, which caused him to leave it.” 

The voice of exile, of distance, is handy when you don’t want to confront feelings, either because cool detachment makes you look hip and self-aware to the others in your circle/classroom, or – as I’m finding myself blocked by in my own novel – because writing about feelings is hard.  It requires you to feel them, which is bad enough, then confront them, harder still, and finally organize and tame them to the point where they can be put on paper in a way that makes them make sense to others, believable if not sympathetic. 

To take a tiny slice of time and emotion, to pin a feeling like a butterfly and ornament it with “distant music,” is to diminish the power of real pain; to garland it with luminous prose is to embalm it.  The template is wearisome – I feel nothing, I feel nothing, I stare at the world through glass, then, for the big finish, The Tiny Epiphany, in which a butterfly lands on the steering wheel and I am overwhelmed with the beauty of it all or whatnot, and we are all so amazed that you have allowed us to see that you feel something in the midst of all that nothing because now we see that– wait for it – deep inside, you feel too much. 

In my own experience, little moments don’t change anything in any lasting form – tiny epiphanies happen, yep, they come – and they go.  BIG events, big feelings, change everything.  But big feelings, big canvases, are quickly mocked and buried under shovelsfull of Barthes and Derrida.  Tom Wolfe wrote memorably about the need for big novels, and while his own attempts are sometimes great and sometimes not so much, damn it at least someone’s trying.  David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest would be unacceptably ambitious to the fiction workshop crowd were it not for the panoply of modernist flourishes it employed. 

Fall is finally here in Reno, a tiny epiphany for me in the form of cool days, the brain-draining heat of summer finally over.  It’s been five months since I’ve posted a chapter, and there’s nothing in the pipeline, but I know I need to get cracking – if only because the reality of AI development will outstrip my creations soon enough.  Yeah, I’m planning a big story, and it’s scary.  But if it wasn’t ambitious, if it wasn’t new, why the hell would anyone want to bother, want to go through all the shit you go through creating fiction, just to do what everyone else has done so many times before?


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