Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sad Sack Generation

Laura Miller, Salon's sharp book critic, had a column in the Open.Salon blog a while back on her blog at  Open Salon about the current crop of sad young literary writers. Progressing to where our inner lives are the principle subject for the middlebrow " serious novel", she wonders aloud how is that we've come up with so many novelists and short story writers who write novels about people unable to transcend their grieving. There is no "getting over" the depression that follows the death of a loved one, or the breakup with a wife or girlfriend. A generation prior would find no end of fiction writers who could lighten their melancholy and despair with choice bits of humor, wit, absurd comedy, notably in the work like that of John Cheever or John Updike; no matter how grim the action or limitless the poetry once could extract from the misery might be, their instincts were to undercut the mourner and push him or her toward the larger task of reentering the world where they live; sorrow is a neighborhood one ought not live in too long. With time, you become a bore entrenched on your own box of miserable experience. Much of the cause for the rise of these dour, all-is-ashen scribes has been the emphasis in recent decades on the journey within rather the adventure without; characters confront a rough patch in their life and spend the course of many chapters studying their feelings and second guessing their reactions to further circumstances beyond control, resulting in some eventual metaphor about powerlessness. Once in a while this can be a moving saga, but there is less about what people do in the world and how their actions effect communities and neighborhoods they might pass though. It would seem that someone had uttered once that having your characters merely think about world suffices for momentum, but that is hardly enough. There is a tedium in the results, a monotony self awareness depressing for all the depressed people these plots deal with. Blame therapy, twelve step movements, the 60s? It hardly matters now. Once we read stories of women and (mostly) men who wanted to engage their universe and change it somewhat, a situation where introspection, if any, was predicated on actual turns of events; it created tension, a resolution came finally,and we had dramatic action. Even the great soliloquist Shakespeare knew that Hamlet's navel gazing had to be juxtaposed against more turbulent events around him. It's a shame that our better prose stylists have largely forgotten that lesson.

1 comment:

  1. Amen.

    I just re-read In the Name of the Rose. There are tortuous examinations of faith in that book, but they come as a result of not just plot, but history. You might be condemned as a heretic. You might get murdered. You might discover the key to knowledge. Things are at stake. And what is at stake is much greater than whether I, the author, will be considered suitably intellectual by my old Harvard buddies.


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