I have made a beef out of what I dislike about the literary movement. I've stated it here before, very vocally. The result from occasional vocalizations has been English teachers telling in various ways how immature I am, or how I am missing the point, as if one has to be stupid to think writers like Pynchon and Barthelme are hacks.
I've always disagreed, and I recently read Gore Vidal's brilliantly insightful essay, "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction (1974)".
One must start any statement regarding Vidal to noting how simply hilarious he is. If you read Vidal without occasionally breaking into fits of laughter you missing a great deal of what he writes. One of the lovely things about his essays is that have such witty punchlines sprinkled about them, such as this hilarious and perfectly Vidalian barb referring to Barthelme's The Dead Father:
In The Dead Father a number of people are lugging about the the huge remains of something called the dead father. Only this monster is not very dead because he talks quite a bit.
To name just one of many hilarious barbs contained in it.
Before dealing specific criticisms, I'd like to quote his ending which is perfectly correct:
Academics tell me I am wrong. They assure me that if it were not for them, the young would never read the Public-novels of even the recent past (Faulkner, Fitzgerald). If this is true then I would prefer for these works decently to die rather than to become teaching-tools, artifacts stinking of formaldehyde in a classroom (original annotated texts with six essays by the author and eight critical articles examining the parameters of the author's vision). But the academic bureaucracy, unlike the novel, will not wither away, and the future is dark for literature. Certainly the young in general are not going to take up reading when they have such easy alternatives as television, movies, rock. The occasional student who might have an interest in reading will not survive a course in English, unless of course he himself intends to become an academic bureaucrat.
I bolded that section which I thought most important. I would hope that many of you reading this remember the recent study that showed most college lit students don't read outside class. Vidal saw this coming three decades ago. My generation of students reads even less than any before it, reading is falling by double digits among men and just barely staying par among women. Over all less than 40% of all people my age admit to doing any significant reading outside of class, (beyond newspapers and magazines). There are a variety of reasons, but I don't think television can be blamed, or music or internet. Reading levels are at their lowest in quite some time, and the reading of more serious and important endeavors is even lower and whats more fewer and fewer people show any capacity to "get" anything they read; in my own classes I'm amazed at how 90% of them got into an honors course.
Why? In Europe the decline is much less pronounced and what's more good literature remains much more popular on a societal basis. What is it about us that only a microscopic minority reads anything considered worthwhile?
It is my belief that English Teachers have killed literature for America. They have tried to kill in it me; I read voraciously, Vidal, Fuentes, Borges, Faulkner, Tolstoy, I read and enjoy almost everything I get my hands on-except those rare and specific novels I don't consider literature so much as what Vidal terms "Research and Development" and I too bemoan the transformation of literature into a semi-scientific endeavor by hacks. Vidal notes one of John Barthes famous critical works where he took a rather straightforward and short story by Balzac and wrote a word by word line by line textual analysis of it. Vidal correctly notes that all those who think that by trying real hard and so self-consciously trying to imitate past ideas will never attain a new novel. He makes the perfect point that all those who have truly been revolutionary imitated no one, and they weren't trying to create something new, they weren't obsessed with the writing itself, but with the character and subject which so many of these writers have absolutely disgust for, and through this did they morph the text naturally.
I think you can see the hopeless American attitude in their treatment of J.M.G Le Clezio. One critic made an interesting note and talked of how America had translated his worthy endeavors and his works only stopped being translated when he devolved to sentimental crap, basically. Having read Le Clezio's first novel it is a walking cliche of the French New Novel with perhaps a good deal of cleverness, but otherwise staid and hackneyed, boring to read while having little important to say, his other early works are no better. I have also read a more recent book, Onitsha, a pile of sentimental crap, but one of the few translated, and found it to be a beautiful and heartfelt piece of writing, enjoyable to read, epic, and with a profound meaning and feeling. But then again this class of critics is against feeling and beautiful writing.
Vidal notes Barthelme saying 'Anyone can write a beautiful sentence' and then later notes that Barthelme, (along with almost all this group of writers), admits to hating to read fiction themselves before finally coming to his own conclusion that it is 'not so easy to write a beautiful sentence' and that the only easy, imitable thing being done is what they are doing, noting correctly that at the time he was one of the most imitated writers in America.
In many ways I can't help but applaud Vidal for his efforts. He made it through Barthelme's short story collections, all of them, I found it just a few of his short story's among the most unpleasant experiences I've ever had reading. Not only that but he read Barthelme's favorite authors and wrote about all of them, Gass, Barthe, and Pynchon being the main ones. He was particularly critical of Barthe devoting a vast amount of space to criticize many of his specific and quoting the line so bad that he stopped reading one book at page 412, (with 470 more pages to go). He freely admitted to being forced to read Gravity's Rainbow for nearly a year without finishing it, something that made me feel much better, for if a highly intelligent writer and critic like Vidal cannot make it through Pynchon what hope would I have, I after all am not going to waste my time with so much good fiction to read out there, like The Master and the Margaretta, or The Glass Bead Game. He did note that Pynchon achieved the pinnacle of his goals in it but jokingly stated he doubted anyone would ever read it entirely. I personally tried. The difficulty of it lies not within the text, I read The Sound and the Fury and enjoyed immensely, especially Benjy's part, (my favorite actually), but rather the problem with Pynchon in that book is his incredibly non sequitor, the constant rambling and virtual pointless scenes, (well pointless from perspectives of human characters and emotions) and there is a fuzzy quality of it; stuff happens but you have no idea what the hell it is, everything Pynchon writes is so incredibly unclear, but what really made me close the book were the hackneyed lyrics. I feel no need to waste my life slowly reading and taking in lyrics ostensibly meant as quirks on pop culture like The Beatles and Bob Dylan. I'm sorry to say but I returned to Anna Karenina rather than waste my time.
The problem fundamentally lies within the disconnect. Students don't read because during high school reading is pounded into them as unpleasant. Teachers demand a specific analysis and eventually students get good at regurgitating what the teachers want to hear. And a truly aesthetic enjoyment and reading of the texts is passed over for mutilating it for the means of "research papers" which rather than encourage critical thinking demand that students include three backing statements for every single thought they make. An entire generation of major writers came along and picked up on the cold inhuman aesthetics of the New Novelists, (something Vidal breaks down and explains how it is fundamentally impossible), and then further added their own density and desire to experiment. Vidal correctly notes I feel that rather than being at zero entropy Gravity's Rainbow is on fire; absorbing energy from the reader. The writer and critic of considerable tact and brilliance, the man called the greatest overall man of letters in America, stated my feelings exactly when he noted in exasperation that the novel requires more energy for the reader to read than it probably cost Pynchon to write.
When the professors come to me here, (as they do from time to time), and tell me of my immaturity they mean truly that I have not yet been indoctrinated in specific narrow mindset that says, "Hey, because these works are convoluted and difficult even for critics to understand, they must be good." I don't mean difficult to read, or having complex philosophy, I've read notes on their philosophy, its easy to understand, I've read the writing, its straightforward enough, no what I mean is that in that context they put things in truly bizarre ways, extremely strange, experimental writing that makes very little sense.
I bemoan the no longer existing phenomena of someone enjoying the novel on a personal, indescribable way and that being that. Instead one now sees the novel as a form scientifically dissected and understood. Pardon me if I sympathize with Whitman in the "Learn'd Astronomer" more.
While I believe we have seen the apex of hardcore post-modernism die, (precisely due in part I think to critics like Vidal on the edge of the mainstream, not Pynchon, but to a large degree the reputations of other authors who Vidal criticized much more harshly), what has replaced it is not encouraging. I've been told that Cormac McCarthy's dry clear cut strings of declarative sentences unfetters all bindings of the novel to form and allow for a truly aesthetic existence, from trying to read Blood Meridian, a beloved novel of critics but one hopeless boring and staid for a passionate literary reader such as myself. I find that the self-conscious avoidance of style and complexity is the most stylistic flourish of all. Minimalism is an anathema to me if only because I am firmly of the belief that literature is nothing but the creation of beautiful sentences. For all the talk of how easy it to make it beautiful sentences I agree with Vidal in saying their is a huge scarcity of them in modern literature. In Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horse I feel and see absolutely no sympathy or human feeling towards the read character. If wanted this I would read a book on economics, not fiction. By making the writing dead the story becomes irrevocably dead for me as a reader.
Then there is trashy stylism as I call it, that self-conscious stylism for, well, for the sake of being stylistic. The list of cliched hacks is quite long, not to say there have not been some rare gems that the literary mainstream has recognized, such as A Confederacy of Dunces, Middlesex, Chabon's work or even more recently The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Gilead, to name just a few. But more often than not I catch the trendy books, cliched and stylish for the sake of being stylish, books like The Echo-Maker, (not altogether unpleasant I will admit, nor doll, just not impressive), House of Smoke, etc.
So there is my rant, typos, grammatical errors and all. Its still readable, and this is Dkos after all not my Lit Professor, (who is actually a really cool trumpet player who has assigned out group a good reading list). I suppose there will be some flaming, but I'd hope to see a lot of affirmative whoops of relief from various writers and readers like myself who feel exasperated by the increasingly Ivory Tower trend of literature. Vidal called it writing books meant to be taught and called Gravity's Rainbow the best teaching book in a long time. Though I'm ready to have a good debate with those who disagree with me.
P.S. Its routine, please vote in the poll even if you don't care I really appreciate it so I can see how many people read it. Its nice to have some evidence you are not talking to a brick wall around here ;)