I really can’t understand why modern “literary” writers take so many words to tell a story — why they think a reader has nothing better to do than read a list of the plants growing outside the window of a room where nothing has happened. Why they spend so much time applying quirky adjectives to objects that will play no part in the tale. Why they use adverbs to describe how a line of dialogue is spoken, when it should be clear from the context.

It’s as though they think they have the rapt attention of a captive audience with nowhere else to go, no other opportunities for distraction.  What world are they living in?  Who do they think they are?  In many cases, of course, they have no story to tell, just a sensibility to sell — the quirky adjectives and useless adverbs and lists of things are all they have to offer to “express” themselves.  But if they do have a story to tell, why don’t they just get on with it?  The sensibility of a storyteller is at best a faint herbal flavor in a rich stew.  The story is the stew.

11 thoughts on “LITERARY FICTION

  1. Just wondering what writers you might have in mind. You’re putting a whole lot of writers into one bag here. In general, I agree with you. Don DeLillo is the first name that comes to mind. Yet lots of people love his stuff.

    • I was thinking particularly of Cormac McCarthy, pictured above, whom I find unreadable. I’ve attempted DeLillo a few times and never got very far with him. Overwriting is a disease among many highly-regarded “literary” types these days. It’s not just a question of writing at length about things, but of elaborating endlessly and showily about simple, obvious and irrelevant things.

      • I agree. If you’re going to write fancy you better have something to say and know what the hell you’re talking about. Ulysses is a good example. Funny as hell book. Not much happens, but a lot happens. Don’t try to copy it though. None of us are half as smart as Joyce, and none of us know a tenth of what he knew. I personally think Sanctuary is one of Faulkner’s best, which he claimed he wrote just to make a buck. That impulse kept him in check, cut down on the pontification, and made for a powerful novel.

  2. You ain’t kiddin’ about the list of plants. Here’s the opening line of David Foster Wallace’s last, uncompleted novel, “The Pale King”:

    “Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.”

    • I’m not much of a DFW fan, but I have to say in defense that there is a long literary tradition which involves the recounting of various lists. That doesn’t mean that all such lists are created equal in terms of artistic merit, but it doesn’t mean that listing is necessarily a symptom of modern “literary” self-involvement, either.

      • The plant list thing has become a total cliché, though, indistinguishable from “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”

        • Cold Mountain has to contain the most ridiculous examples of such lists.

          • Homer’s lists, like the list of the ships, were usually about setting up the cast of characters and giving each city in Greece a stake in the tale. It wasn’t to show off the fact that he’d spent some time consulting a botany text.

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