Greg Hunter

WSJ on the Rise of the Gutter

In Books on August 31, 2009 at 3:41 AM

From good old Lev Grossman’s “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard Work”:

The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century. Look at Cormac McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in “Inherent Vice” he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more maneuverable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel….

…In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven’t noticed it because we’re looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure. Difficult, in a word. This is different. It’s a revolution from below, up from the supermarket racks.

I would recommend checking the whole column out. It’s not quite a revelation (the above-referenced Michael Chabon’s been writing about and exemplifying these basic ideas for a while), but Grossman does a good job of paying “popular” fiction its due, without sliding into the common/easy rant against literary elitism. What do you guys think? Are we on the doorstep of the “true postmodern” era? Is that era going to be dominated by taut plot lines and genre fiction? I could handle that.

  1. That’s rather revolutionary and exciting rhetoric! I didn’t realize I was reading the vanguard of postmodern fiction when I was reading a comic book or a novel about a comic book or detective stories! Agatha Christie would be proud.

  2. The author’s mention of Pynchon is curious, because in a way Pynchon’s catalogue undermines the suggestion that this phenomenon is something new. Lot 49 also has the shape of a mystery novel -with some contortions, granted -and that was 50 years ago. And Kurt Vonnegut made a career out of writing science fiction with a modernist’s yearning for moral clarity. I’d be interested to hear Grossman locate these (untrue?) postmodern novels fit into the arc he describes. Because it seems like many of our most famous literary experimenters have worked with (if not within) the framework of genre for a while now. Is the difference simply that Pynchon’s earlier books are hard(er) work?

  3. There’s also the fact that Cormac McCarthy has been writing cowboy stories since the sixties, etc., etc., but I think these examples are pretty flimsy, and not really the focus of the article. What Grossman’s looking for, I think are new authors and new critics that value accessibility the way the last few crops of both have valued difficulty (while still valuing artistic integrity, of course). I think your man Grant Morrison is a great example of this kind of writer. His “deceptive simplicity” is what draws critics and general readers alike. He bears postmodern influences, for sure, but his superhero genre fictions are a far cry from Pyncheon’s detective stories, just like Pyncheon’s are from Dashiell Hammet. Is this the future? I don’t know. Interesting, though.

  4. I’ll buy that. I think the “revolution” has limitations though. People like Gaiman and Kelly Link started (and will probably end) their careers writing smart genre stuff. The question might be, does Gaiman have more in common with Philip K. Dick (who did just that) or Chabon, who may be in this context an earnest, talented dabbler?

    It’s funny the difference that medium makes. No one remarks on how many canonized American film directors worked mainly on genre fare (Hitchcock, Scorsese, etc). Maybe because film started and remained a medium associated with mass viewership?

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