American Culture

The State of Literary Art IV: fiction that is super – or maybe just superfluous…

What Joe David Bellamy calls “super fiction” may well have led us to the superfluous…

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

(For previous essays in this series, look herehere and here.)

After a week away, we return to Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium. This will likely be the most interesting – and perhaps controversial – essay in this series because of Bellamy’s subject matter. The section of the book from which the Bellamy pieces to be discussed is called “Literary Meteorology,” and the subject matter is part and parcel of the argument that raged throughout the 20th century not just in literary circles but in other areas of what used to be known as “high art” – visual art and “serious” music: how far can artists (of all types) go in terms of experimentation with style and subject matter before they “lose” their audiences and end up “creating” only for themselves – and some precious few critics who value difficulty in ascertaining meaning as the highest hallmark of artistic achievement.

There are three essays in this section of Literary Luxuries, the first two of which deserve the most attention. “Superfiction: Fiction in an Age of Excess” is the first and allows Bellamy to argue the the tumult of the 1960’s  is responsible for the emergence of a “new” type of fiction – a type of work that Bellamy labels superfiction – this is fiction that no longer feels the need to be tied to the conventions of realism – or even to readily discernible presentations of human experience. Superfiction, as Bellamy delineates it, seeks to challenge our perceptions of what language is, what reading comprehension is, what reality is. At this point most readers can probably name the authors that Bellamy cites as the key figures in the rise of superfiction: Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon – and Kurt Vonnegut? Vonnegut is a highly clever choice, of course, because more than any of the other writers mentioned in Bellamy’s essay, lauded though they have been and are in many literary circles, those others are considered “academic darlings”: Vonnegut is much more the “everyman” sort – a genre writer who transcended his genre (sci-fi) to become a literary figure in much the same way that Mark Twain, the apotheosis of everyman as American literary genius,  did a century earlier.

Bellamy argues that two major features of superfiction are its use of myth and parable and its use of metafiction/parody/put-on. What’s problematic about his claim here is that he notes that Modernist writers such as Eliot and Joyce used myth and parable(in the former case, extensively). That hardly makes the case that the use of myth and unique to Postmodern literature. He’s able to make a better argument for metafiction, parody, and put-on, of course, as these are widely used in Postmodern literature – and though they have antecedents (Rabelais and Sterne leap to mind immediately),  the use of parody (Barth, Barthelme) and put-on (Pynchon) feels more like a “new” literary development in their work. All three of those authors use metafictional techniques, too, to comment upon stories even as they tell them. That leaves Vonnegut. While he certainly uses elements of myth and parable (in Cat’s Cradle he makes up a religion) and has metafictional commentary through much of his later work (from Slaughterhouse-Five on, at least), Vonnegut, instead of using these techniques to alienate/distance/confuse readers, makes these techniques work to draw the reader more completely into his stories. Perhaps that’s why Bellamy entitles a later essay in the book “Kurt Vonnegut for President” – his ability to connect with readers even while using the literary techniques of postmodern fiction is a skill no other postmodernist (with the possible exception of T. Coraghessan Boyle) seems to possess. This raises the troubling question which is getting answered in all sorts of unpleasant ways these days: is writing designed to confuse or alienate or exclude readers, as much of this sort of postmodern work does, really of service to literature? Or is this the literary equivalent of Phillip Glass or Yoko Ono? Music or visual art that is more interesting to discuss over cocktails than to hear or view?

The other significant essay in this section of Literary Luxuries is called “Lifestyle Fiction: A Downpour of Literary Republicanism.” In this essay Bellamy takes to task the revolt against postmodern superfiction by writers who chose to continue writing in realistic styles. Bellamy dismisses this as “lifestyle” fiction and further stoops to name calling by suggesting that this type of writing – practiced by writers as varied as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Richard Ford –  is somehow less valuable than the more experimental work of the writers discussed above. Bellamy takes particular aim at John Gardner, whose On Moral Fiction he execrates as unfair in its critique of artists he personally admires such as Barth and Pynchon. What Bellamy concludes ultimately about this group of writers is that they represent “reactionary values.” What Bellamy dismisses as “lifestyle fiction” has been accurate depiction of what Trollope called “the way we live now.” Why that is inadequate as artistry is never explained satisfactorily.

Two biases before I conclude: 1) I have always been a great admirer of John Gardner – in fact, the reason I went to study writing at SUNY-Albany in the early 80’s was because I was promised that Gardner would be coming there from SUNY-Binghamton to teach some writing courses (sadly, Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident about a month after my arrival at Albany so I never got to study with him); 2) As I have discussed in another essay, writers such as Richard Ford have been models to me as I have pursued my own artistic goals, so Bellamy’s criticism of his and other neo-realists’ work has stepped on my own toes.

Where I can’t disagree with Bellamy is in his assessment of the work of the “young guns” who emerged in the eighties such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. It seems to me that in retrospect their writing has always depicted (actually it seems, admired) a certain lifestyle without nearly enough real assessment of the moral gravity of its results.

But there I go sounding like John Gardner, all worthy fiction should be  “attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.”

How silly. Time to stop….

9 replies »

  1. as someone who exists on the fringe, with some writing creds and a little schooling–eough to follow the arguments but not enough to really participate, to some extent these arguments are inside baseball–written by phds for phds.

    notwithstanding that, i’m going to try to participate because it’s itneresting.

    i was struck by david foster wallace’s argument that one of the hallmarks of modern writing is “referential” writing or writing in shorthand. That is, everyone is so immersed in and shares so culture that it’s possible to write in shorthand, e.g., “well, duh,” means something that is obvious and there’s no need to explain Homer Simpson. how does that fit?

    also, for what it’s worth, I always thought that pynchon was actually a bit like some of the old classical writers–lots of allusions that only the cognescenti would pick up on.

    • More powerful than Wallace’s “shorthand” comment, I believe, Otherwise is the continuing advancement of what’s becoming known as “normcore” – which carries with it not only a desire to look as pedestrian as possible but to force anyone who desires to stand out/achieve/be great “into line.” I’ve been noting the viciousness of the (carried on on social media, of course) attacks on U2’s latest effort with interest – they represent the “new reality” – a reality where to aspire, even if you fail, is to be lambasted as overstepping one’s bounds. Hence the triumph of middle brow lit over all – something that neither linguistic experimentalists like Donald Barthelme nor content experimentalists like the dirty realists practice. Of course the elevation of every kind of writing to the status of literature isn’t helping, either. **Sigh**

  2. In this age, when everybody imagines himself a writer and no longer a reader, we have a world where nobody wants to read. They just want to BE read. How can we hope to spot a genius grain of wheat in a world of chafe? And some of that chafe is mine, and a bargain at .99 on Kindle. There was a time when we could hope that history would be the judge, but our future seems to be one of less reading for understanding, not more. I’d turn to drink if it weren’t so expensive. I think there’s another unpublished novel in here, somewhere.

    • tnjhargrove,
      This is true in the visual arts as well. Since Duchamp did his Urinal Installment the definition of ‘art’ has changed. For example, I was in a juried show a year or so ago and 1st place was awarded to a table full of jars (even old dime store candy jars) full of pieces of a bridge that had been demolished. There were many, many worthy paintings in the show but the choice was to honor the installment art over ‘traditional’ art.
      The other issue visual artists are faced with, perhaps as a result of the pop/installment art, is the focus on ‘crafts-as-art’. I appreciate the skill required to knit a scarf, sew fabric pocketbooks, or make jewelry but is that art?
      My grandmother pieced and quilted beautiful quilts based on old patterns handed down for years. Yes they are beautiful; yes they carry a history; they are functional But what seems to matter most of all is accessibility. I have been to shows where ‘paintings’ were created in quilts. But the focus on simple quilting and considering that art for me falls solidly into the craft category . A book about how to quilt being considered literature I see as purely self-help/instructional.
      I think the ‘I’d drink if it weren’t so expensive’ might be a novel. But it sounds like a great start for poem.
      The starving artist continues because of the things they need to ‘say’ whether it sells or not.