Compositions for the Young and Old

Last year, I built a library in the rec room downstairs in my house. In the process, I developed my only handyman skill: handling a powered drywall screwdriver and stud-finder. I can do nothing else of use in the home, but I can put up wall-mounted shelves. Unfortunately, I can’t put up enough of them.

When I finished putting books on the shelves, I found that I had two stacks remaining on the floor. They were the volumes on WWII and cryptology history that I always plan to read as source material for My Great Novel. I tucked them off the side of my new sofa, generally out of sight.

In little more than a year, they multiplied. Now there are 20 stacks of books on the floor, and the subject matter’s grown pretty diverse: literary fiction, comic strip collections, travel guides, Rembrandt books, collected letters, and more. Keep in mind, during the five months in which I was reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (February to July), I didn’t buy any books, new or used.

I have plans to renovate the adjacent room into a combination gym/library-annex, but the basic conclusion is inescapable: I have too many books.

Of course, the problem isn’t just space; it’s time. It’s not, “Where will I put them all?” It’s “When will I ever read even half of them?”

So, last weekend, I began the painful process of removing books that I’ll never get around to reading.

Every bibliophile knows how daunting a task this is. It constitutes a surrender, an admission of failure, to say, “I will never spend the time to read this book [let’s say, A Book of Memories, by Peter Nadas].”

When you get down to it, two titles alone — the Riverside Shakespeare and the Bollingen collected Plato — could be the reading of a lifetime for me, so it’s not exactly like I’m closing off a world of possibilities by casting off unread books by Nadas, David Foster Wallace, Mary Caponegro, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Carole Maso, along with mass market paperbacks of Melville, Beckett, Milton and others (my eyes simply won’t forgive me if I subject them to typesetting of that size; some books will need to be re-bought in trade paperback).

Will I ever read 950 pages of William Vollmann’s novel about French settlers in Quebec? Non. As worthwhile as the book may be, I’ll simply never devote the time to it, not when there are so many other books I want to get to, as well as the ones I want to return to, those that I read in my youth (or greater immaturity, however you want to phrase it). I feel the pull of those books from my own past, the desire to return to Homer, Cervantes, Pynchon, Dostoevsky, the Tragedians, Gaddis, from where I am now, where I’ll be 5, 10 years from now. I already look forward to returning to Proust before I’m 50, if I live that long.

This talk of triage is a long-winded way of getting around to something I found when I was going over my shelves this week: A 1996 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction entitled, “The Future of Fiction”.

The magazine featured contributions by several authors whose books I’d just pulled out of my library. As the aforementioned D.F. Wallace wrote in his intro, “This job involved sending out a letter about a year and a half ago inviting a number of writers and editors under c. forty-five to write whatever they wanted on the topic of where they thought literary art (literary art in general, or literary art in relation to culture, or all of these, or none) was heading in the next century.”*

The list, compiled by Wallace and the Dalkey Archive Press, constitutes what must’ve been a powerhouse lineup of literary writers from the era. A few of them went on to success — John O’Brien’s novel Leaving Las Vegas got made into a movie, and Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections was picked for Oprah’s Book Club (until Franzen acted like an elitist prick about it) and also won the National Book Award — but the rest of these writers haven’t exactly made a dent in the public psyche in the intervening near-decade.

Perhaps the other under-45 writers of 1996 who’d go on to make names for themselves were too busy to respond to the RoCF’s letter. As inconsequential as I find Dave Eggers’ writing, he does seem to have a heck of a work ethic. I don’t know if anyone was paying attention to Jonathan Safran Foer, Heidi Julavits, or David Sedaris back then (God knows I’m not paying attention to them nowadays), or if Wallace and the Dalkey people simply assembled a list of young, avant-garde writers without taking into account whether they’d amount to anything.

By “amount to anything,” I’m applying an unfair criteria to these writers; namely that they sell books. Being avant-garde means never having to earn back advances.

Back to the future. It’s bad enough when science fiction writers are asked to predict the future; telling a newspaper editor or conference organizer, “Science fiction is a metaphor that helps us interpret the present,” never convinces anybody to stop asking the question. In response, they’ve offered up visions of hydroponic gardens, sinister zaibatsus, point singularities, organ farms, etc., without ever getting around to the ubiquity of the cellphone.

So asking a passel of avant-garde authors to discuss where fiction and/or culture is going may not’ve been a great idea.

Too many respondents complained about computers and word-processing, hypertext, CD-ROMs, and reader interactivity. As with everyone else, these writers appear to have been fooled by the 1990s press coverage of Jaron Lanier, Stewart Moulthrop, and the early Internet pioneers, who promised a world in which “readers” would be choosing their own paths through novels, deciding characters’ fates themselves, and wearing funny “eyephones” (presumably while listening to Dee-Lite or the Soup Dragons). Some writers lamented, some reveled.

Of course, nothing followed that path.

Instead, we got the hyperproliferation of the Internet, super-small cell phones with built-in cameras (and Bluetooth!), movies on DVD, iPods, flatscreen TVs, and a war with Global Jihad. During that time, books stayed books. Some genres flourished, some withered.

Some of the writers in the magazine seemed to map the isolation of their writing lives onto the lives of the reading public. In defining themselves as avant-garde, they almost professed a willingness to ignore the world around them, all the better to devote time to their craft. As such, they managed to miss the single largest publishing phenomenon of the last decade: Oprah’s book club.

I could read over every word of that magazine again, and I’ll bet there’s not a single instance when someone wrote anything to the effect of, “Toni Morrison’s books will become incredibly popular after Oprah Winfrey talks about them to her viewing audience,” or, “William Faulkner’s novels will become bestsellers again when Oprah considers them a good summer reading project.” Ms. Morrison does get mentioned in the issue, but it’s an odd circumstance.

They’re supposed to be writers, not prognosticators. I mean, is it Franzen’s fault that, in 2000-2001, he wrote in The Corrections, “It seemed to Enid that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth. She had memories of the 1930s, she’d seen firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off . . . But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with, to soften impacts”?

My point is, the world is always happening somewhere else. Try to remember September 10, 2001. (I was watching Giants @ Denver on Monday Night Football.)

The future ain’t what it used to be. That’s pretty obvious, but not my main reason for this post. It’s not the cluelessness of these writers, so much as their self-importance and pretension that irritated the heck out of me, as I reread passages from the issue.

And in a sense, maybe this all comes back to Franzen’s problems in 2001 with Oprah. Is the “literary avant-garde” so esoteric and out of touch that the reading public finds them irrelevant?

In his offering for the RoCF forum, “I’ll Be Doing More of Same,” Franzen remarked, “Today, when I try to think of American novelists who might be heeded as a cultural authority, the list begins and ends with Toni Morrison.” In the past few years, I don’t recall anyone pointing out the irony of this remark, as several of Morrison’s books ended up on Oprah’s book club list. Oprah also made a movie of one of Morrison’s books, Beloved, and is rumored to be working on another.

Fortunately for Franzen, he doesn’t explain what it means to be a ‘cultural authority.’ It might mean a phrase he uses earlier in the essay, “a novel that Americans who considered themselves civilized found it necessary to have read,” but I’m not sure. As I mentioned, he’s not a very good writer, nor much of a thinker.

In fact, from the comfort of post-Cold War 1996, he could write, “The American writer today faces a totalitarianism of commercial culture analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of East Bloc writers had to contend,” and apparently mean it. In the closing paragraph of his essay, he compares junior executives with Hitler and reiterates the point that the bookselling marketplace is equivalent to totalitarian Soviet dictatorship. Because having your book remaindered is the same as being abducted in the night by the Stasi.

Like I said, it’s not the cluelessness, it’s the self-importance. I can handle stupid; I can’t handle stupid that thinks it’s smart.

* * *

Is that why, among the first books I took down from my shelves for the never-to-be-read stacks (hello, Strand!), so many were by these contemporary authors?

I’ve held onto a few books by these writers: collections of essays by Sven Birkerts (who once wrote a nice blurb for a book I was publishing), Vollmann’s The Atlas (worth a shot, I figure), and Wallace’s Infinite Jest (but only because I’m pissed off about how long it took me to read it back in 1996; it’s not like I’ll ever sit down with it again). And I’ve retained a ton of them from living, youngish writers whose work I like, or at least want to try out sometime: Irvine Welsh, Neal Stephenson, Orhan Pamuk, Stephen Wright, Bruce Wagner, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Richard Powers (sentimental for when I was a different person), Jim Shepard, among others.

“Maybe it’s just me”. I don’t like to extrapolate my changing moods onto the wider world, because my circumstances are pretty peculiar. Having read a passel of contemporary literature, and having published some of it for a few years through my press, it’s clear my interest in it has waned, but there’s still a segment of the reading public that cares about this sort of writing. After all, we continue to see successful books published by Foer, Eggers, Cunningham, Wallace, and Z. Smith. Not always over-the-top successful, but at least people buy them.

I would say that it’s just a matter of my becoming an old fart, but I don’t think I’m alone in this impression that there are fewer authors of merit putting out worthwhile books. I had a conversation several months ago with Elayne Tobin, a writing professor at NYU, and David Gates, book/music writer for Newsweek. I asked them to name any novels since 1980 that they believed will reach canonical status. (To paraphrase Orwell, I’m using the term “literary canon” pretty loosely, and I’m taking it for granted that a literary canon exists, a thing now denied by plenty of people.)

(I told Elayne and David, “Take Philip Roth off the table.” A lot of people have extra-literary issues with Roth, but I find him to be the closest thing contemporary America has to Balzac. On the other hand, I’m a Jew from the northeast, so I may have a stilted impression of the value of Roth’s writing.)

As Harold Bloom writes in The Western Canon when trying to compose a list of “contemporary canonical” works, “I am not as confident about this list as the first three. Cultural prophecy is always a mug’s game. Not all of the works here can prove to be canonical; literary overpopulation is a hazard to many among them. But I have neither excluded nor included on the basis of cultural politics of any sort.” He goes on to offer 17 pages’ worth of candidates from the “Chaotic Age” of his Vico-esque schema; as many pages as the other three eras (Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic) combined.

They pondered a bit, then Elayne offered up Midnight’s Children, by Rushdie, and Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore.

Gates thought The Virgin Suicides might be a lasting book of our time. I’d never read any of the three, so I sat down with Eugenides’ novel shortly after that evening; I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it was in “lasting” class. I’ll pick up Lorrie Moore, as well as Rushdie’s book sometime, despite having read his awful rock-n-roll novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

I enjoyed Stephen Wright’s Going Native, but it felt dated the most recent time I read it, less than a decade after its release. Gould’s Book of Fish is my favorite book of recent vintage, but I know it’ll never achieve renown. Hasn’t stopped me from buying extra copies to lend to friends.

But none of us could offer up any slam-dunk, “People will still be reading this book in 50 years” novel to come out since 1980. Oh, we could mention personal faves, but not works that we felt future generations would teach and love.

Did we have them before? Two or three years ago, I met up with a friend of mine from my freshman year of college. He said to me, “Y’know, I still have a pile of books in my bedroom that you recommended back when we were in school.”

I blanched. “Please throw them out and never tell me what they were. If you want, I’ll even buy a bunch of better books to replace them. Just don’t tell me what I thought was good when we were 18.”

Thanks for listening.


* Later, Wallace writes, “[T]he pieces themselves are mostly pretty discursive, and I don’t feel like anybody wants to hear me discursing about discursion.” Which is funny, insofar as this is the guy who wrote a 981-page novel with an additional 96 pages of footnotes . . . reviewed in that very issue of RoCF!

In fact, the end issue was a section of book reviews. I flipped through it from the back to see if I had read any of the books. Within a few moments, I realized that I didn’t even know any of the authors. It took me 15 pages to find one I knew; as it turned out, it was an author I knew personally, and whose work I’ve published. In fact, I reissued the same novel in the review (Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man) 5 years after this RoCF came out. Small world.

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