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Thursday, April 08, 2010

American Literature ™

Just how free is our right to free speech in America? There is a huge difference between what you are allowed by law to say and write and what the powers that be (in movies, television, and in print) will allow to been seen, heard, and read. I don’t include most visual art in this essay because I don’t think that it has much of an audience these days. If you are a painter or sculptor you had better have a few rich patrons lined up or you won’t ever be able to give up your day job. But just how “free” is the American novel at this moment in our history? I don’t know whether the novel is being censured in the marketplace or there just aren’t any novelists exploring the true dilemmas in our society but the end result is the same: most American fiction has been pretty mealy-mouthed and uncontroversial, at least in my lifetime.

Let me give an example. Just how far do you think a writer could go if she criticized our culture of strip malls, chain stores, suburban sprawl, and the over-all corporate takeover of American culture? I would venture to guess that such a novel would never be printed—not by a big publisher—and it would certainly never be able to reach much of an audience. It almost pains me to consider how many great American novels have been ignored so that we may be supplied with an almost endless river of insipid vampire novels or books about women who love shopping. About the only novel that I have read in my lifetime that actually went so far as to question our consumerist culture was Douglas Copeland’s Generation X (which he followed up with some pretty insipid bullshit).

After John Updike’s death recently we were presented with a month-long hagiography of this writer. I would lump Updike in with just about every other writer in the American pantheon of modern authors and then I would toss them all in the trash. Did Updike ever write a novel that wasn’t about divorce or fucking around on your wife or about college professors? Has Joyce Carol Oates ever addressed any pressing American problem other than little girls getting diddled by their uncles? If she did then I didn’t read it. And I defy you to tell me what sort of issues John Irving sees fit to weave into novels. Fuck Saul Bellow too while we are at it.  In my opinion you can either be a college professor or a novelist. Choose one and do it because you can’t be both.

And here we come to the heart of the matter. American academia has sucked the very life out of our literature. Think of the countless professors who have spent countless years dissecting the most ridiculously stupid and meaningless passages of American fiction, as if their efforts in the matter are enough to validate their life’s work. Did Edgar Allen Poe have syphilis or whatever dumb question these professors ponder so that they might get published in some hoary little journal read only by other ridiculous professors?  I would rather have what I write be read by a construction worker on his lunch break than by any college professor. It seems like much of the American literature that we are allowed to read is either vampire novels or stuff written for and by college English professors. So where does that leave readers such as myself who aren’t 12 year old girls or old fogeys smoking pipes?

Does anyone believe that you could write a novel that is highly critical of the culture of automobiles and have that novel reach a large audience (I’m assuming that it is a great novel and merits such an audience)? I sort of doubt that you could criticize Starbucks or TGI Friday’s or Chase Bank or Walden Books or Barnes Noble’s or Pizza Hut or Shell Oil or McDonald’s and get very far as a writer. And it isn’t as if these entities don’t need some writer to take the piss out of them once in a while. What art that is allowed to filter down to the masses is almost completely devoid of debate. Look at the artwork in your neighborhood Starbucks, for example. Insipid, machine-generated crap that is completely lacking in humanity and certainly free of controversy. Pop music is just too stupid to even pick on as far as I am concerned, ditto TV and movies. Woody Allen is the John Updike of feature films, and I mean that as a huge insult. Woody Allen’s view of the average American comes from his relationship with his servants.

Of course there is plenty of room in the realm of fiction for everything, even novels by Joyce Carol Oates written only for English graduate students (I can’t think of a more absurd audience). The problem is there seems to be no room on our bookshelves for people with ideas concerning our society as a whole. We have reduced literature to market shares. There are countless novels published and heavily marketed that talk directly to you, the individual. There are dozens of books each year about single women raising children (my precious little mistake), books about divorce and cheating, novels about how to make it in our consumerist society. The problem is there don’t seem to be many books directed at us, all of us, the collective us who make up the American citizenry. Of course we are all different but we also have much more in common than anyone dares mention.

Here is one example of what I am talking about. What if something like 50,000 Americans were being killed each year in terrorist attacks? What if some novelist wrote a book detailing how we could rescue half of these victims from their fate? That might be a novel a few people would read. So why aren’t we seeing novels that criticize the culture of automobiles and driving? If Americans suddenly drove half as much we could cut in half the yearly number of traffic deaths (my figure of 50,000). I don’t think that even the most brilliantly written novel critical of the car culture would be allowed to be popular in America.

Of course someone could write a book critical of the strip mall culture in America and the ever-increasing stranglehold of corporate culture on everyday life but you can bet that it wouldn’t be sold at Barnes & Noble’s or Waldenbooks. Corporate America prefers books that can have movie and happy meal tie-ins.

In the end we are free to write about anything under the sun. The problem is if you want anyone else to read what you have written you had better color within the lines and not piss off the folks holding the strings.

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