Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Novel is Dead: 2.0

I've been hearing a lot lately about David Shields, a writer whose most recent book, REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO, has mesmerized critics. From a writer who queried me about his own work and had interviewed David Shields for The Huffington Post; from Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes, who mentioned Shields in her magnificent long article about the Internet on 3/21 and from reviewers who have mostly lauded Shields' as a spokesman for the new age of writing, he is very much in the news. Today, I am ordering REALITY HUNGER to form my own opinion.

Shields is against literary fiction as well as genre and bestseller fiction. Plot is yesterday. Story is for middlebrows. No character development, dialogue, setting anymore. Essay is in (I never knew it was out.) Apparently, REALITY HUNGER is one long essay, in which Shields defends appropriation of other writers' works as well as suggesting we obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Explanation of our consciousness is what books should be about and the form should be a mashup of all that has been written before. REALITY HUNGER consists of quotations new and old, mashed together and only attributed in an appendix that Shields put in because the publisher's lawyers insisted.

None of this is new, but apparently Shields is persuasive. I think of the many school kids in the future who, bidden to write a researched essay, appropriate the whole work from someone else. Where once they would be labeled plagiarists and admonished to be original, they can now receive A's and become famous writers, even if the great American novel will no longer be their goal.

Shields' ideas seem to me to be an extension of the web notion that "information should be free". But what about those writers who are being appropriated? How do they earn enough money to survive? How do publishers sell books that over-intellectualize form? As it is, the book business, although still doggedly sticking to the scorned old model of story and characters to accommodate readers, is in pretty dire straits. Sustained reading is disappearing like land-line phones. Is this the right social temperature for violent overthrow of literary landmarks?

Hoping to shoehorn literature into a new pair of glittery Cinderella pumps has had varied success in the past. And since many of these revolutionary schemes originate in academe, I suggest that the fight for reality-based literature be battled out right there, in the academy, instead of in the real world. That should provide the next generation with ideas to put into practice when they leave their cocoons, while the rest of us, for the time being, read on to find out what happens next. Or maybe I'll change my mind completely after I've read REALITY HUNGER and mount the barricades, too. Barbara Phillips

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mystery Land

In Mystery Land, book sales are hot. Two hard-boiled thriller writers--Robert B. Parker, (who unfortunately died last month) and James Patterson--continue to sock it to a universe of readers, and both have been designated by different marketing experts as the successor to Raymond Chandler. If only it were true. Chandler was a smooth operator, both on and off the typewriter. He even used metaphors and similes in both arenas. Jim Patterson and Co. is the world's biggest thriller writer in terms of sales, and his publisher wishes he could clone him, but his more recent works read as if they were produced by committee, which they are. Dozens of points of view pour out from forgettable characters who speak in italics and exclamation points. It is sometimes said that Patterson's audience moves its lips while reading.
Parker's prose style and structure are more conservative; his chapters are normal length, and his private eye, the one-named Spenser, is a middle-aged ex-boxer, as good with his fists as with his .38 revolver. Spenser has a girl friend, whom he refers to as a "stunning Jewess with a PhD from Harvard", who cooks like Julia Child and looks like Scarlett Johansson. She thinks Spenser is as hot as book sellers do. Trouble is: Parker made Spenser speak almost exclusively in wise-guy one-liners. Twenty-five percent are smart and funny and 75% make your teeth ache.
As Tom Evans, author and lifetime Parker reader, said, "Parker got to be formulaic--Susan with her tiny bites of food, the darky dialogue with Hawk." Neither writer measures up to the great Chandler. Ross Macdonald had the last word. Chandler, he said, "wrote like a slumming angel."

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