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I am what’s wrong with literature.

That's me with the glasses and sweater-blazer combo. Dashing, n'est-ce pas?

Clearly, I am what’s wrong with contemporary literature. Just look at the cover of the New Yorker’s very out-of-character summer fiction issue, dedicated this year to science fiction and, by extension, to other varieties of speculative fiction. There I am. I’m the weasely looking guy with glasses chatting up the comely blonde. (No worries here, you scandal-mongers, she’s my wife. This is what we do at parties: stand in corners talking to one another about how awkward parties always feel, and how the baby might be doing, and when it would be socially acceptable to leave). Yep, that’s me, sipping a drink I read about in Imbibe, talking about snobby, realistic stuff because that’s how I roll. That’s why I subscribe to the New Yorker, after all, to keep up on the snobby, realistic stuff I should be reading, drinking, and thinking. Then in beams the new guard—I’m pretty sure that’s China Miéville, Colson Whitehead, and Kelly Link in costumes they got at the mall. There goes the neighborhood.

Open the issue and things get even worse for people like me and William Shawn. (That’s him in the corner, looking aghast and surprisingly fit for someone who’s been dead for two decades). Inside, the invaders have put ray guns to the heads of the editors, who have yielded the fiction controls to such borderline realists as Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz. It gets grimmer, though, when unabashed science fictioneer Jonathan Lethem takes the wheel, and steers the whole business directly into the ditch of allegory. An allegory devoted to no nobler business than sending up the old literary guard itself. Where is Alice Munro when we need her? Where is a sparingly rendered scene of simmering domestic tension? Nowhere to be found.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, our misguided editors have turned to the longsuffering (and shortersuffering) paragons of genre, asking them to speak to their tawdry experiences on the fringes of the literary world. William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, and China Miéville contribute short essays, among others whose forays outside the gates of the literary have been more tentative.

The going narrative is something like this: I was a geek growing up, forced to the fringes of society where I encountered comic books, and RPGs, and science fiction. I found in them an escape from my banal existence. Then I grew up, continuing to desperately grasp at those escapist floatation devices of my childhood. When I emerged into my kind-of adulthood and into the wider world of literature, still clutching my science fiction and comic books like a college freshman clutching a teddy bear at a frat party, I found that what had once been my succor was now the very thing that relegated me—again!—to the fringes of society. But the tide has turned. Geek is the new cool. What I once did in the back aisles of dime stores, I can now trot proudly out into the literary mainstream, into the very pages of the New Yorker, no less. I win! Huzzah!

Yes. Yes, I am.

But, dear friend, I have sad news. You have stormed the wrong party. You see, I too was a geek growing up, forced to the fringes of society where I encountered comic books, and RPGs, and science fiction. I too found in them an escape from my banal existence. Then I grew up in my own way, too young trading in my Tolkien for Dostoyevsky, my RPGs for Scrabble. I graduated from geek to nerd, so that when I emerged into my kind-of adulthood and into the wider world of literature, I felt perfectly at home. Then I looked further afield and saw that the wider literary world is itself a fringe of society. A different fringe, perhaps, than the one where you’ve been, but a fringe all the same. No one reads the New Yorker except me and other snobby, realistic nerds. And geek may be the new cool, but nerd will never be. But storm in you have with your ray guns, and your allegories, and your weird, showy typography. You’ve stormed a boring, uncool little party where I felt perfectly at home there in the corner, feeling a little less awkward than I do in real life. Well, welcome, anyhow. Would you like to borrow a sweater vest? You should try that with rye; everybody’s drinking rye. And, yes, I am a little jealous of your jetpack. May I take it for a turn around the foyer?

21 Responses to “I am what’s wrong with literature.”

  1. Shira Richman says:

    Brilliant! Beautiful! And on a sad note, I think Ray Bradbury died today.

    • Jonathan Frey says:

      Did he? Gosh. That is sad. And that makes the comment about him totally tasteless. Thanks for letting me know; I’ll amend.

  2. Jonathan Frey says:

    Tongue is so firmly in cheek throughout the post here that I didn’t manage to add that there’s some really fascinating writing and thinking here. This was my first exposure to Miéville, and his essay is fantastic, finding links between the wonderful, mysterious, and other in genre and writers as disparate as Beatrix Potter, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Virginia Woolf.

    The Gibson essay is also great. Gibson frames his narrative around the idea that his early exposure to science fiction allowed him to recognize wonder and beauty in the mainstream literary canon when he encountered it there later.

    I also really love the Lethem story, and, to clarify, I’m not totally sold on the idea of that story as an allegorical send-up of the literary genre police, although that is a fun way to read it. And that reading’s not without cause either.

    • Melissa says:

      You know, despite the gimmicky nature of releasing that Egan story via Twitter (and I should admit now- that’s the only story from that issue that I’ve read) I kind of liked it. I think it falls off the rails at the end but I was interested in various aspects of it, and I liked the structure. (But only reading it as a whole piece. Not section by section.)

  3. Sam Ligon says:

    I’m so sick of comic books and monsters and superheros.

    • Jonathan Frey says:

      But spaceships, Sam. Spaceships. That’s the future talking right there.

    • Kyle says:

      I’m tired of awkward marriages children and abortions. Also, screw spaceships. Cat literature is the future.

      • Jonathan Frey says:

        In that case, I’m off to PetCo to do some research for my new novel. See you boys at the Pulitzers.

      • Sam Ligon says:

        I never get tired of abortions.

        • Melissa says:

          You know, if anyone could name three stories published in major journals or magazines in the last five years that have had an abortion that’s crucial to the story or that more than five words have been spent on, you can just take me out back and shoot me. There’s so much complaining about how it’s been done and everyone’s so tired of it, except I hardly ever see it. Or when I do, five words are spent on it as part of a character’s backstory. Rape, on the other hand, is everywhere in fiction, but I don’t seem to hear any complaining about how that’s overdone. No one writes about abortion anymore, so can we finally just lay off complaining about how overdone it is? I understand- it’s been done in a certain way, and done in that way many times. But not any time recently, that I know of, and certainly not all the time.

  4. Kyle says:

    It’s a small step in the right direction. I hope we have the courage to move it further.

  5. Pete Sheehy says:

    I’m with Sam, I can never get enough of abortions in fiction, and Melissa is right, it’s really just mentioned as a plot device 99% of the time. I’m not expecting a detailed blow-by-blow of the procedure, but it is passed over in literature almost as frequently (and disgracefully) as it is in film.

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