The 2012 Realist Sex Novel Kerfuffle (a response to Blake and Stephen, involving also cowboys, Atlas Shrugged, and the Franzen/Marcus debate)
Blake has stated, over at Vice, that he doesn’t want to read any more books about straight white people having sex. Stephen has stated, right here, that he is prepared to read many more novels about people fucking. There are substantial differences in these claims that we could pause to examine (“don’t want to read” vs. “am prepared to read”; “straight white people” vs. “people”; “sex” vs. “fucking”), but forgive me if I let those subtleties drop. Because I would rather observe that, if this is the scope of the debate, then it’s akin to one person saying, “I am tired of books about dogs, and no longer want to read more novels about them,” to which someone else replies, “I’m still willing to read some canine fiction.”
Recast in that light, it’s easy to see that neither person is right or wrong. How could they be? It is simply a matter of taste. One man has gotten tired of all those dog books. The other man is not yet so tired. The literary market, no doubt, will cater to them both. And perhaps, over time, demand for dog-free writing will grow, and drown out the pro-dog side, and the market will shift and, for some time, it will be hard to come by a copy of Marley and Me. (Here it might be helpful to replace “dogs” with some other thing, like vampires, or zombies, or alt-lit.) But through it all, one’s preference is perfectly free to steadfastly remain one’s preference. What’s not at stake, in other words, is the right to like whatever you like. The books you read say something about the person you are, and you should be proud of whoever you are! Display your chosen book(s) on the train to signal your affiliation with one of this nation’s many vibrant subcultures. Who knows? Another member of that subculture may spot you, in which case you can exchange nods, smiles, kisses! What’s more, today, thanks to the Internet, you can even make a list of the books that you like, then talk with fellow fans! (There are even web-sites devoted to this!)
Let’s try thinking instead about this argument in terms of genre. A new cowboy movie has comes out, and you and all of your friends go see it. Afterward, you’re wondering whether it’s any good or not …
I haven’t read Sheila Heti or Ben Lerner’s recent novels, the impetuses for Blake Butler’s recent, anti-realism-themed Vice article, but I’d like to respond to Blake’s finely-written itemized essay, because I, personally, continue to desire novels written by humans, which relate, slipperily or not, to human reality—subjective, strange and ephemeral as it is–novels which deal with such humdrums as sex, boredom, relationships, Gchat, longing, and, beneath all, death. I want a morbid realism.
I agree with Blake that a reality show like The Hills and social media such as Facebook create stories by virtue of humans doing simply anything. The documenting, sharing, and promoting of mundane everyday human life is more prevalent and relentless than ever before. In this environment, literature (and movies) about humans (most controversially, about privileged, white, hetero humans) that presents everyday drank-beers-at-my-friend’s-apartment life, wallows in self-pitying romantic angst, and doggy paddles po-faced through mighty rivers of deeply profound ennui can potentially seem annoying, or boring, or shittastical.
When I was finishing up my Master’s degree at ISU, I worried that I still didn’t know much about writing—like, how to actually do it. My mentor Curtis White told me, “Just read Viktor Shklovsky; it’s all in there.” So I moved to Thailand and spent the next two years poring over Theory of Prose. When I returned to the US in the summer of 2005, I sat down and started really writing.
I’ve already put up one post about what, specifically I learned from Theory of Prose, but it occurs to me now that I can be even more specific. So this will be the first in a series of posts in which I try to boil ToP down into a kind of “notes on craft,” as well as reiterate some of the more theoretical arguments that I’ve been making both here and at Big Other over the past 2+ years. Of course if this interests you, then I most fervently recommend that you actually read the Shklovsky—and not just ToP but his other critical texts as well as his fiction, which is marvelous. (Indeed, Curt has since told me that he didn’t mean for me to focus so much on ToP! But I still find it extraordinarily useful.)
Let’s talk first about where Viktor Shklovsky himself started: the concepts of device and defamiliarization.
The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. As for the door to the laundry room, only my wife knows that one. But enough about white male jokes. I quickly got lost in my Barthian funhouse and called my editor, who told me to say Flaubert every other page. The hoes of friction, besides a pun, implicates literature’s true calling, to quench the muse of hoes, those handjob sirens motioning like a rap video, if such videos where directed by Renoir.
Wow. In these days of all Nicey-Nice, I thought the truly scathing book review went the way of disco or actually meeting someone before you made them your “Friend.” I was wrong. Picked up a New Yorker (OK, it’s a month old, which is like a decade in Internet years, but bear with me) all crumpled/curled on my bedside table in Relaxed Rat position, and inside James Wood takes Paul Auster to the blender.
If you need a primer on evisceration via book review, here you go:
December 21st, 2009 / 5:09 pm