If we must endure essays that make broad generalizations about the state of American literature—and if David Shields and the Huffington Post have their way, we must, we must—I’d sooner it take it in the form of Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Letter to Norway.” Asked by the Norwegian literary magazine Bokvennen to deliver some thoughts about American fiction since 2000, Kunkel argues that the stuff has been defined by a kind of slackening of postmodern gamesmanship, replaced by a resurgence of a more formal kind of realism that’s interested in acquiring elements of other genres while not actually becoming genre fiction.
In other words, so long to the “hysterical realism” that James Wood criticized in 2000, and hello to way-we-live-now novels like Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections (and the forthcoming Freedom, which is no departure from that sensibility); the “neuronovel” that the n+1 set is trying to get some traction on, in which mental disorders are stand-ins for way-we-live-now ruminations (let’s say Richard Powers‘ The Echo Maker); and a postmodernism-lite that’s subsumed by old-fashioned plotting (let’s say The Echo Maker again). Kunkel at least twists the knife slowly: “[I]n spite of some postmodern or genre-bending refurbishing, we have witnessed at once a practical and an ideological return to ‘realism.’ … The disappearance of the term ‘middlebrow’ over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world.”
Resistance to such statements is futile, since it’s forever true that people, in general, gravitate toward things that are more comforting than not, and that trends are created by the stuff that large numbers gravitate toward. If you want to argue that a decade’s tastes are largely middlebrow, you’ll pretty much by definition be right. (Only the authors’ names will change; two decades ago there was probably a similiar essay arguing that American literature was infected with male novelists like John Updike and Richard Ford who suffered from an overabundance of masculinity, instead of “moral and sexual innocence” male writers allegedly suffer from today.) So, point taken, though Kunkel’s critique does seem to ignore the notion that last decade was in some ways a heyday for the hysterical realists, if only thanks to Dave Eggers, who was able to publish and support all manner of arch, effortful, occasionally successful fiction; if not him, then David Foster Wallace‘s inheritors, Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem. Love it or hate it, the path to the success of book like Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Lydia Davis‘ recent collections was paved by that work earlier in the decade. Kunkel may be right that realism is winning the day, but it hasn’t all been easygoing sentimentality.