Despite being a jaded and cynical person who’s grown weary of fashionable literary enterprise, I’ve decided to start using this wildly popular soapbox as a depository for my reviews of trendy new book releases. I haven’t written any of these reviews yet, nor have I read any of the books in question, but I’m looking forward to having firm convictions about the art of other people. I say this as if it’s a joke when in fact insightful reviews are the lifeblood of the book industry—an industry which would immediately be overtaken by Big Oil or the pharmaceutical lobby if influential critics like myself were suddenly to cease their bloggings.
But it’s hard to know where to begin. I reject most contemporary novels because they recount events that clearly didn’t happen and describe people who clearly didn’t exist. The fusty old guys didn’t have this problem. No one would ever dispute that Anna Karenina, Charles Kinbote, Julien Sorel, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, and Moby Dick were once alive and walking/swimming around. No one would ever allege that H.G. Wells wasn’t close personal friends with an English scientist who traveled by time machine 800,000 years into the future where he was threatened by Morlocks. My chief criticism of today’s novels and works of short fiction is that they’re not real. And it’s annoying. You think Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice’s adventures using his imagination? No. He did the research. He went to Wonderland, interviewed its inhabitants, ate the cakes, smoked pot with a caterpillar, etc. Readers deserve at least that much due diligence from modern authors.
I suppose this old-fashioned interest in being real is where metafiction was born. Reading David Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis or Martin Amis for the first time feels as if you’re being let in on a secret. And naturally their books ring true because the self-aware authors responsible for them are so miserable and exacting. Having your attention drawn to that extra layer of contrivance endows the made-up story with dumb reality, to which everyone can relate. It’s like being occasionally reminded of your own hands holding the book. You don’t continue to think about your hands as you read, because that would be distracting, but you appreciate that the author is kind enough to acknowledge the existence of your humble appendages because they’re always going to be in the background anyway (unless you’re a spambot, which, judging by my comments of late, most of you are). After all, you’re a character too, even when you’re utterly lost in a book. It feels good for everybody to be on the same page: The reader has two hands and the author has a word processor. From here fabulous things will happen.
But for some writers the established metafictional techniques are not enough to drive home the truth of what they’re saying. Their reverence for the real takes them deeper into authorial self-awareness until the book is them and/or they are the book. Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe. The reader is encouraged to identify the narrator with the author, either through name (“Sheila” in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) or circumstance (both the narrator and Jenny Offill have similar career trajectories in Dept. of Speculation). It’s daring, I think, to pretend to be the author of your book, when in fact you’re the author of the author of your book. People might look at you funny (as my mom did when I named my nymphomaniac, first-person narrator “Wishter” in the first draft of my novel). But it’s damn effective as far as vraisemblance is concerned. It channels the memoir vibe without ever purporting to be a memoir (as many novels also do to great effect). The writer is simultaneously perceived as a creator of art and a willing confessor, making both these books seem deeply private and real, though only Heti explicitly states that hers is “a novel from life.”
But ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s the language, not who’s writing it, that is going to make or break a book. That, and the action has to take place in a city that actually exists, like Hogsmeade or Kings Landing.
Finally, read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It was good and I liked it.