Friday, October 19, 2007

Sturdy, Middle Class Professionalism

Jeff Vandermeer weighs in on "how indie rock lost its soul"--oh, wait, no he doesn't. He's talking about fantasy short fiction and what he sees as its "profoundly disturbing, if sturdy, middle class professionalism" (link via The Reading Experience). Might I suggest that the problems with indie rock are similar? (And for fiction generally, not just fantasy short fiction?)

On various occasions at his blog, Simon Reynolds has written about sorting through the voluminous piles of promotional cds he receives as a music critic. The problem with this huge mass of music is not, he says, that most of it is terrible. The problem is that most of it is not terrible. Most of the music is minimally competent, decent, "ok". But nothing to get excited about. I've been encountering a similar problem with my recent purges. First, I've had to decide whether to listen to cds that have sat unattended for years. Then, having more or less decided to at least sample most of them (woe!), there is the general sense that most of them are not bad at all. But not bad is not good enough when my goal is to cull. (Indeed, for my purposes, even pretty good is often not good enough when the disc in question has failed to excite me.)

Permit me some massive, unsupported generalizations about fiction: The huge quantity of fiction that is produced every year and published under the category of "literary fiction" runs together into an undifferentiated mass. Most of it is minimally competent, professional, not without local pleasures, perhaps, but not really much more than that. And maybe for many it doesn't need to be. The pleasures to be had in these novels is enough. For others it isn't. I admit that I am not the best judge of the array of new fiction available, since, for example, I have yet to read a single novel that was published this year. But I've read more new releases in previous years, and I see the kinds of books that get discussed most often. We have lots of writers who can put together a sentence, who have learned how to professionally tell a story or develop a character. Vandermeer writes:
As I thought about this further, I visualized a story mill, similar to a puppy mill. An endless churning sound as thousands of writers typed and handwrote the first drafts of stories destined from conception to be good enough. Good enough for publication. Good enough to pass muster. Good enough to earn an appreciative nod. It was a depressing thought.

I kept coming back to words like rough and wild and pushing and punk and visionary. Words for what I was reading were more like twee, comfortable, recycled, reasonable, well-rounded, whimsical, unoriginal, well-behaved, and fuzzy.
Many readers complain about the supposedly pernicious effects of workshops and MFAs on such affairs. I can't say, having no experience with either. Another common complaint is about the stereotypically mannered-New Yorker style story. Awards are criticized as middlebrow (in theory and practice). But the books that win are rarely truly awful (and sometimes something bold breaks through).

With indie rock, touching on Carl Wilson's points about professionalism and class, the problem seems similar. Many, many sort of ok, kind of pretty good, not terrible bands that don't push things, who refine and hone (even if they aren't necessarily technical masters--after all, punk/DIY is in the DNA somewhere). More from Vandermeer:
Perhaps also there is too much comfort in our own lives, too many distractions in the form of easy, relatively cheap technology that contribute to this softness–make it easy for us to be satisfied with what we’ve done: content, content, content. Happy with the well-rounded sentences, the fulfilling character arc, the recursive plot. Patting ourselves on the back for miracles never earned, epiphanies bartered for with trinkets and trifles. Thrilled just to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
And we get defensive when anyone challenges our right to be entertained or questions the assumptions behind the nature of the entertainment (asks whether we might not--just occasionally--ask for more than just entertainment) or criticizes our favorite writer or indie rock band.


Anonymous said...

I left basically this comment at VanderMeer's site also though I'm not sure if it took:

The main problem with contemporary fiction is far from aesthetic. There’s plenty of talent and technical skill around. Plus the problem with weak fiction, and art generally, extends far beyond fantasy short fiction. The problem is cultural, intellectual, economic - no realms of which are predomantly libratory or thriving in conditions remotely approaching optimal. In fact, in many ways the cultural, intellectual and economic realms - the socio-political - are barbaric or stagnant. Much fiction and other art not only reflects that but propagates it. Thus, in my view, the great need for accomplished libratory lit, liberation lit:

Further thoughts and examples here:

Richard said...

Actually, Tony, I tend to agree.

I attended the Radical Book Fair this past weekend here in Baltimore, and my thoughts kept returning to these questions, among others. Some of which I may blog about here...