On literature (again)

I’ve written before about the continuing confusion in this country over literary fiction and “good” writing, and the huge divide between the academics and the publishing ‘gatekeepers’. But let’s throw in the general reading public while we’re at it. Each reader has their own very definite idea of what constitutes “good reading”, so the whole idea of literary fiction is a subjective one, and perhaps not necessarily an ideal to aspire to, but just one of many notions about why people read (and write) and what they should read (and write). I did attempt once to come up with a rubric about what makes for good reading, irrespective of its so-called ‘literary’ merits, but I keep coming to the same conclusion: Good writing is not about style or following the rules,  but should be alive, and most of all believable: Good fiction is truth, about people and the human condition, but a truth so compelling, the reader can’t put it down…or forget it, ever.

Finally, I’ve found someone who agrees with me. Garrison Keillor writes mostly humorous pieces these days for the Washington Post. Perhaps like me, you mourn his absence on radio’s “Prairie Home Companion”, which provided the soundtrack for any number of Sunday afternoon drives and adventures I’ve taken throughout the US. This morning he wrote an exceptionally brave column taking the Swedish Nobel Literature Prize committee to task for its choice of Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels include ‘Remains of the Day,” and other high-literary tomes. His point seemed to be that the books of Ishiguro—a British writer of Japanese descent who lives and writes in the UK—seem cold, humorless and detached, and why couldn’t the committee pick a writer whose work brims with life and humor and daring, perhaps someone like Philip Roth? (Keillor’s opinion, not mine; I’ve liked certain novels by my fellow New Jersey writer, but he’s not a favorite; I don’t really have an absolute favorite writer at this point in my life). Sorry I don’t have the link for the article, but you could probably find it on the Washington Post website; the title is “Welcome to the Abyss.”

The Abyss: the perfect term for any young, ambitious writer trying to begin a career these days. Unless you’re extraordinary lucky (not talented; talent doesn’t seem to count for anything, anymore) and know someone in the publishing business (like an uncle, or girlfriend), your precious hard-wrought writing will almost surely sink to the bottomless bottom of reader-dom, where it will never see the light of day or garner more than a minute or so of fame. But never mind that right now (you know I can never resist a good metaphor). I would go further than Keillor and suggest that the Nobel Prize for Literature be completely abolished. It’s pointless: Good writing can’t be quantified, like activity in medicine or physics. To pick out one writer among the millions and proclaim them the king (or queen) is ridiculous. Why not give a Nobel Prize for Art, or for Cooking, for heaven’s sake?  I don’t even support the notion that it gives an obscure writer needed attention, because there are thousands of obscure writers out there needing attention, why focus on just one? I think it hearkens back to some weird, outdated monarchical urge from the early 20th century: Somebody has to be the best, even if we’re not sure how to define the best. Perhaps the Nobel Literature committee could take their million-dollar prize (or whatever it is) and start a publishing company to promote what they see as “good writing.” It’ll still prove unfair or inaccessible to many writers, but some good stuff could come out of it and it could be a  bonus for many readers. And maybe it could become the worthy competitor Amazon so richly deserves…

 

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