How It’s Done

Forty-five years later, what may seem most revolutionary about Barthes’s essay [‘The Death of the Author’] is what it takes for granted: that there are readers at all for literary fiction, let alone that there’s a “someone” interested in doing the hard work of holding all these traces together inside her head. In an era where everyone has a novel waiting to come out, authors are legion; it’s the reader who seems, well, dead. If anything threatens to kill the author today, it’s not that the reader might interpret her work in subversive ways — if only we were so lucky! — but that the reader might not care enough to try in the first place. What to do in this situation has been the subject of what we might as well call a debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, waged for about a decade on the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper’s. It’s also the backdrop against which we must understand the successes and occasional fumbles of Marcus’s disturbing and remarkable new novel, The Flame Alphabet.

For, at first blush, The Flame Alphabet seems as if it’s perfectly pleased with the death of the reader, as if it hopes for nothing more than to murder those very few remaining who bother to buy books at all, throttling them with a suffusion of pus-covered words and sentences. [It] is a pointedly disgusting book that will tickle your gag reflex with its bony, sore-covered finger. Reading Marcus’s fetid prose will clog your nostrils, enflame your throat, jam your every orifice with a thick and soupy, cold and gloppy, not to mention barbed and burning, meal of unpalatable, oddly shaped sentences.

That’s how Lee Konstantinou begins his fantastic review of The Flame Alphabet in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It was the choice of the word “meal,” and the ambiguous referent, that caught my attention. It was the deft analysis of the novel in the context of Marcus’ disagreements with Franzen that sucked me in. And it was the self-reflexivity of the opening section’s last paragraph that kept me hooked. “And yet,” Konstantinou writes there, “if I properly understand the aims of The Flame Alphabet, [the above] description should not count as an insult, but as deep praise,” essentially reading the review itself in the context of Marcus’ use of language without allowing it to overshadow the work under consideration. Book reviewing: this is how it’s done when it’s done at its best. And in less than 3,000 words at that.

E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World

Despite the stylistic verve of Doctorow’s famously snappy, streetwise prose, the stories are half-baked and half-hearted, rarely developing any complexity from the dramatic tension of their opening pages. If All the Time in the World is at all worth reading, then, it’s worth reading less for the virtues of the stories it contains than for its capacity to underscore exactly what makes Doctorow’s novels so spectacular. The short story form, defined by brevity and compression, is inimical to Doctorow’s sprawling imagination and freewheeling sensibilities. In his novels, he takes a high-concept premise and teases out its implications in painstaking detail over hundreds of pages, relishing the slow burn and the piecemeal disclosure of something insidious. In his stories, though, his high-concept premises are shoehorned into a literary form that doesn’t allow the same indulgence in digression and detail. The reach of their narrative premises exceeds the grasp of their literary form, and so they burn out in an instant, a flash in the pan, left unremarkable because they are implausible, and implausible because they are underdeveloped.

My review of E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World is online at The Critical Flame.

Confusions

People also create their own personal definitions of what literary fiction is. Nathan Bransford clarifies on his blog that “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” Another blog author gives one of the most confusing definitions of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Daniel Davis Wood states that “literary fiction is exactly what the adjective ‘literary’ suggests: not a work of fiction that possesses a certain set of “literary” freedoms, but a work of fiction that makes an issue of its own nature as literature, its very literariness. It is irreducibly literary, and therefore utterly unable to be translated into any alternative artform.”

My words cited in a discussion of literary fiction on Cara Reads.