The _____ generation: on American novelists and theory

“Why don’t you all f-fade away
And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say
I’m not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation”

– The Who, “My Generation”

n+1 magazine has an assessment of the influence of critical theory on American novelists who came of age in the 80s, which happens to be my g-g-g-generation, and though I can’t say I’ve read many of the novels discussed – only The Ask by Sam Lipsyte, with failed attempts at a couple of the others – the article brings up some interesting issues and, I think, also misses some even more significant ones.

It’s main idea: “Theory, it turns out, might be most interesting not when it changes the form of fiction, but when it becomes an uneasy part of fiction’s content.” This accompanies the sense that for most, if not all, of these writers and the generation they represent, there was something superficial in the experience of this Theory, something that didn’t quite stick.

Nicholas Dames, the article’s author, picks up Sam Lipsyte’s memorable summation of Theory from The Ask: “It wasn’t bullshit, I remember thinking at the time. It just wasn’t not bullshit.” But I think that all this might have much less to do with the writers of this potential theoretical bullshit than with its readers.

At a conference on exiled intellectuals held in Prague in 2011, I interviewed a scholar from Bard, David Kettler, who spoke about intellectuals crossing the Atlantic from one cultural context to another and the problems this can lead to, in this case, for the post-structuralists who came to the U.S. in the 1980s:

“But they had read the whole history of philosophy and supposed their readers already knew all that. But then they bring it to America, and it becomes a whole different construct because you’re reading the same people but you don’t know Kant, whereas every French or German student at that level will have read Kant by then.”

I would go one step further and say that there were literature students I knew then who were not only not well-read but who saw Theory as a means to avoid poring through so many fat, time-consuming, tomes no longer relevant now that the “author was dead.” For them reading Theory was a conveniently intellectual form of CliffsNotes.

The Gap in the Story

The problem with a lot of the sweeping narratives about the modern novel published in American magazines is that there tends to be blind spot of massive proportions, one that is all the more glaring for being the same spot in virtually every similar article. This piece stays true to form and tells a story that goes like this:

Europeans used to write novels. Their names were Balzac, Flaubert, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Zola, Henry James, Kafka, Joyce and Mann. Their broad and varied influence can be seen in novels being written today. Novels are being written in the 21st century by American and some other English-language writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides, etc.

In this article these novelists have been influenced  by theorists from a land seemingly without novelists of their own (maybe that’s why they came to the US in the first place?) The only non-English language novelists mentioned here that encroach on contemporary existence are three French practitioners of the nouveau roman.

As for all the writers that might offer a more nuanced picture of the dichotomy set up in the article between Theory depicted as a subject in American realist novels and Anglo-American avant-garde novels that “seemed intent on adding the torque of Theory to their own narrative twists (from DeLillo to late Pynchon, Winterson, Foster Wallace, Tom McCarthy, et alia)” they are nowhere to be found, having fallen into a void. It’s almost as if all the modern Russian, German, Latin American and Asian writers, who ironically can’t easily be fit into these categories, not to mention those created by the Zadie Smiths of the world, these writers are simply and conveniently ignored.

I realize it’s impossible to incorporate all of modern literary history and the whole globe into a single article, but whether it’s about literary theory or the evil (or virtue) of MFAs, when you cordon off the English-language literary world you present yourself with same basic risks. If you’re writing about publishing and money you’re probably safe. But if you’re bringing in names like Foucault and Derrida and the intellectual currents they were a part of and you pull them that far out of context that the continents they came from culturally cease to exist then there is vital part of the story missing.

“I belong to the blank generation and
I can take it or leave it each time
I belong to the ______ generation but
I can take it or leave it each time”

– Richard Hell and The Voidoids, “Blank Generation”

Photo – 1) Michel Foucault by Randolph Badler. On the blackboard it says that section 1 & 5 rewrites were due Oct. 31, which was yesterday as of this posting, so if you didn’t hand them in then you’re too late. 2) Richard Hell.

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Categories: Essays


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