The Tragedy of American Fiction (2014) by Prof. CG FEWSTON

In fact—regardless of the countless debates across beer soaked bars or dinner tables packed with steaming dishes—the dumbing of America has led to a serious threat to creative standards throughout the once-great-and-free-and-brave land of the Stars & Stripes. Such freedoms in American writing, however, do not exist and are validated by the recently harsh but fair criticism by Nobel judge Horace Engdahl in “Creative Writing Courses are Killing Western Literature” (The Guardian, 7 Oct. 2014).

Responding to the low-quality and poor ability of story-telling in American writers today, Horace argues that American literature has gotten worse in recent decades because such writing and publishing found in America has ‘arisen as a commodity.’ And writing in America has indeed become less of an art and more of a commodity. Horace, in his earnest but indirect appeal, supports the argument that international writers (like the French writer Patrick Modiano, who—if you are American—have likely never heard of) have a stronger command not of the language (as medium) but of story-telling: the ability to construct, shape and transmogrify events into a whole and unified illusion that transcends the dullness and illness of the American establishment of professional writers controlling and shaping the literary production in today’s market.

Regarding literature, the Western side apparently conflicts with the rest of the world and Horace believes this to be a problem because ‘when reading many writers from Asia and Africa,’ he claims, ‘one finds a certain liberty again.’ And just for those American readers, Horace fully and clearly explains himself: ‘I said that American literary life, American criticism and teaching were limited today by too narrow an access to world literature, because the number of translations and their reach in the US is feeble. Everything is focused around their [US] writers and their language, like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America.’

Patrick Modiano –the French writer I mentioned above—was awarded the Nobel Prize this year (2014) for his literature often dealing with Jewish experiences. The reason the Nobel committee found Patrick worthy was for the ‘art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.’ The ‘art of memory’ is exactly what American writers fail at achieving. Memory is not a linear process but a method of story-telling that may be considered as wily, intermittent, deviating, or even indirect. And let’s face it: Americans, being some of the most direct people in the world in almost all mannerisms, find it difficult to be progressive and ‘different’ or indirect or to have, in essence, the reader to infer meaning from the story-telling.

For American writers to be honest with themselves their egos must first admit that the international community notices a steep decline from the American writing community. And yet I have witnessed and read countless examples when stubborn and ignorant (i.e., uneducated) choices by American writers continue to infuse lower forms of story-telling. These kinds of American writers of fiction mean for their story’s characters to be replaced by simpletons, the Simpson-esque Homers, drugged induced imbeciles and these, in truth, are caricatures safely distancing readers from what could be real-living-breathing people on the page. Profound messages, as well, are instead dwindled down into red-necked, sexpotic vomit (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?) that ignorant or bored Americans happily swallow as good literature while world critics and readers take a firm pass.

Paulo Coelho, probably the world’s foremost writer of this generation celebrated through the vast translations of his words, fits nicely into the modus operandi of Faulkner, Fowles and the Japanese Nobel-nominee Haruki Murakami.

Paulo knows the illusions he wishes to create in his fans/readers and he knows which parts of the craft to amplify at key points. But what makes Paulo popular is that his profound message of insight and positivity to receive the Universe as a guide and gift remain profound—take The Alchemist (1988) as a prime example—while the American public, surprisingly, continue to celebrate Paulo’s enlightened style of writing.

Too bad Paulo is Brazilian with ties to Spanish and Portuguese readers, much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who both write in a style conjoined to the preferences of the international community of readers.

Anyone who has read Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) can attest to the mad delusions and exotic style found in this fictional story—a style, quite assuredly—would be reprimanded in American MFA programs and writing workshops throughout the country as amateurish and unconventional and too progressive—and if such a style is acceptable in American fiction it is only so because of Marquez’s genius. Meanwhile, American writing professors scoff at such flamboyant attempts at genius. But genius often holds other noble qualities, such as courage, determination and vision.

Murakami, a Rowling-like sensation in Japan who has been translated into over fifty languages and nominated for the Nobel Prize (2016), compelled the international community last year (2013) to take notice with his thirteenth novel called Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. He has been known for his eccentric novels that leap the boundaries of time and place and grab the hearts and minds of readers by telling stories of the extraordinary.

Sean O’Hagan in The Observer describes Murakami as an author who ‘incorporates elements of magic realism, science fiction and Japanese mythology.’ In any American MFA program, incorporating such anti-mainstream elements into a single novel is purely a NO-NO. Sean goes on to explain that Murakami has ‘reached an apogee of sorts with his most recent novel’ and that the three-volume story named 1Q84 (2009) was in turn mesmerizing yet baffling ‘with its bewildering and, in places, disturbing plot.’ 1Q84, Sean explains, involves ‘a female character who wandered off a freeway into a parallel universe and a darkly mystical cult led by a self-styled prophet who indulged in creepy sex with the young female assassin hired by a mysterious dowager to kill him.’ Any American writer of the mainstream-publishing establishment in New York will reject any amateur writer, and most professional ones as well, for ideas as wild and iconoclastic and ungoverned as the plot and characters found in 1Q84.

These above mentioned writers shape illusions by any means necessary, which often defy and rebuke the American trained caliber of writing that restricts itself to singular modes of genre, points-of-view and time ordered events heavy on the A-to-B-to-C equation.

Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie also come to mind. Both are considered British novelists who hold sway in the international dialogue of fiction writing. These two writers are not the exceptions; Ian and Salman are, instead, the models by which American writers should challenge themselves to emulate in order to strive for a more international presence and international audience (please kindly note: an American writer being translated into different worldly languages doesn’t make an American writer ‘international’; being ‘international’ is when a translated work transcends cultures to impact readers across borders, both physical and metaphysical; American writers, time and time again, fail to do this).

Thomas Pynchon, a seventy-seven-year-old American writer known for his ‘genre-bending postmodern works of fiction’ was among the finalists for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, 2014 (The Telegraph). The American counterpart nominated alongside legendary Pynchon for the Top Prize for Literature in the World went to Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan. That’s right. Bob. Freakin’. Dylan. A singer. That is the best American fiction and non-fiction writers could do this past year (2014). No American writer has won the prestigious prize since Toni Morrison (whose actual name is Chloe Ardelia Wofford) did it in 1993, and her fiction is on the level of Pynchon’s extreme and unorthodox style as well. But the actual American influence in world literature gets worse. (Note: Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016)

Before Toni, the list of Americans who won the Nobel Prize becomes pretty bleak: in 1987, Joseph Brodsky (Language: English); in 1980, Czeslaw Milosz, from Poland (Language: Polish); in 1978, Issac Bashevis Singer, born in the Russian Empire (Yiddish Language); in 1976, Saul Bellow, born in Canada (English); and to find in the last fifty-two years the only other ‘truly’ American writer (and I mean bred, born, raised in the Land of Stars and Stripes and writing in the native English language) an American audience must go back to 1962 when John Steinbeck won the Prize. Sad. Sad. Sad this state of American influence in writing in the last half century.

Salman Rushdie, winner of the Best of the Bookers (2008)—a feat achieved by no other writer, American or British, in the last half century—constantly challenges the notion of story-telling, only to excel at his task; but most American writers are taught through MFA programs and writing workshops not to strive for such excellence in story-telling.

“‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh?’ (p 3), and such begins Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) as two men fall from an airplane blown to smithereens, and later: “‘Listen,’ Zeeny put her arm through his. ‘Listen to my Salad. Suddenly he wants to be Indian after spending his life trying to turn white. All is not lost, you see. Something in there still alive.’ And Chamcha felt himself flushing, felt the confusion mounting. India; it jumbled things up.

“‘For Pete’s sake,’ she added, knifing him with a kiss. ‘Chamcha. I mean, fuck it. You name yourself Mister Toady and you expect us not to laugh’” (p 54). And for good reason, the international community doesn’t laughingly ignore Salman or his genius.

Hemingway—God, love him—through such American classics as A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and A Moveable Feast (1964), helped make the creative non-fiction style of novel writing found in the popular demand of American fiction today. And this formulaic style has infested and symbiotically attached itself to American fiction writing ever since In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published in September, 1965.

If there ever was an invisible chimera in American fiction, memoir-and-creative-non-fiction-esque fiction top the charts as it breathes death inside international readers. Stories used to serve a purpose through its fantastical possibilities. In American publishing today fiction and non-fiction has devolved into a commodity, and the international intelligentsia are asking themselves, ‘Why are American adults reading children and young adult novels?’ (Not that there is anything wrong with that; even some adults must learn to read and think at some point.)

But time and time again non-American writers receive the due acclaim with truly fictional illusions that begs the question: when will American writers humble themselves and realize that, perhaps, their method of story-telling and their diseased understanding of constructing stories is not the most popular, not the most recognized, not the most accepted, not even the most worldly method in writing today? But when has that ever bothered American writers before anyway?

Stories, in essence, are created illusions that must be whole and unified throughout each telling or each reading. Stories must be whole within its constructed illusion in regards of the plot climaxing and finding its last breath in the listener’s/reader’s heart, filled with a complete understanding of the world, the characters and the message the telling/reading of the story carried from a beginning to a definitive end (for that particular story or novel).

Stories must also be unified within its constructed illusion, and ‘unified’ can be room enough for writers and readers alike to debate. Unified—not the absolute definition by any means, much like any abstract concept when applied in concrete terms—can mean the ultimate collection of technique that shapes a story into a natural ordering of lived illusions that shape a well-rounded telling/reading into a full understanding of events and characters.

Take Faulkner, as one example, and his ability to weave multiple perceptions and various linguistic boxes (i.e., the use of varying voice patterns, lexicon and degrees of selected ‘tellings’ of specific events) in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Granted this novel may be considered as ‘dated’ since having been first published eighty-five years ago. But before I argue more modern examples, let us concentrate on Faulkner.

In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner constructs a whole and unified story from broken pieces of a family’s narrative puzzle that, by book’s end, shapes a complete and marrying illusion for the listener/reader. In effect, despite defying American contemporaries’ sense of style and choice to develop such ‘whole and unified’ illusions through linear, singular point-of-view-first-person narratives, Faulkner’s genius lies in the ability to ignore such current American tendencies and their writing commandments that have now invaded American literature and infested MFA programs throughout the United States.

One such problem is the neologistic-absurdities found when confronting the throne-like status one creative writing professor after another spouts off in inculcated tradition that an amateur writer should ‘show, not tell,’ when in fact no writer, professional or otherwise, ever really ‘shows’ a story.

Stories are to be told, and one must ‘tell’ a story in order for the illusion to be grounded in the reality found in fiction. ‘Showing’ confuses the craft element and deconstructs a story into a sequence of he-said-she-said-he-did-this-she-did-that and often exclude the Nobel-winning Faulkner (who was awarded the prize in 1949). Even Faulkner asserted to his writing as a means ‘to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.’ And in this act of creation, Faulkner established the illusion by pulling together pieces collected in ways stories are able to be told. There is not just one way to tell/write a story, much to the dismay of the American writing programs.

Non-American writers have been far more successful than American writers at this ability to create a shared illusion among listeners/readers that appeal more to an international audience than an American one. American writers seem to care to write only for American audiences, and this is a shame.

John Fowles, an English novelist, successfully engages the international community with works inspired by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, a technique often frowned upon in American writing circles. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) Fowles’s novel has its writer-creator-god enter the story and turn back his pocketwatch chained to his vest and, thereby, create two separate endings: one happy, one sad.

Such room for liberal creation has been frequently abandoned in MFA programs and writing workshops in America, and the reason for rebuking such aesthetic techniques in the craft is often stuffed into phrases like ‘experimental’ and ‘genius’ as writing professors exclaim to their wide-eared writing students, ‘Don’t do it at all, or at least if you won’t listen to me, do it if you must because you’re a genius and a genius, I assure you, you are not.’

Such is the American tragedy and no living writer today will ever write the Great American Novel.

What American and International readers should be hoping for instead is for more American writers to stand up and respectably join the international dialogue found in truly creative writing and its fiction.

CG FEWSTON
Hong Kong, China
Oct. 31, 2014

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