Last month I reviewed a short story collection for the LA Times. Established literary authors, mostly, doing crime fiction. I couldn’t give it a bad review. The stories were deft, fun—vacation reading. The setup—todays great authors write about sex and crime. Dark, edgy…hmm.
Last year I went to one of those dinners that book buyers occasionally get to attend. It was at a really nice restaurant in Rockridge (Brooklyn West—cute eyeglasses, baby strollers…). The author had come up from the ranks, big time school, Yaddo. Paris Review, other major journals that nobody reads. Stories in the New Yorker. Well crafted stuff. Pre dinner chat, before the author came in, was dominated by somebody from the publisher, proclaiming the novel “dark and edgy”. She lowered her eyes before making the claim, hunched her shoulders, then looked up, between “Dark” and “Edgy”, eyes wider. During dinner (fresh, local ingredients. Of course) I heard the word “dark” half dozen times. In the world of mainstream publishing dark was the new black.
I’d read the novel. It held my interest—a going away to college, coming of age in the ( 60’s, or 70’s or fill in your own decade, hair style, slang terms….) book. Featured a possibly psycho student, but not too psycho. This was a literary novel, not crime fiction. It was well written, in that MFA way. No big mistakes.
Dark and Edgy?
I’ve recently read some dark and edgy novels—Nothing Left for the Dead by M. Cazadores, the reprint of Sin Soracco’s Low Bite, last year’s I-5 by Summer Brenner. I’m going to do more reviewing in this blog, so I’ll get to these. But for now—I’m sitting at my desk with the New Yorker’s Under Forty issue. I’ve read some stories, parts of others. They read as one long work— could have been written by the same person. This amazes me, considering the cultural and racial diversity of the writers. Why so? A sort of studied, nonchalant style, a nod to their various cultures—lots of nodding, actually. Serious enough to be dubbed “dark”. Small gestures. Small. The author photos (drawings, actually) tell me something. Nobody’s throwing caution to the wind here. Everybody’s groomed. Subtle nodding in the direction of identity—she could be Hispanic, he could be gay, he went bald had to shave his head….I so often think of the Burroughs quote about hippies—“not a decent fuck in the entire generation”. I can’t imagine these people having over-the-top sex, and, likewise, I think, I can’t imagine these people saying the wrong thing at an awards dinner, embracing an unpopular cause—or, also likewise, twisting the living shit out of a sentence, tossing off a line that they may regret later, following a blind narrative ally, going on a little too long, cutting something off short—all important elements in writing fiction.
Mainstream American “literary” fiction is, mostly, bland, forgettable, throwaway stuff.
Am trying to understand why this is true—and why it’s esp. true in the U.S. Or maybe it’s only true in the U.S.—I don’t have the knowledge to know this, but I sense it, for instance, when I read Bolano.
I don’t think I get it, but then maybe I do.
It’s over for America. We’re on the skids. Undeniable fact. It’s breaking down. Most people have sensed this for twenty years or so, in a theoretical way. Lately, it’s real and it’s here.
Tough trying to make a living in quality lit—with the economy (hell, the entire culture) doing a fast crash. If you’ve got that MFA, and the New Yorker wants you… tough to rock the boat. Especially tough to rock a boat that’s so obviously sinking. Fifty years ago, when Krim wrote Making It, things were different. Those guys (mostly guys) were going for the big prize, taking big, arrogant swings. These people are holding their shit in, hoping to stay afloat. First instinct—the survival instinct--is to keep floating, a little longer—maybe somebody else, somewhere, will save us.
But perhaps a strong survival instinct is a bad thing, in the arts. Perhaps, at times, the most responsible thing a “literary” writer can do is to, at first, seem irresponsible. Maybe it’s time to kick a bigger hole in that leaky boat. Sink it, see who swims to shore, see who can build a new boat.
As mentioned before, I’ve read some fiction that does this. Somewhere, between the literary mainstream (ugh) and the avant guarde (yuk!) there’s dark, edgy stuff. And also some light.