ALL ABOUT THE STATES THEY'RE IN
Sunday 16 June 1996
Novelists heralded a new era of
literary promise, so its quest for the
20 best young Americans was bound
to be controversial. Granta's editor
discusses the judges' choice and
points out the surprising tendency
towards 'regionalism' in US fiction
One reaction to the modern American novelist might be pity. America as a subject could be just too loud, too quick, too gross for the quietness of extended prose and the time required both to create and absorb it. To quote Philip Roth: "The American writer ... has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally, it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of the novelist."
Roth wrote that passage 35 years ago. Kennedy had still to be assassinated, Vietnam was a far-off country of which Main Street knew nothing, Roth had yet to write Portnoy's Complaint. Meanwhile, Atlantic liners still tied up in Manhattan, only jazzmen did drugs, and the American middle class's idea of the exotic and dangerous came from the pages of National Geographic rather than the next block.
Think of what has happened since. If the American novelist had a hard job matching the stupefying, sickening, infuriating, amazing condition of American life in 1960 - a world which from today's perspective has all the frenzy and turbulence of a fireside talk by Eisenhower or a bedroom wink from Doris Day - then his task these days must be impossible. How can fiction, "literary" (ie intellectually and artistically ambitious) fiction, cope under the torrent of brute fact and startling image that pours from television and the Internet, from the CD-ROM and the satellite? What is the point of the confessional novel, a new Portnoy's Complaint, when studio audiences across the country are standing up to confess and keep on shamelessly confessing? How can a novelist be socially engaged, keen to illuminate the society he lives in, when that society - no more Melting Pot, the Great Society on permanent hold - is fragmenting by language and race, and has the attention span of a gadfly?
Yet American novelists, Philip Roth among them, continue to write. The USA, in fact, publishes more literary novels than ever before - about 1,000 last year - and the habit of writing them is not confined to men and women in middle to late age, the products of a previous and arguably more literary culture. Creative writing courses at American universities turn out ever-increasing numbers of graduates. Exact figures are hard to find, but this year there are probably about 12,000 full-time students on two- year programmes attached to universities, and many thousands more paying their way through workshops, summer schools, mountain retreats, desert weekends. A few want to write poetry, a few more have enrolled for "creative non-fiction" (why not? there are degrees in creative accountancy), but the overwhelming majority want to write novels.
This says two things about the USA. One, that it is a rich society, with families and charitable foundations rich enough to subsidise the apprentice novelist (a key feature of a novel by a young American, as opposed to British, novelist comes before the title page with the acknowledgements to funds and mentors). The second is that, despite Roth's fears, which have since been translated into a more global "crisis of fiction", young Americans think that novels still matter, that they are worth writing despite (or even because of) the victories won by the image over the written word throughout so much of American life.
The question is: are they worth reading?
MY ANSWER to that - yes - is founded on a consumer's view. Earlier this year I read and sometimes re-read more than 50 books by American novelists under the age of 40. It was a duty; as the editor of Granta, I was a judge in Granta's Best of Young American Novelists Campaign. But it turned out also to be - and I think I can put my hand on heart here - mainly a pleasure.
The campaign had British antecedents. In 1983 a now-defunct body called the British Book Marketing Council launched the first Best of Young British Novelists campaign, a (then) original stunt whereby judges chose 20 writers who in their view showed special promise and achievement. It worked well and was repeated under Granta's aegis in 1993. Many of the choices were prescient - Barnes, Barker and Ishiguro in 1983 - but prescience is not really the point. The judges were, after all, not quite so prescient about other names in the Granta issues devoted to their selections (there is a cruel fascination in the retrospective glance). What mattered, I think, was what the selection said about the state of young British fiction at a particular moment: what its most promising practitioners were up to in the business of holding a lamp to our lives.
Would the same idea work in the United States? It deserved to, because America is a much bigger country with a much bigger publishing industry and it is both more important and more difficult to know what is going on, because so much of it goes on. But these facts about the size and spread of American publishing - now established in cities well to the west of New York - meant that the old British method couldn't be applied. Under Bill Buford, my predecessor at Granta, the submissions and the judging had been informal and private. Even if, with ruthlessly corrupt and metropolitan behaviour, this were possible in America, it didn't seem desirable, and a four-stage judging process was invented.
Stage one: nominations were invited from all kinds of people whose business was books - librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, authors. Stage two: the several hundred submitted books were divided into five American regions according to where the author lived and sent to the five regional judging panels. Stage three; the regional panels, each comprising three novelists, submitted shortlists totalling 52 writers. Stage four: the shortlists were published and the job of winnowing out the final 20 authors fell to the national judges - the writers Robert Stone, Anne Tyler and Tobias Wolff, and myself.
Around the time of stage four, a few unencouraging voices began to be heard in the American press. The campaign was purely a commercial gimmick; it was polluting the literary novel with the cult of celebrity; it was trying to create a new brat pack; it had picked the wrong writers.
Quite so, I thought to myself about some of these criticisms. Every good writer since Dickens - himself well known to go incognito among his readers disguised in a false beard - has cultivated obscurity and the desire to possess no more than a few coins kept in a sock. Celebrity? Tsk, tsk that we pour a little light on to workers struggling in the darkened workshop of the literary novel.
But they were right about the shortlisted writers. The judges got them wrong, as judges tend to do. Where, for example, was Nicholson Baker? It seemed insane and perverse to me that the judges in his region (the West) had rejected a writer of such striking and wise originality for their shortlist. As Robert Stone wrote later: "Our geography may not allow for the individual hatreds and jealousies that thrive in the literary circles of more homogenous countries (though we do our best) ..."
At the meeting of the national judges, we wondered for a time if we might not override previous decisions and call in one or two glaring exceptions. Like Nicholson Baker, I said. Like David Foster Wallace, said Stone. Like Richard Powers, said Wolff. But then, how about Donna Tartt? A murmer of agreement. Or William T Vollman? Further nods and murmurs. We decided to let the shortlist stay as it was: emendations would need to be wholesale, which would snub the hard work of the 15 regional judges, turn our exercise into a celebration of the previously celebrated, and leave us accused of falling for the hype. In other words, we would have picked another bunch of wrong writers.
And so we read realism - not entirely, but mainly. There were very few unreliable narrators and few tricks with the narrative. Satire was infrequent. "Our writers," as Tobias Wolff observed, "are a well-behaved lot." I was struck by their humanity, almost kindness; by their concern to be domestic and geographically specific - "regional" is the American term; and by their anxiety to write clear and spare prose. A lot of new British fiction is altogether wilder, colder and stranger - formally more daring, but less interested in clarity, less competent at story-telling.
The influence of creative writing schools and writers such as Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and the late Raymond Carver was obvious enough. With most of these books, you know from an early stage who you are among and where - and also when, because a new enthusiasm is local history, a literary concern that previously has been more associated with writing on this side of the Atlantic. The history is usually taken from earlier in this century rather than a more distant past, and small-town or rural rather than metropolitan: a sort of Norman Rockwellisation of the novel seems to be going on, though sometimes, in the hands of writers such as David Guterson or Mona Simpson, it is unsentimentally and beautifully done. In the hands of non-white writers who are the children of recent migrants - Fae Myenne Ng, Edwidge Danticat - the history becomes not so much local as personal. In the hands of the Native American, Sherman Alexie, it can encompass a whole people.
Apart from their other virtues, these writers took me to places and subjects I hadn't been before. Idaho, North Carolina (frequently), the state of Washington (ditto), on to fishing boats and into orange orchards. In that sense, they had didactic qualities; no bad thing - see what the alleged insights into American law and British politics have done for Grisham and Archer. So these books in the main were sympathetic, well-constructed and compassionate. Sometimes they were witty and often ironic. Good books then, but why was there quite so much realism? Has the day of the decorated, the difficult and the post-modern been and gone?
LATER, after we'd chosen our final list of 20, I wrote to my fellow judge, Robert Stone, to ask him these questions. Stone has been writing fine novels since the 1960s, when writers such as John Barth and Donald Barthelmy had tried to answer by literary experiment the problem posed by Roth. Since the real had become so unreal, there was no point in striving for realism. But then, Stone replied, realism had bounced back in a different form. Partly thanks to the politics of the period, it became a kind of "social realism" which "reflected a penitential tone that goes back a very long way in American literature and surfaces periodically, the educated American's alternative to religious revivalism."
Stone went on: "It also spoke for a vaguely leftish insistence on seriousness, a revulsion for pretentiousness (in the American definition), and that dislike of 'elitism' which often seems so fatuous when viewed from abroad but which burns with a fanatical flame here, embodying much deep, unspoken fear and hatred.
"There is an almost obsessive pursuit of 'authenticity', and a narodnik romance with land and ordinary people. Remember Kerouac's religious fervour about the Great American Road and so forth. I grew up in New York, in the middle of Manhattan and it never occurred to me that this was a place to write about. 'Authenticity' I was sure resided just about anywhere else, essentially it could be geographically defined by wherever I wasn't or hadn't been. The 'real America' was ever elusive and unavailable yet holy.
"The young writers of today are suburbanites - simply because the class that produces writers tends to reside in the suburbs. More often than not, they have grown up in the identical suburbs of several different cities. The European-descended writers could be described as post-ethnic and post-regional, in other words beyond the forces that informed much American writing in the past. Aware of this deprivation, they write in pursuit of it."
I quote Stone at length because he seems to me to have the best explanation for so much new American writing. Thirteen years ago Granta coined the label "Dirty Realism" to describe a new fiction emerging from America that was, as summarised by Frank Kermode writing of Raymond Carver, "fiction so spare in manner that it takes time before one realises how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition are being represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch". Carver was one answer to the Roth problem, and several of Granta's Best of Young American Novelists are his legatees. From all of them I learned more about America - the separate detail of its humanity - than in a lifetime watching Hollywood. It may be that the noise of America needs quiet to understand.
! This article is an abridged version of Ian Jack's introduction to Granta 54, now available in bookshops at pounds 7.99. For more information about Granta, and for details of how you can get 'Best of Young American Novelists' free with a special subscription offer, ring FreeCall 0500 004 033
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