Victim and Culprit: The Epidemic of Navel Gazing in American Literature

With the announcement of the 2011 Nobel prize for literature comes the mandatory digestion of this issue in American terms. Namely, how does it affect me, why didn’t we get it, why don’t we ever get it?

We’ve become a nation of literary narcissists. Part of that comes out of the write-what-you-know tradition, which I think must be taught in every single MFA program. And then, don’t try to assume characters who are unlike yourself. So, for example, you know, if you are a white male, write from the perspective of a white male. Don’t write like William Styron did from the perspective of a slave and for which he got pilloried for, in “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”

I’m not saying that’s a great book. But I think David Foster Wallace, in 1997, in an essay for the New York Observer – pretty brutal takedown of an Updike novel, comes up with this term the great male narcissist, which is a writer who’s purely inward-looking and just unwilling to engage with the world.

And I think today, every writer – regardless of gender or ethnicity – the majority of writers are great male narcissists. And I talk about Juvela Heery(ph) and Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen – I don’t see big political, social engagement in their works. I see narrow concerns, not a lot of cultural criticism of the sort that, for example, John Steinbeck does in “Grapes of Wrath.”

Or even, you know, John le Carre does in some of his finer spy fiction, which, to tell you the truth, is much more intelligent than what comes out of many American writers today.

Personally, I’ve read Foer’s Eating Animals (which stands out from his literature in that it has to deal with problems with the world because its fundamentally a journalistic piece – and yet simultaneously obsessed with whether or not Foer himself will serve turkey on thanksgiving with his very own personal family – an odd injection of the personal in a journalistic piece that never seems fitting).

I also read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Disregarding even all the interruptions of my reading to tell me how great the book is by females of Oprah-watching age who obviously only had read that book because of Oprah. The book sucks. Freedom is an awful, awful book. At no point does it make you think or engage you more than the dead brain glaze of post-work day T.V. viewing. The whole time I thought it would eventually transform to something more than an especially psychologically hand-wringing version of a day time soap show and it never does. It’s just a tome of interest with a heterosexual couple’s upper middle class marriage dissolution and reformation. It’s a piece to sell books to upper middle class women who like trashy books about other people’s upper middle class marriages.

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