I've had kind of a love-hate relationship with the lit mag Tin House for awhile now. I often find really great stories in each issue, but I find some of their editorial choices very odd. They often have theme issues Great in concept, but the trouble is that I often fail to see the connections of several pieces to theme (look at my review of their obsession issue for more detailed examples of what I mean).
Their newest issue is dubbed "The International Issue", and as a theme it seems to work better for them than one based on content. The issue pulls in works from writers in Europe, South Ameria, Asia and Africa, all of it of very high quality. While some writers like Saramago I've certainly read before others like Ismail Kadare I've never even heard of. The only contributions by US authors are short essays about writers in other cultures, but those are also fascinating and provided me with even more authors and magazines to look into.
Aside from all this great material the one essay that's continued to stick with me is a critical piece entitled "Prizes of the Fall" by French author Dominique Parent-Altier. The essay looks at the culture of literary awards and prizes and, at least partially, blames them for the lackluster literature currently dominating the scene in France. Parent-Altier blames the very organization of the awards system itself. The winners are often the same year after year, and if they are different they are often from the same set of publishers, making the choices often fairly conservative, fairly safe, and entirely unoffensive. Kind of like American Idol.
Parent-Altier writes, "What's impressive about this year's major prizewinners...is the number of elements their books have in common: an emphasis verging on obsession with a narrator whose personality so approaches the author's that it is often difficult to distinguish the two; general absence of meanigful dialogue; carefully labored prose that supports neither character, nor plot, nor theme, and seems to exist for no other reason than to call attention to its carfully labored nature" (80)
Parent-Altier stated in much better terms than I can what I don't like about a lot of contemporary US literature. I often think of European lit being separate from the work written in the US but it sounds like it suffers from much of the same wordy self-confessional first person accounts. While some are fabulous most come off to me as whiny, self-indulgent and lacking any real sense of drama or conflict. The style dominates literary magazines, from high-end ones like the New Yorker all the way down to the smallest student managed university zine. A number of small presses fall prey to it as well. Parent-Altier contintues by writing that these types of works have a severe "incapacity to provide either the least resonance with life in France today, or a satisfying escape from it" (80).
What are the possible solutions? How do writers, readers and critics combat this issue (assuming they agree it's a problem)? Dan over at Barrelhouse points to critics, that instead of just slamming books that are bad to offer up alternatives. It's not a bad suggestion; aside from promoting work that might be a bit stronger it can also give more concrete advice to writers. Another direction is through education. The Now What blog focuses on teaching students the traditions of innovative fiction by introducing them to writers like Pynchon, Barth, Acker and Burroughs alongside the normal fare one receives in a literature class. With participation from big name experimentalist like Lance Olsen, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Doug Rice they are already having some pretty provocative conversations.
What it all comes down to is this: real innovation in art is rarely rewarded and recongnized when first created. It's something made on the margins because something about it---whether it's the content, style or substance of the work---does not mesh with the majority culture. When everything does mesh with the majority things become stagnant. And I think that's where we're at in many cases. I don't know what the next big event will be to jar us out of this and seek out different voices, but I have a feeling it's coming soon. At least that's my hope.
The Tin House essay concludes with a battle cry of sorts to seek out, find and create work that is truly revolutionary. As a reminder Parent-Altier states that "revolutions are not wrought by institutions of any kind, not by prize juries or labor unions or political parties, but by individuals spontaneously connecting with one another. This experience, where an individual links profoundly to another, is precisely what literature accomplishes" (81). I couldn't agree more.
Parent-Altier, Dominique. "Prizes of the Fall". Tin House. Volume 7, Issue 3. Spring 2006. 72-80.