Contemporary Fiction

At the end of my last post I complained a little about being bored by contemporary fiction, and specifically realistic fiction, and a number of people said that they sometimes feel the same way. Lilian asked if I would be willing to explain what I meant. So, uh, maybe? I’m not entirely sure what I meant, except that I wanted to express a vague feeling of discontentment and to explain why I didn’t fall in love with The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a book that others have fallen in love with and is probably worth falling in love with.

I certainly don’t feel bored by all contemporary fiction; looking over my list of books from the last year or so, I see that I loved Arthur Phillips The Tragedy of Arthur, Teju Cole’s Open City, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Joshua Ferris Then We Came to the End. I also liked Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo, although I thought it broke all kinds of fictional rules. I liked it because it broke fictional rules. And that’s what I liked about all these books, I see now. The Phillips book is a novel that pretends to be a play and a memoir; Open City is basically a guy walking around cities and thinking stuff; Baker’s novel has only a little bit of a story and lots and lots of meditations on poetry; Egan’s book is really linked stories with a lengthy chapter written using PowerPoint (and using it very well); Ferris’s book is in the second person (and focused unusually closely on the workplace); and PopCo spends a lot of time explaining how encryption works. That book explains everything.

And I loved all that. I think the perfect contemporary novel is one that breaks the rules in some way while still being fun. It’s possible to break the rules to such an extent that the book is boring or too difficult to enjoy, but the ones above do it perfectly.

Where I run into a problem is when books are more conventional in their plot lines and writing style. It’s not that I dislike all these books, necessarily, just that I don’t often get excited about them. Part of the issue is that I don’t read for story. There are exceptions, such as Sarah Waters, but mostly I don’t care about the plot. I don’t really read for beautiful sentences either, unless we’re talking about an extreme case — unless you’re Proust, for example. Mostly I read for that sense of excitement that comes when I fall a little in love with a character or a voice or the way a book explores an idea or does something new. I’m a little suspicious of sincerity, which is odd because I’m a serious and sincere person, but in my books, I prefer lightness and humor. Do what you do with energy and gusto, and I’ll be impressed.

That’s not always true, of course. I loved Olive Kitteridge, for example, which has hardly any lightness, humor, or gusto. But I guess there I liked the linked story form and the unremitting darkness of that book struck me as brave. I like brave books.

I keep talking about contemporary novels because my feelings about older novels are different. Conventional plot lines bother me less there. Seriousness and sincerity are fine in those books. I don’t look for experimentation in quite in the same way. But you can see why Tristram Shandy is a favorite of mine.

So, there, that’s my explanation of how I feel about contemporary fiction. Anybody else want to try to define their aesthetic? It’s a fun thing to think about.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Contemporary Fiction

  1. I liked A Visit from the Goon Squad for the same reasons. I’ve never been so interested in a PowerPoint presentation!

  2. Mostly I read for that sense of excitement that comes when I fall a little in love with a character or a voice or the way a book explores an idea or does something new.

    While I think I’m a little more over-the-top enthusiastic about experimentalism than you are, this sentence expresses very well the main things I get excited about in reading, too. I also very much relate to your observation on being a serious, sincere person and yet preferring a certain lightness in your fiction—I like a lot of very dark books and I’m pretty earnest in person but if the earnestness quotient is too high in a book it’s somehow a turnoff for me. Maybe a product of knowing too many overly “sincere” hipster kids in high school and college whose “sincerity” turned out to be just another fashion. In any case, you’ve reminded me yet again that I really need to check out The Anthologist!

  3. Have you ever read Ali Smith? I think she’s a very brave, funny experimental writer. I was thinking about whether I could define the things I like in contemporary books, but I don’t think I can. On the other hand I CAN say what I don’t like: sensationalism, implausibility, masses of plot and sentimentality. The closer the novel is to the recognisable feel of life, the more I’m going to like it.

  4. bookgazing

    You summed it up pretty well, although I do read for story and the beautiful sentence I mostly want heart and when I find it lacking I’m annoyed. Not evry good at defining what that means I’m afraid, but know a book that is dead inside, going through the motions stuff when I read one (and I can find them among experimental and more conventional fiction).

  5. Very interesting! I agree with you in that I rarely read for story or plot, but I do care for beautiful sentences, mainly because I’m interested in the writers voice – or tone, if you like. Character can sometimes be important, often related to point of view. I’m often intrigued by books that can give me new views on things I thought I knew.

    I think I read contemporary fiction to get a better understanding of life – both personal and in a more general way; stories about life in our time. The last year I been more and more interested in the art of the personal essay, in writers who manage to grasp the personal experiences of being in a poetic language.

    I do not like long books unless they are exceptionally well written. I don’t like traditional crime (I do love to watch it on TV though…). I don’l like books that pretend to be smart and intellectual, but I do like the ones that really are.

    I find it easier to say what I don’t like than what I like, because the books I fall in love with are those who mange to surprise me, giving me thoughts and feelings I didn’t expect.

  6. I’ve felt similarly disappointed by some contemporary fiction lately (although I also really like A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Scarlett Thomas is great). Most of my favourite contemporary authors have a lively, confident voice or other spark which seems to make their stories more honest and appealing – like you, I read for the way something is told, rather than the plot itself.

  7. I think “I like brave books” pretty much sums it up. I like books that make me think and make me work a little, books that push the fictional envelope in some way, books that try to do something new or different or have something to say but that say it in a way that it hasn’t been said before. I like quirky, unusual, out of the mainstream and off the beaten path. While these are the kinds of books I like best, they take a lot of energy so more conventional books get brought into the mix in order to lighten the cognitive load a bit. I also tend to like philosophical novels which can sometimes be conventional but I think more often then not lean toward the monderist and postmodernist. Really enjoyed your thoughts on this!

  8. I think I’m the odd reader here as I have a feeling I am much more conventional–I suspect I read mostly for plot and story and a good storyteller will easily win me over, though I do also want well developed characters and lovely writing. I don’t mind if an author is trying something new or unusual but if I feel like I’m not understanding something I do feel a little adrift. It’s interesting to see how readers approach books so very differently and what they like about books. But it is certainly good to know what you like–and in my case be willing to try and read outside those boundaries I set for myself.

  9. Well done, but I fear your final challenge: “Anybody else want to try to define their aesthetic?” Sounds intimidating. :) But thanks for asking, and I’ll think about it.

    Your definition of your aesthetic makes a lot of sense, so good job.

  10. Thank you for answering my question! I enjoyed reading your explanation and also the comments. I don’t think I can define mine because it’s so varied. At least not yet. But I’m going to mull this over, and keep it in mind as I read in the future and see if I can at some point post about it.

  11. I hear you! Can’t place just what it is about contemporary fiction that disappoints me, but it happens a lot. I don’t like excessive vulgarity, product placement or novels that scream ‘look how much research I’ve done.’ Thought-provoking post.

  12. What a wonderful question — and such good responses. I’m quite put off by a lot of contemporary fiction: there are so many that seem formulaic efforts and not driven by anything truly honest: the life of a historical figure (usually a writer or artist) told from the point of view of a minor figure in that person’s life, the Carter Beats the Devil kind of books that scream, as Nicola points out ‘look how much research I’ve done.’ The lives of the disenfranchised told from the point of view of the, well, franchised (The Help kinds of book), books in which the characters don’t seem to have JOBS, but are traveling to find themselves, or buying houses to find themselves, or opening flower shops or chocolate shops or restaurants to find themselves although you never really find out what’s involved in running any of these enterprises. I’m fine with experimentation, and I’m fine with the traditional — what I really want is something that feels honest and something that surprises me. And if it makes me laugh, well, bonus points for that.

  13. Eva

    I love this post Dorothy: so thought-provoking! The more I mull it over, the more I realise that most of the American/British contemporary lit I read is either genre-y (in which I’m including magical realism & gothic & sprawling historical stuff a la Byatt’s The Children Book) or by authors of colour. I do read quite a bit of contemporary ‘literary’ books by international authors, but then I’m reading for the insights into different cultures (and in many cases, they’ve still got genre-y aspects, esp. historical settings). In fact, I just went over my books read list for the year, and I can’t find a single novel written by a contemporary white American/British author that’s straight-up fiction. Lol! I guess I’m just not interested. (Not that I think that having ‘genre’ touches is always a sign of freshness or less stereotypical; my recent forced reading of The Postmistress reminded me of everything I dislike about historical fiction.)

    Unlike you, I do often enjoy books primarily for the author’s writing style, particularly if s/he’s good at conjuring up the setting or using some kind of dialect or language play (I’m thinking of Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, but I’m sure there are other examples). And I’m not at all put off by ‘earnest’ books, as long they tackle the serious issues in a way that feels organic (I just finished Crooked Letter Crooked Letter, and the racial stuff felt way too forced). But I do agree that plot isn’t a primary motivator for me, and I *love* (non-pretentious) experimental fiction!

    >>Anybody else want to try to define their aesthetic?

    I’m totally going to take this challenge on! ;) Have begun a draft post…although I suspect this is the kind of topic that I’ll never quite ‘finish.’

  14. Readingallthetime — I really hate Power Point, so liking that chapter is saying something!

    Emily — I’d love to know what you think of The Anthologist! Oh, and also The Mezzanine, which is probably Baker’s best and most experimental book. We serious types need a break from the seriousness now and then, right? Darkness is okay with me, quite often, but earnestness not so much. I didn’t know kids like that in high school — thank goodness! :)

    Litlove — I haven’t read Ali Smith, but I do have a copy of The Accidental on my shelves, so I will have to try it at some point. Thanks for the recommendation! It probably is a little easier to say what you don’t like. I agree with you on not liking those things as well.

    Bookgazing — that going through the motions feeling is deadly, and yes, it’s found not just in mainstream fiction. I agree with you about heart — I want the feeling of urgency and excitement coming from the author or narrator.

    Sigrun — your point about being surprised is a good one — and that’s the problem with defining one’s aesthetic, because it’s wonderful to be surprised into liking something you didn’t like. I care about voice very much as well, and that relates to sentence style, of course, but I guess I was trying to say I don’t care about pretty language per se. But if the interesting sentences create a voice I like, then that’s wonderful.

    Karen — I like the way you describe what you enjoy reading. I’m glad you agree on those two authors — perhaps our tastes overlap a lot?

    Stefanie — thanks! I agree that challenging, experimental novels can be tiring, and mixing them up with more conventional ones is good. I do like variety in my reading, so I can’t be reading the kind of book I describe all the time. And I do like more conventional novels, although they aren’t the ones that really excite me. I agree about philosophical novels and that they can have a conventional format — I like books that deal with ideas in a direct kind of way, whether in the way that George Eliot does it or Virginia Woolf.

    Danielle — I think lots and lots of people read for plot — including Hobgoblin, who cares about story very much. I agree that it’s difficult sometimes not to understand what an author is saying; I find that frustrating at times too. And really, the experimental novels I mention here aren’t hard to understand at all — they just do things a little differently.

    Pagesofjulia — thank you! I’m only partially satisfied with my definition, but that’s inevitable, because it’s so complicated and always changing.

    Lilian — I’d love to read your post on the subject! Thanks for inspiring me to give it some thought!

    Nicola — interesting. I wonder what you would think of PopCo, since it screams research, and yet I liked it a lot. But I agree with you, generally speaking — I don’t like anything that feels forced or is working too hard to show off research.

    Bloglily — thanks for your definition! That’s a nice list of the things that can go wrong in novels, particularly about privileged characters who never have to worry about money and live in entirely different ways than most of us and only need to find themselves. Nicely said! I agree that honesty is paramount.

    Eva — thank you!! I’m so glad you are going to write your own post on the subject. Isn’t it fun to think about? And yes to the unfinished nature of it. I think in order to be satisfied with my definition, I would have to write endless qualifications and explanations and exceptions. I admire the breadth of your reading, and I’m very interested to see how you sum it all up!

  15. Pingback: Reality Hunger | So Many Books

  16. What a great blog you have here– and I love Tristram Shandy! I, too, tend to read old books more. What I want from books are passion and depth of insight– and like Tristram Shandy, they don’t necessarily have to be serious at all. My impression of books coming out nowadays is that the authors are writing from the surface, and not getting it deep from their soul. I feel like something’s holding them back, like fear. Maybe it’s our world: maybe authors are too distracted and have less time to investigate their thoughts, compared to older generations of authors? At times, I discover that “sincerity” is translated as having no style at all, that or it comes out pretentious somehow. But I made a conscious decision recently to try and read more contemporary books…and I’m really putting in earnest effort. Am starting with The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen, published 2011. Can’t get more contemporary than that, I suppose! I picked it up because I liked the cover. I’m still in the first two chapters, so not yet sure if I’m going to like it. Btw, I really enjoyed reading the posts and comments here. I used to visit your blog, and I organized my bookmarks yesterday so it was a delight to find it again. Thanks!

  17. I think everyone reads for slightly different reasons, with their area of interest lying in slightly different fields. For myself, I can’t define a particular brand of books that I like (in the same way that you say you like “brave books”). Sometimes I like plot, sometimes originality, sometimes a strong character…

    In my mind, contemporary fiction is such a broad category that even trying to find one aspect I truly dislike in it won’t be fully accurate. True, I’m typically frustrated with books that appear unoriginal to me but I do, on occasion, find an unoriginal book to be brilliant in its own reinterpretation of a familiar topic…

    Hmm, I’m a bit all over the place right now. I have a lot more to think about on this topic…

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