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January 13, 2012

‘Why Write Novels at All?’
By GARTH RISK HALLBERG Last year, I found myself mildly obsessed with a cache of YouTube clips, featuring the novelists Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and Nathan Englander at a 2006 literary conference in Italy called Le Conversazioni. Part of what interested me, in a gate-crashing kind of way, was the backdrop: midsummer on the Isle of Capri, with flora aflame and a sky the color of Chablis. Another part, inevitably, was watching Wallace with the knowledge that he would kill himself two years later. Mostly what I kept coming back to, though, was how lighthearted, how loose—how young—these writers seemed here. It’s not that they weren’t already an accomplished quintet, with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award to their credit. But in 2006 the gravitational center of Anglo-American letters still lay back on U.S. soil with Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy and John Updike and Toni Morrison and Philip Roth—those towering figures who, according to a Times survey released earlier that year, produced the greatest American fiction of the previous quarter-century. By comparison, Le Conversazioni might as well have been “The Breakfast Club” and Capri a weirdly paradisiacal high-school library. Five years later, in 2011, the islanders finally overran the mainland. Franzen’s “Freedom” was ubiquitous, and just when it threatened to drop off the best-seller lists, the posthumous “Pale King” by Wallace stepped up to take its place. All year long, Zadie Smith was issuing a running commentary on world letters from her post as the house critic at Harper’s, and through the fall, it was hard to tune in to NPR without running into Eugenides—or to miss his giant billboard avatar looming over Times Square.

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” an exuberantly bookish book that offers the clearest account to date of his cohort’s collective aspirations and anxieties. in its contemporary incarnation. “In early 2 .It may seem like a journalistic contrivance to read this group’s collective ascent as evidence of an aesthetic trend. in his analysis. holding forth in essays and interviews about “today’s most engaged young fiction” and “the novel’s way forward. it turns out. As the music critic Carl Wilson argues in “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.” “The Corrections. This kind of value is.” Is there a sense. (If you don’t hear people throwing around the term “hysterical realism” anymore. < I had my doubts. Bourdieu documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is—the novel very much included—the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. then.” his book on Celine Dion. But then I picked up Eugenides’s new novel. it’s because any net broad enough to catch “The Virgin Suicides. several of these younger writers have actively invited us to see them as standard-bearers. in which Le Conversazioni’s class of ’06 really does represent a bona fide school? I know. a unifying thread. There is. “The Marriage Plot. You don’t have to subject yourself to the sweep and rigor of Bourdieu’s book “Distinction” to feel how thoroughly a lower-calorie version of its ideas has been absorbed into the cultural bloodstream. who at the dawn of the ’80s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. too. say.” “On Beauty” and “Infinite Jest” is going to have a hard time excluding. DeLillo’s “Angel Esmerelda” or much of Philip Roth. the only real value that “refined” tastes have. It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this riposte to the aesthetics of “transcendence” must have seemed 30 years ago. can be traced back to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.) On the other hand. it’s just not a matter of form. The central question driving literary aesthetics in the age of the iPad is no longer “How should novels be?” but “Why write novels at all?” The roots of this question.

an English major named Madeleine Hanna. finds herself enrolled in a course in semiotics. Not only does Bourdieu’s “game of distinction” foreground the kinds of cultural affectations that the novel of manners has always loved to skewer. We see it in the campus-centric culture clashes of Smith’s “On Beauty.” the novel that presents in clearest form the shared preoccupations of the Conversazioni group. rather than within it. On another level. for most people under 50. Franzen’s specious division of books 3 . On one level. Ding Dongs. though. this “game of distinction” is a kind of inexhaustible comic engine. attempts to modify or counteract the logic of the cultural marketplace have produced mostly vexation and muddle—for example.” For the Conversazioni group. distinction boils down to cool. “like”-ing what we like. Curiously.21st-century terms.” and in the cavalcade of status details that voice records. our heroine.” And we see it in the vocational crisis at the center of “The Marriage Plot. We see this in the choral voice of the “urban gentry” that opens Franzen’s “Freedom. too. It levels whatever it touches. now the characters themselves are hip to the game being played. she’s not so naïve as not to consider the source: “upper middle-class kids who wore Doc Martens and anarchist symbols. We who curate our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls understand that at least part of what we’re doing publicly. shaky attempts to impose order on an entropic world. this provokes in Madeleine a suspicion that the careworn volumes she keeps in her bedroom are just another class-specific way of fashioning an identity. Writers of Eugenides’s generation understand this. where her classmates unmask the novels she loves as collections of unstable signifiers. As “The Marriage Plot” opens. when these writers have turned to thinking about the novel. is trying to separate ourselves from the herd.” We see it in the carefully parsed snack cakes at the center of Wallace’s story “Mister Squishy.” which exist “less as a variant on rivals’ Zingers. Ho Hos< than< a radical upscaling and re-visioning of same.” And the Internet has rendered the competition for cool more transparent than ever.

“The Marriage Plot” proposes its answer in the scene where Madeleine discovers Roland Barthes’s “Lover’s Discourse”: “It wasn’t only that this writing seemed beautiful. when we consider the web of influence that connects them to old roommates and friends and lovers and students—a list that includes David Means. as Smith and Franzen do. Donald Antrim 4 . and in Smith’s beautiful encomium to Wallace in her book of essays. < What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place. then. and in Wallace’s. Rick Moody. “Distinction” remains agnostic about that thing’s internal particularities. to resist existential loneliness” crops up all over the writing of the Conversazioni group: in Franzen’s nonfiction. the novelist now has to confront the larger problem of what the novel is even for—assuming it’s not just another cultural widget. “Changing My Mind. < Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Mary Karr.into “Status” and “Contract” camps or the inflated distinctions of Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel. Note his subtitle: “A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. of “the sacred frontier which makes legitimate culture a separate universe. A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse.” In chalking up judgment to factors beyond the thing we’re judging. The idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness.” Writers since at least the heyday of Gore Vidal have bemoaned their audience’s defection to other forms of entertainment. Indeed. But pop-Bourdieuvianism deprives them of the sense of high-canonical purity with which they’ve traditionally consoled themselves.” It also helps to explain these writers’ broad turn away from various postmodern formalisms and toward the problems of the human heart. To hell with style. To try to reclaim either purity or audience by drawing aesthetic bright lines. in Bourdieu’s words.” One reason cultural capital ties literary novelists in knots is its abolition.” And if this last line sounds familiar. it’s because you’ve probably heard it before. is to run into another problem: Bourdieu’s ideas aren’t properly aesthetic at all.

Think about it: I can love you because I want to feel less alone. whole mysterious inner universes.” in the otherwise dazzling “Mister Squishy. we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. too. as reasons to write. Aristotle saw narrative as therapeutic.” “instruct”—from a 2. our new leading novelists have cleared this second hurdle only intermittently. So far. as Wallace often suggests? (“If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain.” and. we encounter characters too neatly or thinly drawn.”) Or does truly great literature point to some third thing altogether? This is where “The Marriage Plot”’s titular enjambment of literature and love—those two beleaguered institutions—is so clarifying. “Here is a sign that you’re not alone” starts to look like the ascendant trope of and about literature today. or I can love you because I want you to feel less alone. is not that it’s symptomatic of our self-help culture. and equally real. Even as you read this. alas. It’s that it’s not specific enough. simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves. In Smith’s “Autograph Man. suddenly.” in Franzen’s “Strong Motion. Its problem. as a mission statement. but they do not instruct.and Jonathan Safran Foer—and to newer work by writers like Karen Russell or the Irish novelist Paul Murray.000year-old theory about the purpose of art because they seem today more apposite than ever. and as long as there’s juice 5 . These works may delight us. It’s safe to say that delight won’t be in short supply. to confront us with the fact that there are other people besides ourselves in the world. I’m cribbing these words—“delight. But only the latter requires me to imagine a consciousness independent of my own. in “The Marriage Plot” itself. too recognizably literary.”) Or does it refer to the author. Does “the sign that we’re not alone” ultimately refer back to the solitary reader. engineers in Silicon Valley are hard at work on new ways to delight you—gathering the entire field of aesthetic experience onto a single screen you’ll be able to roll up like a paperback and stick in your back pocket. as in Franzen’s “Why Bother?” (“Simply to be recognized for what I was.

This isn’t to say that. we won’t have to feel alone. But will we be alone? Literature.in the battery. has the ability both to frame the question and to affect the answer. to a degree unique among the arts. they won’t be quite enough. 6 . measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment. It’s just that. the delights to which most contemporary “literary fiction” aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. if the art is to endure.