The problem with contemporary American--some would say, world--fiction is twofold. If we understand commercial novels these days to fall somewhere on the spectrum between literary and visionary, it's hard to ignore the fact we're living a classic Catch-22. Literary novels are just not that visionary, which is another way of saying they're often boring and unimaginative, slaves to a dogged realizm--whereas visionary novels are, typically, none too literary, which is another way of saying often poorly, if not execrably, written, cobbled together with their narrative machinery clanking and clunking.
Historically, the exceptions confirm the rule. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are indeed consummately both literary and visionary. These classics have also been imitated so many times--unsuccessfully, even laughably--it beggars belief. Here and there a contemporary novel pops up on the radar in this magical Twilight Zone where craft and invention seem indissolubly wedded--Robert Coover's The Public Burning comes to mind--but those of us literary-visionary hybrids who scour today's fictional landscape in search of inspiration usually come up empty.
The fly in the ointment is that old bugger, realizm. Nearly two centuries after Stendhal’s novel-as-mirror traveled the tedious highway of fiction, and despite the influences of modernism and postmodernism, the majority of today's novel readers, like Coca-Cola addicts, still want the Real Thing. I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. The beauty of a metaphor is it doesn't have to be real to ring true. The instant a metaphor becomes real it ceases to be a metaphor, which suggests a disconnect between truth and what's commonly referred to as reality. This is a pivotal point--that the real world probably isn't what you believe it is, or rather, that it's precisely what you believe it is--which, if you still don't get it, I can only trust someday you will.
I don't mean any of this theoretically. Theory does everything in its power to remove the living soul of literature, tear its heart out, make of the study of Art a hard-edged Science. Never mind that Art is as far removed from measurement as Science is from love. As writers confronting theory, it's incumbent on us not to let our prose dry up in that desert, but to allow it to become a desert rose, our prose, flourishing in the heat and sands of what passes for knowledge.
We must, then, for them to be of any worth whatsoever, live our theories practically. For writers this means, inevitably, doing the deed--not just having the idea but putting it on paper, writing down not just the bones of our dreams but their flesh and blood as well. Literature, at its best, and despite the recent attempts of critics, can never be murdered and dissected, as it's an immortal yet organic thing, drawing on the richness and complexity of Experience yet somehow managing to transcend its mundane origins like an alchemist transmuting base metals. The current twin foci on theory and realizm conspire to dry up the spirit and wither the soul, blind the eye and deafen the ear, broil the brain and microwave the heart--and perhaps most disturbingly for us radical wordsmiths who still haven't sold out to the Man, brown the nose and pucker the rectum.
If we're to avoid becoming fiction robots in a corporate world, we must stop adding to our educational excesses, eschew the assembly line of MFAs and bottom-line publishing houses, commit ourselves to a way of writing that engages in a valiant struggle to push the limits of plot and language so as to awaken, not anaesthetize, the reader. Anything rather than live in the dead world of those cold people, the Intellectuals. Anything rather than subject ourselves to the fusty chain of academic command, the savage petty politics where the arguments are so heated because the stakes, as someone once astutely quipped, are so small.
We must lay our ears back and push on into the literary fourth dimension, realm of feminine chaos and infinite possibility, forego regionalism and play with farce--and, especially, always appreciate the bizarre. Love for the bizarre is, itself, transformational. When you welcome the bizarre into the fiction of your life, anything and anybody can be transformed from dogshit into gold.
Let's begin a new literary movement. I don't care what we call it. Let's start writing novels for people who don't like novels. Because these days who can blame them? You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can't please all the people all the time. So let's at least please ourselves. Years from now when verisimilitude is finally understood as a terribly limiting proposition, let our daringly experimental books (often self-published, often ignored by the mainstream) be remembered as the Rubicon fiction crossed on its journey into multidimensionality. There can be no turning back, for readers or writers, after our historical strokes of madcap genius. Or so my story goes.
Once in every generation, if we're lucky, a character shows up who can teach us about reality because he's more real than ourselves. Melville called such a character a "Drummond light" after the type of light once used in theaters that was capable of providing illumination in many directions. May one of us create such a character. Better yet, let's buck tradition and create a string of Drummond lights, each a brilliant facet of the Hope Diamond that is our new fiction. Let's turn away, once and for all, from old Enlightenment tropes toward a new narrative of Enwritenment. Together let's write light.
In so doing, maybe, over time, our inherited and mostly dysfunctional posterity urge based on ego will gradually give way to something more stable, healthier, that might be called simply the urge to be. To have been versus to be. Product versus process. In the face of a literature of monoliths and petroglyphs, we have the choice to opt for incompletion. May our new writing shine with the protean power of now. May imagination become the new faith.
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