Thursday, August 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Kunkel's Letter to Norway

Mark Athitakis brings to my attention a piece by Benjamin Kunkel in n+1, a "report on American fiction of the last decade." Kunkel's piece is short—the prompt to which he is writing limited responses to 1200 words—and ostensibly directed toward a non-American audience—the prompt came from the Norwegian literary journal Bokvennen.

Kunkel makes five basic points about the past decade's American literature:
  • like all decades, the rate of change has been slow; thus, the 2000s are more characterized by what he calls "the perennial novel" than by anything else. Kunkel returns to this point at the end by invoking the dread term "middlebrow": "The disappearance of the term 'middlebrow' over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world."
  • yet this perennial novel has also gravitated toward a greater degree of self-consciousness in its traditionalism, to a "neotraditionalism"—an attraction toward well-rounded characters, accident and coincidence as crucial plotting devices, and "a relatively high degree of sentimentality"
  • perhaps as a subset of this neotraditionalism (I think it's a subset, although Kunkel may consider it something distinct—he does call it "another big development," which is a pretty ample overstatement) is what Kunkel's confrère Marco Roth has termed the "neuronovel," a category with which I have some issues, but which is defined here simply as a book "in which novelists bless or afflict their characters with one or another recognizable neurological disorder." Kunkel and Roth adduce Rivka Galchen, John Wray, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem, Mark Haddon, and Richard Powers (two of whom are English) as exemplars
  • Kunkel waves away what many feel to be a significant development in the last ten year's fiction: the "genre-bending" or incorporation of genre elements into "literary" fiction. This trend, Kunkel says, "shouldn’t be given too much credit for formal experimentation or artistic bravery: remodeling a house is not the same as architecture."
  • fifth, Kunkel basically repeats the Katie Roiphe argument that, in Kunkel's words, "a fair amount of fiction by younger writers of the 0’s celebrates moral and sexual innocence and therefore childhood if not childishness." Roiphe used Kunkel as an example in her essay, and the point must have stung a bit. At any rate, Kunkel adds some intellectual firepower to Roiphe's thesis by bringing in Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, which I've discussed here
Mark points out that Kunkel's argument about the middlebrow flavor of the 2000s is virtually tautological: "it’s forever true that people, in general, gravitate toward things that are more comforting than not, and that trends are created by the stuff that large numbers gravitate toward. If you want to argue that a decade’s tastes are largely middlebrow, you’ll pretty much by definition be right." I agree completely, although I think Kunkel is being a little bit slippery—the term "middlebrow" really abuses the purchasers of the books being indicated more than it does their writers, their publishers, or the critics who praise them, and I feel Kunkel could have been a bit more direct in assessing the origins of this "return" of realism—whether it is the taste of the reading public that has led the way toward neotraditionalism, a more timid publishing establishment that has pushed writers to it, critics (Wood and Grossman are cited momentarily) who have championed it to its resurgence, or writers themselves who have found themselves drawn to older models. Even if (as it always is) the answer is multivariable, a little bit of an attempt to epidemiologize this "spread of the middlebrow" would have been useful.

Turning to what is left out of his account, I am surprised that Kunkel doesn't touch on what I see as the most significant development of the past ten year's literature, which is mostly a sort of personnel change: a large percentage of the most successful novelists have immediate roots in a country other than the U.S. The internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel has become even more direct, less about the struggle for assimilation among the second generation and more about the efforts of the first generation to cope with the transplantation. I'm sure you can fill in your own examples.

Secondly, and maybe this is just a factor of what I've been reading and not a genuine trend, but it seems to me that the comic novel has gotten a new lease on life in the 2000s with Sam Lipsyte, James Hynes, and Ken Kalfus (among others) leading the way. Or, perhaps, this is again a return to a sort of traditionalism—to a more classic form of the comic novel as established by Waugh—and a turn away from the more antic comedy of, say, Vonnegut (although his latter-day disciple George Saunders is obviously going strong).

Thirdly, one should make mention of the proliferation of what might be called peri-literature—books about authors or characters from the classics, books that in a sense take up a position around "Capital-L Literature" (hence the prefix peri-). One might also call it, simply, fan fiction, although generally that term is used demeaningly or at least deprecatorily. Examples of peri-literature range from Colm Tóibín's The Master (Henry James) to Edmund White's Hotel de Dream (Stephen Crane) to Jerome Charyn's The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson to the plethora of books about Jane Austen or her characters (e.g., The Jane Austen Book Club, the Pemberley Chronicles) to the Android Karenina type books. This, if anything, is the real sign of a neotraditionalism at work in the fiction of the 2000s, and not some "practical and an ideological return to 'realism,'" which I suspect may be a sort of cover-term for "domestic fiction." The examples given (Franzen, Zadie Smith, Haslett) lead me to wonder if this isn't the case and if a gripe about domesticity wasn't, essentially, Kunkel's point all along.


the Ape said...

Your point about the multicultural/international novel is spot on. I didn't think of this trend when reading the Kunkel, but now that you mention it, the obviousness of this oversight is pretty staggering.

And might we just say that whatever the "taste" of the mainstream is could always be described as "middlebrow"? That's not quite how I understand the term, through Woolf's formulation, but maybe this is a more useable one.

Lee said...

It's interesting that Kunkel claims that the middlebrow has vanquished all foes. I've been working on an essay that argues precisely the opposite. The middlebrow isn't the mass cultural. The so-called middle class (in the U.S. at least) is crumbling, which I think is leading to a genuine decline in Midcult. The Zombification of our literature is, in a sense, the successful breach of the parapet separating Masscult and Midcult. The declines of Borders and Barnes & Noble might likewise stand as anecdotal evidence of this transformation.

Andrew Seal said...


You're absolutely right to question the definition, and I should have pushed it further. "Middlebrow" has always had a sort of unstable meaning, used in both a sociological sense and a critical/judgmental sense. I suppose I didn't really clarify this problem any in the post, but I meant it more in the critical sense, as that's pretty much how Kunkel was using it--not to designate specific institutions (such as Oprah's Book Club or the NYT Bestseller List) which can be used to define "middlebrow" sociologically, but rather to indicate a sensibility which can only be judged aesthetically.

I'll be very interested to see that essay, but I guess I (and Kunkel too, maybe) find the masscult/midcult distinction to have collapsed basically because a true mass culture (and the mass itself) has collapsed, at least in the MacDonald/Frankfurt/Ortega y Gasset senses. The crumbling of the middle class is not so much a dissolution back into a mass culture as it is a fragmentation into many (still overlapping but nevertheless distinct) specialized subcultures. There's not a Top 40 anymore, basically, just lots of crossover hits and many different charts. But that's just my (thumbnail) reading--there's certainly, as you say, lots of evidence to point to your reading.

Andy said...

Franzen. Smith. DeLillo. Ellis. Haslett. Wallace. Etc. Why am I not surprised that a lot of the let's-assess-the-new-millennium gestures that have been appearing, oh, since the dawn of the new millennium seem to limit the scope of the survey to writers we are likely to have heard of. The problem with assuming that the state of the art is informed only by the work of writers who have made a commercial impact is isn't true, except insofar as such an assumption is useful for identifying marketing trends in fiction. This isn't the same thing as identifying artistic trends in fiction.

Besides, it's hard even to take seriously an evaluation that contains such a serious misunderstanding of DeLillo's work (a "decline from social critique toward mysticism"? was it ever really "about" either of these things?) and that parrots the now-gospel idea that Wallace was a benevolently big-hearted figure who "promised an avant-garde humanism," somehow linking these two misapprehensions to a third, the "eclipse" of novels of flinty feeling and flat characters (neither of which would characterize either of these authors).

All I get from this piece is that Kunkel reads the usual journals to keep up with what's going on in publishing.

Lee said...

The essay is at a pretty primitive level of development at the moment -- I'm juggling numerous writing commitments -- but I very much agree about the importance of market segmentation, which is ironically enough Macdonald's "solution" to the rise of MIdcult.

I've been trying to coin phrases for what I see happening. As far as I can tell, the two most signifiant strains that have emerged in the last 30 years are what I'm thinking of as "Fancult" -- i.e., market segmentation -- and then a migration of Midcult into an increasingly beleaguered acadamy. Acadecult? Unicult? Haven't found a way to talk about this yet.

Which isn't to say Midcult is gone or dead. Far from it. O magazine abides, now under new leadership. I suspect we'll miss the middlebrow if it ever truly goes away. "Remember when people read works that aspired to speak to a broad audience," we'll say. "Remember when lots of people read 'ambitious' works at the same time!"

We'll built museums to the middlebrow Lost Public, but only after it's good and dead.

JKS said...

So you criticize Kunkel for confusing writing trends for market trends,

"I agree completely, although I think Kunkel is being a little bit slippery—the term "middlebrow" really abuses the purchasers of the books being indicated more than it does their writers, their publishers, or the critics who praise them,"

before admonishing him for failing to recognize what is basically a market trend:

"I am surprised that Kunkel doesn't touch on what I see as the most significant development of the past ten year's literature, which is mostly a sort of personnel change: a large percentage of the most successful novelists have immediate roots in a country other than the U.S."

Define successful? Did writers outside the U.S. suddenly become better, or did U.S. literary consumers finally acknowledge international literature because of 1. 90's identitarian politics, 2. the success of translation-based publishing imprints, etc.?

And please be honest about this mistake, I'm growing weary of half-baked attacks on n+1 or its writers.

Andrew Seal said...

I guess I should have given some examples of "the internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel" over the past decade, as you appear to have misunderstood me, or (more likely, I think) you appear to have read a little too hastily. By "novelists [who] have immediate roots in a country other than the U.S." I meant the likes of Lahiri, Díaz, Hemon, Shteyngart, Adichie, et al., none of whom are being published by "translation-based... imprints" or who are pursuing their career from "outside the U.S." (although I think Adichie spends more time out than the others).

I suppose one can call this a marketing trend, but only in the nugatory sense that any success on the part of people who seem to have something in common is part of a "marketing trend." At any rate, it seems unnecessarily skeptical and uncharitable to imply that these writers have found acclaim basically as part of a marketing mirage. There are certainly much better ways for accounting for this cohort's success, like the spread of English as a global language, for one, which allowed many of these writers a shorter period of adaptation and adjustment to U.S. culture, allowing them to begin writing--in English--earlier and with greater proficiency than prior generations may have been able to accomplish.

But you missed my point regarding Kunkel: I didn't accuse him of mixing up writing and marketing trends; I accused him of slipping from a critique of production (which includes, in my mind, not just writers, but editors, marketers, critics, and publishers) into a critique of consumption (which would be the purchasers). Talking about a "change in personnel" in terms of an influx of non-U.S.-born *producers* of literature is still talking about production, not about consumption.

As for defining successful, well I'm not going to pretend it isn't in part subjective, but for an example of other people's subjective judgments, I can point to a list like the recently published 20 under 40 from the New Yorker to make my point. A very large number of the writers included meet my criterion--"hav[ing] immediate roots outside the U.S."

JKS said...

" the spread of English as a global language, for one, which allowed many of these writers a shorter period of adaptation and adjustment to U.S. culture, allowing them to begin writing--in English--earlier and with greater proficiency than prior generations may have been able to accomplish."

These things account merely for the writing of the books at all. Their "success"--in the way you originally meant but are now moiling away from--is due to the fact that many consumers, including the New Yorker, buy into the publishing trend. I think pointing to the New Yorker list proves my point: do you really think the New Yorker would publish a list of authors no one would buy? You think the New Yorker is truly interested in publishing the best, or even the most exemplary, fiction available?

Anyone who has ever worked for a big publishing house--not necessarily a translation-based imprint--knows that editors have in a major sense become marketers. They publish what they believe will sell. Even Lorin Stein at FSG measured accessibility into his editorial recipe.

In other words, the particular way you parse "production" from "consumption" possesses the virtue of revelation out of total spuriousness. Kunkel, on the other hand, routinely demonstrates an awareness of how the two actually work together. See Goodbye to the Graphosphere. See Full Employment.

As for the middlebrow quibble, Kunkel does explain on the "production" or writerly side what constitutes the middlebrow:

"To use some convient examples: Kafka and Saramago could be called true without being realistic, while the hallmark of middlebrow fiction was always supposed to be that it was realistic without being true. The disappearance of the term “middlebrow” over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world. Such realism should be sharply distinguished from that of a Norman Rush."

And for the claim that the middlebrow defines every age of art, look no further than n+1's editor Mark Greif:

"The question suggests that the perennial quality of cultural criticism undermines particular historical criticisms. That’s not so. What leads to misunderstandings are two classes of naïve and ahistorical or totalizing perennial criticisms. One: Those that claim the bulk of art X is now mediocre, whereas previously it was good. The bulk of any art in every age is mediocre; the bulk of the arts in previous times, if you look back, will be mediocre."

The next time you try a hack job, at least sharpen your hatchet.

Andrew Seal said...

No, the global spread of English does contribute to their success for the reason I mentioned but you ignored: their greater familiarity with English prior to immigrating shortened their learning curve as developing writers. Unless you believe that learning to write good prose (in whatever language) happens intuitively and to only certain pre-ordained individuals, I think a shortened learning curve is a pretty compelling (though partial) explanation for these writers' quick success--if they wrote English poorly because of less familiarity with it, they wouldn't be published; if they weren't published, they couldn't be recognized. My argument is that this cohort of writers is filling an already existing (and already successful) role of interpretation of "foreign" cultures that has previously been filled almost exclusively by English-as-a-first-language speakers; the fact that this role is now being filled partially by writers who have English as a second (or third or fourth) language is partly due to the spread of English as a global language.

(And I'm not "moiling away" from anything; when I used "successful" in the post, I meant specifically acclaim from outlets like the New Yorker. You may have read it differently because I didn't spell it out, but I said nothing that can possibly be construed as ruling out the definition that I eventually gave--the subjective judgments of recognized arbiters of taste like the New Yorker.)

Andrew Seal said...


As for the rest of your comment, you seem to be saying things I agree with and have actually affirmed in the above but which you are sure are devastating refutations.

Basically, I think the problem is that you seem to be reading my discussion of production and consumption as if I think they are unrelated, discrete processes, as if I think that production is a world of pure intentions of making great literature and has nothing to do with selling books. I don't see how you could have gotten that, but if that is the case, that is certainly not the rationale for me stressing the distinction between the two.

The reason I am enforcing a distinction is because, when he talks about the "middlebrow," Kunkel is muddying the waters; what he evidently means to be critiquing is a growing conservatism among writers, editors/marketers, and critics as to what they will try to put before the public, that they won't commit to trying to "sell" more experimental literature even to the educated reader. He seems to assume, as I also do, that editors, marketers, writers, and critics have some power (though obviously not total power) to shape the tastes of the reading public, that the business of selling books is not just plebiscitary. And so failing to try to shape the tastes of the public in the direction of more challenging or experimental fiction is not only frustrating, but also basically reprehensible. That is a fair criticism, but it doesn't really need the name "middlebrow" to make it; introducing that word in fact, I'm arguing, re-directs some of the frustration behind that criticism away from the editors/writers/marketers/critics who are not making the attempt to promote challenging fiction and toward the readers who now aren't getting any directions about how or where to find new experimental fiction and who can't, I think, really be faulted for not doing so. I agree with the sentiment of Kunkel's last sentence that there is something disappointing about the fact that "the renovated realism of the past decade... has more often been defended in terms of pleasure than of reality," but my inclination is to hold the people who have been doing this defending-in-the-name-of-pleasure responsible, and not the people who have accepted this as a valid rationale for choosing what to read. Basically, I'm okay with Kunkel's snobbery, as long as it's directed against over-cautious writers, editors, and critics; sneaking in a snobbery that's directed against readers is, I think, a little petty, and that's what I think the use of the term "middlebrow" does.

Finally, I'm not clear if you think the Greif quote disproves the idea that "the middlebrow defines every age of art" or if you think that I'm arguing something different than that. I read the Greif quote as a re-statement of the persistent dominance of the middlebrow, and that was what I meant when I quoted Mark Athitakis on the subject.

JKS said...

Man, do you go on at length!

1. I didn't ignore anything. You claim that the spread of global English accounts for the success of the writers you cite. It doesn't. You cite Lahiri, Díaz, Hemon, Shteyngart, Adichie. Of these, Lahiri, Diaz, and Shteyngart emigrated before the age of ten. Adichie and Lahiri were raised in countries where English was the national language. Unless you mean to tell me that the spread of English to Nigeria (or London) is "recent" phenomenon that determined the "success" of Adichie more than say, Wole Soyinka, we simply have nothing to talk about.

2. Maybe you fail to define success because you don't see how, in this case, your distinction between production and consumption depends upon its definition. Does the spread of global English account for the astounding quality of their work? Or does it simply explain their presence on the New Yorker list? If these writers are more successful, does that mean that they write better books than their predecessors? Do you mean that more international writers are writing successful novels? Are these novels successful because they are very good or even great? Are they better than middlebrow?

3. You're right. What Kunkel really needed--in a piece restricted to just over 1,000 words--is an elaborate longueur redefining the middlebrow in contemporary literature.

(The Greif quote illustrates that the Athitakis point was already a part of the conversation at n+1.)

With all due respect, I just don't buy into the notion that "middlebrow" is a dig at literary consumers. If someone claims a novel is middlebrow, we generally accept the producer/consumer nexus. When Kunkel says that the middlebrow "has more often been defended in terms of pleasure than of reality," he means this of the critic, the figure that unites the producer/consumer in just the way we both mean. Compare this to James Wood, who more or less claims that culture should come to the writer. Kunkel's approach is fair-minded in comparison. He clearly defines the middlebrow in terms of its writers (a tenuous commitment to sincerity), its critics (defense in terms of pleasure), and its readers (not too trashy, enjoyable books). None of this is confusing. You quibble. JW is a better target.

Andrew Seal said...

I'm responding to you at length because I'm taking you seriously and am making an honest effort at being clear and complete in making my case. It's better, I think, than being flippant and quick.

1. I think ten years (or even less) is still pretty culturally formative, so in many writers' cases, even if they immigrated when they were young, this exposure still has a non-negligible effect. More significantly, though (and this comes across especially in Lahiri's case), the spread of English as a global language quite obviously affected the generation of the writers' parents, an effect which is passed down to the child. I felt this was obvious, though; I didn't think that you would interpret my argument as implying that I thought the spread of English was a phenomenon confined to the generation of Lahiri et al. It has simply born the most fruit in this generation in terms of American writers.

I don't really see why this is a point of contention--do you feel that there is a similar cohort of American writers from the 80s or 90s who also were born outside the U.S.? Certainly not one that has quite the same cultural impact as the group I have outlined. Or do you feel that these writers are simply unimportant? If not, I'm not sure why we're really arguing here.

2. I haven't failed to define success. I've done so a couple of times now and my definition has, I think, a rather clear connection to how I'm using the terms 'production' and 'consumption.' At any rate, it should be obvious that whether *I* think the writers I mentioned are "very good or even great" or "astounding" or "better than middlebrow" has absolutely nothing to do with what I mean by "successful."

Literary fiction intends to get noticed by cultural arbiters like the New Yorker or the NYT or the Pulitzer committee because that is mostly how these things sell. They don't have the advertising dollars behind them that some of the genre or mass market novelists get, and word of mouth usually gets started by a James Wood review rather than by an Oprah's Book Club selection. So being "successful" means getting noticed by these cultural arbiters--not necessarily consistently positively, just consistently. Richard Powers is a successful novelist, even if he's gotten a fair number of negative reviews. But he has also gotten acclaim from those places at one point or another, and that has allowed him to continue getting attention from them.

It's not that I'm trying to evade the aesthetic question--in order to become "successful" in the way that I mean it, *someone* needs to think your book is at least pretty good. It's that my definition of success isn't dependent on whether any one given person thinks the book is aesthetically good, or great, or astounding or better than middlebrow.

Andrew Seal said...

3. I didn't want "an elaborate longueur" from Kunkel on the concept of the middlebrow; I wanted him not to use the word to begin with, as I said, because it didn't advance his critique of overcautious writers, editors, and critics. And I didn't say his use of the term was confusing. I said it was a little petty.

But our disagreement here isn't really about who Kunkel was including in the term "middlebrow"--we're both saying that Kunkel is indicating what you're calling "the producer/consumer nexus." What I'm saying, and what I take it you disagree with, is that the critique Kunkel is making doesn't need to extend over the whole nexus, and that dragging readers (or "consumers") into it isn't productive. People read "not too trashy, enjoyable books." So what? Good writers, good publishers, and good critics show how "enjoyment" can be broadened to include new experiences--including (and especially) the experience of what Kunkel is "embarrass[ed]" to call "the truth of the world." That's where the critique belongs, not at the reader's feet.