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Postmodern Village
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Yodeling to No One, or Bean There, Done That
by Lael Ewy

Listening to Fresh Air the other day, I was buried yet again beneath the mountains of pretense piled on contemporary literature. I won't name any names here, but Terri Gross was talking with a "D.L." about all the things writers should never write. These included a list of titles, sentences, and words that an editor in D.L.'s "semi-autobiographical" novel refuses to allow in any work produced by her house. The word that they lit on as especially heinous was "myriad," due to the fact that this was a word no one ever actually used; from this they determined that this word was pretentious.

Not at all ironically, the notion that there are unallowable words is itself the height of pretense. It is saying that we who are the editors and the widely acclaimed, obviously, since we are living at the end of the greatest century and are the greatest literary minds the world has ever known, are forced by our tremendous talent to pass judgment on you, the lesser writer, the hack, the unpublished amoeba.

Or something like that.

I'll leave alone the number of editors who are failed writers for just a minute to say that what makes for good writing is not necessarily anything that can be quantified (nor qualified) into a simple list. This sort of business leads to exactly the sort of aesthetic shut down that characterized the Academicism that killed most of 19th Century French art. It's no surprise, then, that much of this shit exudes straight from the sphincter of America's writing programs.

Again I'll leave a little bit of nastiness to fester by itself so we can imagine the long list of great writers who would be excluded from publication if we took such a prescriptive view of what writing is all about. Dickens, for one, would be right out, as would the Bröntes, Jane Austen, Henry James--you say no one reads James? How about Keats then? Faulkner? Hemingway?

Oh, Hemingway would be okay, and so would Raymond Carver, preferably the latter since he's not as dead.

But these two would be okay simply because the sort of pared-down International-style prose that dominates contemporary American lit is based, basically, on the writing of these two. We're still trying to be them instead of doing the work (and taking the risk) of being ourselves.

Our failure to emulate Hemingway and Carver has not deterred us from garnering a set of rules from their example: make writing simple, direct, free of adjectives and adverbs, and distanced from any attempts at eloquence or elevation. Above all, base your fiction on your own life. It's like writing what you know taken to the extreme. Sadly, most of us haven't had the experiences of a Hemingway from which to draw. What we know are cushy, suburban lifestyles in which the greatest cause of angst is whether or not to try to have sex with that cute grad student who insists on sitting on the front row of all your classes.

So we end up with fiction and poetry that is bland, formulaic (since it was designed explicitly from the above formula) and pretty much the same as everybody else's.

In other words, boring writing.

In other words, boring writing that pretty much resembles our lives, tells us what we already know, and that requires little, if any, creativity, challenge, or originality (as if the Anxiety of Influence hadn't done away with that). So why the hell read it? What new or interesting can we possibly learn? What unique perspective, what uncomfortable idea? Why not just wait until the biography comes out so missing facts and conflicting points of view about the author's life can at least provide a bit of mystery?

In our desire to avoid linguistic cliché, we have produced cliché on a much larger scale. But to write about anything other than writing puts a contemporary writer squarely into the lesser ranks of "genre" writers (one step above "regional," as if our Pantheon of Southern and New England writers aren't that); this produces instantaneous critical death. Its upside is, perhaps, the chance of actually selling some books real people read, but that's still not worth the trade-off of having to capitulate to genre expectations in order to get published.

So a writer who actually still believes in originality, creativity, who still believes that writing should be bold and experimental is pretty much lost to wander among these mountains of pretense, yodeling to no one.