Narrowness is strangling today's American fiction

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

February 21, 1999|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

At this millennial moment, when ever fewer seem to enjoy reading, a discouraging trend toward provincialism has infected the literary scene. Many readers, particularly the young, will read now only stories that mirror their own lives, written exclusively by authors their own age (no one 40 or over need apply). One of my students in a graduate program in creative writing dismissed that eternally young, angst-ridden genius Franz Kafka as "an old guy."

Much American fiction that is being published today seems to have been squeezed through a narrowing mirror only to emerge in Lilliputian proportions. Books have grown smaller as a result of economic pressure on publishers. The physical smallness of the book is matched by a narrowness of outlook and a parochialism that are rapidly becoming the norm for both literary and popular fiction.

Too many writers are deliberating tailoring their work for small, select audiences defined by age and ethnicity. Publishers, terrified of their conglomerate bottom line bosses, prefer the niche audience, certain if small, and have even become suspicious of authors reaching for universal truths, ambitious for a wide if uncertain readership. Books by ethnics about their ethnicity sell easily; gays focusing on gayness find eager editors. Feminists do best when they write softly comforting books about female friendships or teary mother-daughter reconciliations like "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Most disquieting is how pervasive this trend is among the young who have burrowed down into reading foxholes. Assuming in reading (and writing) about themselves, they know all they need to know, they deprive themselves of the critical intelligence, the wide perspective reading at its best offers. Languishing in myopic prisons, forgoing the quest for universal truths, they consign themselves to historical illiteracy. The post-modern suspicion that no center of values holds, that there is no universally accessible core of meaning available, has resulted in a provincialism of epidemic proportions. It's ironic that a generation that has little prospect of achieving lives economically better than those of their parents censors itself and refuses to face the issues confronting the society at large.

Yet if intellectual narcissism turns young readers ever inward, who can blame them when the culture at large promotes separatism? In culture, no less than in politics, segregation is alive and well and even the norm. So the New York Times reported on Dec. 29 that while "The Steve Harvey Show" ranked first in black households, it was 118th in white; blacks watch themselves, and read about themselves and whites do the same: "Friends" was popular with whites, but 91st among blacks.

Some other cases in point:

The import of this hunkering down behind identity politics barricades came to me after watching photographer Jill Krementz being interviewed on Booktv. Discussing her latest book, "The Jewish Writer" (Henry Holt, 160 pages, $35), Krementz lamented that she was doomed to an audience well over 50 because the young would not look at black and white photographs, thereby depriving themselves of access to an entire art form.

Buying into the separatist approach, young writers even admit they are searching for small, private mini-cults. Junot Diaz, a writer from the Dominican Republic who has caught the attention of the audience 35 and under with his first book of stories, "Drown," (Riverhead, 208 pages, $12) admitted as much to a New York audience. At a reading titled "Border Raids and Treaties of the Heart," Diaz revealed that he writes for a very particular readership, and termed it "misplaced humanism" to try to "write for everybody."

It is certainly true that great authors have always written about the world they know. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James took as a canvas a specific class, culture and time. Latino, African-American or gay writers are no less entitled to draw on their own experience and to evoke the world that shaped it. The problem lies in the misguided view that we can only learn from those who are like us in all essential respects.

Diaz's advice to young authors was that they always remember who "you're in communication with." A "writer of color" was always to be read by people, or other writers, of color. The ideal reader was a member of your own ethnic group. The result is not a strengthening of cultural identity, as Diaz might suppose, but a paltriness of story. "Drown" reveals the details of life among the Dominicans as if they were interesting in and of themselves, and fails to venture beyond anthropology, depictions of "how we live." He's not only politically correct; he's politically safe.

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