"It's Good to Hate Novels," He Said Lovingly
In the first decade of the Twenty-First Century AD, there was a vogue called blogging.
Blogging happened when people operated websites and used those websites to publish their own inane commentary on the issues of the day.
—Jarett Kobek, Only Americans Burn in Hell
The best novel I've read in a while is only a novel in the loosest sense of the term, and its most traditionally novelistic parts are openly and deliberately terrible. It's less a novel than an angry, fragmented essay with some shards of novelish text scattered through it. I read it compulsively, addictively, hardly believing my eyes. Though the book is messy, angry, sometimes despairing, and often outrageous, more than anything else while reading it I felt joy — and, as often as not, sheer, unbridled glee.
The book is Only Americans Burn in Hell by Jarett Kobek, and it was published in 2019, though I only discovered it recently. On the cover, the title is gigantic and Kobek's name only appears in a small font as part of a single line that declares: "from 2017 Bad Sex in Fiction shortlist nominee Jarett Kobek".
I paused my reading of another novel to read Only American Burn in Hell. I am reluctant to name that other novel, because I don't think what I have to say is limited to it ... but on the other hand, it is such an excellent foil to Kobek's book that I can't resist bringing it up, and to make my claims at all clear I have to discuss it in enough detail that it will be easily recognizable to anybody who cares to recognize it. Indeed, I need to quote it. But maybe I don't need to be completely specific. Maybe I can call it FA and its author LO. (Truly, it doesn't matter what actual novel FA is, so don't spend lots of time trying to figure it out. If I were less lazy I would make up a fake literary novel, a melange of various real novels, but I don't want to be bothered, and this is a blog post, not an essay in the goshdarn New York Review of Books. You get what you pay for.)
Only Americans Burn in Hell easily diverted me away from FA because Only Americans Burn in Hell is actually fun to read and FA, for me at least, started out fun to read and then went in directions that made it about as exciting as chewing on a piece of old gum. After finishing Kobek's book, I returned to FA and dragged myself all the way through to the last page, but the more I read, the clearer it became that FA's interests were too far from my own for me to get much from it, even though aesthetically, FA is closer to my general preferences than Only Americans. LO writes quite wonderfully long sentences, even by the standards of contemporary American Literary Fiction (which loves to congratulate itself for its sentence fetishism but actually is beholden to an extremely narrow idea of the sentence as form and possibility), and I am a sucker for long sentences, for well-balanced and classically rhetorical sentences, for sentences of the Samuel Johnson school — but the problem with FA for me is not its sentences so much as how its form and content intersect. LO seems to think contemporary technologized bourgeois life is meaningful and worth representing via a psychologically realistic mode, when contemporary technologized bourgeois life really only deserves to be detourned, undermined, discarded, mocked, or at least ignored. Contemporary technologized bourgeois life will, like capitalism, absorb and profit off of anything that attempts to represent it realistically. Because it is monstrously terrible. LO knows it is monstrously terrible — FA is about how vapid and ruinous contemporary technologized bourgeois life is — but nonetheless thinks that life's monstrous terror can be limned, as they say, through almost 300 pages of a narrator ruminating on small aspects of that life.
Jarett Kobek knows that such lives are monstrously terrible and that the monstrous terribleness consumes whatever approaches it. That's why he embraces the only thing anybody stuck in contemporary technologized bourgeois life ought to embrace: failure.
Only Americans Burn in Hell includes the pathetic remnants of a failed fantasy novel, and it tells some of the story of how Kobek's previous novel, The Future Won't Be Long, was published by Penguin Random House, one of the world's major publishers, and sold barely any copies at all, making it a massive failure for the company that gave Kobek a solid bit of money for it, and dooming Kobek's chances of landing another book with a major publisher in the US. Only Americans is also a book about Kobek's (or his narrator's) failure to fit in to mainstream American consumer culture, although saying he "failed" at that supposes he ever wanted it or tried to achieve it, which it doesn't seem that he ever did ... so maybe in fact it's a book about his success at not being a typical inhabitant of mainstream American consumer culture. And therein lies some of the power of failure as a concept — what may be a failure in one sense, may be a triumph in another. What matters is whether that other sense has value or usefulness.
Jarett Kobek writes much shorter sentences and paragraphs than the sentences and paragraphs in FA. There is a rhythm to his prose that recalls writers like Douglas Coupland and, especially, Kurt Vonnegut. Kobek actually complains about the Vonnegut comparison in Only Americans Burn in Hell. Though his rhythms and juxtapositions and repetitions do, in fact, inescapably evoke the sound of Vonnegut, there is in Vonnegut's best writing a more prevalent lightness and playfulness, a sense that even if he didn't really believe in basic humanitarian values, at least he could pretend, and you could pretend too, and that's good, isn't it, because you are what you pretend to be. That sense of humanitarian lightness is absent in Kobek's book. He never forces optimism or happiness, even in jest. (Indeed, sometimes you (I?) might suspect him of willful gloominess — "There goes Jarett again, punching himself in the face and moaning about genocide while the rest of us sit here and watch this movie without worrying so much about it.") The pleasure of reading Kobek is the pleasure of encountering aggressive bile and contempt aimed at the world, tempered with self-hatred, which is itself tempered with further bile and contempt aimed at the world, which is leavened with another sprinkle of self-hatred, before it all coalesces into a delightful, disturbing mass that is somehow simultaneously hilarious and depressing. It reminds me a bit of discomforting, always-potentially-offensive stand-up comedy — the kind of stand-up comedy you get from somebody like Frankie Boyle, whose abuse of the audience is second only to his abuse of himself. The effect can be unsettling and infuriating, but, in small doses at least, it provides a cathartic pleasure unavailable to better-behaved writing, a pleasure akin to that of decluttering via a stick of dynamite.
Or perhaps the pleasure of reading Kobek is more about the relationship of narrator to world. FA's narrator seems to work from the subtext, "Life is terrible, but I am interesting," while the narrator in Only Americans Burn in Hell seems to work from the subtext, "Life is terrible, and so am I."
Why, though, is the latter compelling and the former not?
Maybe for you it's reversed. Maybe you get hope in these troubled days from narrators who recognize the world is terrible but still find themselves fascinating. The attraction of such a perspective is that it helps us feel better about ourselves (and given how rotten most everybody seems to feel these days, there's certainly value in that). That is a path toward comfort from fiction, and one of the great virtues of fiction — of any art — is its ability to comfort during times of affliction.
And yet sometimes we ought not to be comforted. Particularly if our comfort is concealing difficult truths. If our comfort is allowing us to hurt other people, or hurt ourselves, then it is not a value to be celebrated. But literature that seeks to let us know how despicable we are is not literature that finds a wide audience. The masses do not read for masochistic pleasures. Kobek's book was, reportedly, rejected even by the smallest of small presses in the US. Meanwhile, FA has been published by a relatively new but highly respected press (or, as it calls itself, "an innovative publishing venture"), distributed by Penguin Random House, its dustjacket adorned with an endorsement from a very famous literary writer published by Penguin Random House. FA has gotten lots of notice, including positive reviews in both the daily New York Times and the New York Times Book Review. It's a good book to talk about at literary cocktail parties. I expect it will vie for awards.
Only Americans Burn in Hell did not, to my knowledge, vie for awards or get talked about at cocktail parties. It's the literary equivalent of somebody showing up at a cocktail party and urinating in the drinks.
It is entirely possible for prickly, contentious, angry, aggressive books to be published by major publishers and to get nominated for and occasionally even win major awards, but to do so they need to fit within certain expectations about what, for instance, a novel can be and do. They have to be legible (and, preferably, flattering) to the types of people who publish such books, the types of people who sit on juries for such awards. That is an obvious point, but it has to be made, because too often editorial decisions, sales figures, and award nominations are seen as objective evaluations of quality, when they are more a reflection of a group of people's collective self regard. This is true regardless of ideology or aesthetics (few leftist advocates for "transgressive fiction", for instance, celebrate the kind of fiction that trangresses their own assumptions, interests, desires, values). Rarely do you hear an editor or member of an awards jury say, "I have no idea how to categorize this book; nor could I confidently say I know what it is trying to do; and I suspect the author's values are rather different from, even opposed to, my own; and that is what I so admire here." And maybe that's good, generally — if people really and truly valued transgression over everything else, they'd claim that The Turner Diaries ought to have won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Certainly, some nutjobs probably do believe that, but we're (thankfully!) not putting them on juries for innovative fiction! (Or are they on such juries? Please don't tell me if they are. I'm hoping to keep my last, battered hopes for humanity alive for a few more minutes.)
Transgression and subversion are probably the wrong lens to apply here. One of the reasons I so enjoyed Only Americans Burn in Hell is that I feel that I do have a pretty good idea of what it's up to, and its author's values are probably relatively close to my own. I like the book because many of the targets it sets its sights on are ones I'm happy to see get shot. But my reading of this book did make me think about ideas of value, and about the ways books get talked about in America these days, and I reflected on my own commitments and shortfalls in a way I rarely do with most new American fiction. That's what I appreciate about it. Not that it's a giant middle finger to everything I hold dear, but that it holds dear some of the things I do, and offers surprising ways of viewing those things and their contexts.
Another source of excitement is the way Kobek's book requires readers to suspend certain judgments if they are to continue reading with any pleasure. I am always happy to encounter books that mess with received ideas of form and genre. I couldn't — while reading or now in retrospect — make up my mind about whether Only Americans Burn in Hell is even a novel. That made me happy. Though I love novels, I also love the idea of hating novels, because in hating novels I can clarify why novels mean so much to me as a form, or at least an idea, or a possibility.
Conversely, FA is clearly a novel. From the little bits of information in the author bio, it seems likely that the narrator of FA is rather close in experience and opinions, if not personality, to the author, but the book rarely feels like a memoir, because memoirists usually try to get out of their own way a bit more. The graphomanic, obsessively-self-regarding narrative style is more common to contemporary novels, perhaps because writers aren't as embarrassed by narrative narcissism in a character as they are in themselves. Though it seeks to convey ideas, FA does so by embedding those ideas in a character and situations, so that even when the narrator offers opinions, those opinions are linked to the dramatized situations. For instance, it spends many pages trying to show us what is wrong with social media, particularly Twitter, via the characters' thoughts and behaviors. There's a certain sanctimoniousness to it, but the sanctimony is as easily attributed to the characters as it is to the book or the writer.
Only Americans Burn in Hell is sanctimonious in its own way, but it has no patience for the descriptive and scenic mode of writing common to novels and narrative nonfiction. Kobek makes that impatience a central conceit of the book itself. The badness of the (deliberately) bad fiction is clearest in the weakness of its scene building, the feeling it conveys of work written by an author indifferent to nearly everything that John Gardner argues for in The Art of Fiction — it's not even in opposition to such artful fiction, not setting up a critique of it, but simply can't be bothered to try.
The artless fiction is surrounded by lots of exposition, even exhortation, and that exhorting exposition makes no attempt to pretend to be anything other than the insights/rants of Jarett Kobek. There are a lot of possible purposes for this, but what I found most compelling about the book's indifference to fictionality is its rejection of the idea that there is any usefulness in addressing contemporary society through the lens of, "Let's pretend."
Even within the more novelistic passages, the mode of Only Americans Burn in Hell is what generally gets called, lazily but usefully, telling rather than showing. For instance, rather than waste pages and pages setting up situations and characters to demonstrate the perils of Twitter, Kobek comes right out and says it: "Twitter was a place where people practiced bumper-sticker morality while other people threatened to rape and murder each other for expressing simple sentiments about banal objects."
(If I wanted to keep writing about this mode of storytelling, I would add that one of the things that's impressive about Only Americans Burn in Hell is that this expository mode itself becomes a kind of "showing". We can frame the narrative as the product of a particular kind of person, and get a sense of that person — and that person's life — through the implications of what they write. In other words, read the narrator as a character and the text not as an essay that we evaluate based on its arguments, but that we instead evaluate as evidence. Thus, we can read the exposition in Only Americans Burn in Hell as we might read the commentary in Pale Fire.)
Here's a hypothesis: Psychological realism and showing-not-telling are inadequate to the contemporary moment because their effect is to meditate on single drops of water instead of the flood pouring from a fire hose straight into your face. FA spends many pages of long sentences and long paragraphs explaining the difficulties of getting a visitor's visa in Germany, while Only Americans Burn in Hell points out, in one page, how much of the world's publishing industry is now owned by old German conglomerates that not only profited during the Nazi years but also, in the case of Penguin Random House's owner, benefited from Jewish slave labor.
Complaining about the Vonnegut comparisons, Kobek's narrator says he and Vonnegut both ripped off Louis-Ferdinand Céline:
Besides being one of the best writers of the Twentieth Century AD, [Céline] was also a rabid anti-Semite who collaborated with the Nazis.
But I can't judge!
I too have collaborated with Nazis!
I was published by Penguin Random House!
This is followed by an accusation that what Kobek calls the Serious Novel (and I, not disagreeing, call here Literary Fiction) is ripping off Henry James:
All that crap, all of the good writing, the well-structured paragraphs, the emphasis on plot, the unexpected quirks of prose, the pretend lives of pretend people which resolve into a reflection of Our Time and Our Selves!
It's all technique!
Henry James was doing that shit before your parents were fertilized zygotes!
It's older than old hat.
And that's how we've defined the Serious Novel.
By pretending that technique from the Nineteenth Century AD can encompass the horror of the Twenty-First Century AD.
And because of that definition, most Serious Novels are so fucking boring that they have zero hope of competing with smartphones.
(One might argue with a bit of the literary history here — Flaubert, Balzac, and Dickens are all responsible for parts of what Kobek is talking about, it's not just old Henry James — but Kobek is basically right, it seems to me, though it's been a complaint of modernists and post-modernists for a century or more, which means that the complaint, too, is old hat.)
I don't blame anyone for getting addicted to their smartphones.
I only blame people for their terrible attempts at reviewing my work.
And thus we are invited to think about the ways that literary history ... and cultural history ... and technological history — history, broadly writ — has brought us to a place where the things that are supposed to be great achievements are, in fact, much less interesting than a smartphone.
Perhaps I am wrong to blame, as I did above, the tools of Literary Fiction. Really what elevates Kobek's book over many others for me is not technique but rather attitude and worldview. To return to our opposite example, I read FA hoping for what the book had been marketed as: a novel of perceptive insight into a certain sphere of life. And though the evaluation of whether something is perceptive or not depends very much on what your own experiences and prejudices are, the problem for me with FA is not the presence or lack of insight, but the smallness of its portrait, the extreme limitations of its psychological slice-of-life. Serious psychological realism is a mode of fiction that works well for evoking textures of experience, streams of consciousness, subtle ironies — but it fails when confronted with the flatness of social media, the power-addled stupidity of a political reality that defies parody, or the brutal gruesomeness of history. Against social media, contemporary American politics, or history, such fiction may be sensitive and aesthetically pleasing. But in a world as ghastly as our own, those phenomena do not need sensitive aesthetics, they need screams of rage.
The narrator of FA embraces (solipsistic) psychological realism because she is politically dull, which is clear from the first paragraph:
Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party sysem, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media. People looked sad, on the the subway, in the bars; decisions were questioned, opinions rearranged. The same grave epiphany was dragged around everywhere: we were transitioning from an only retrospectively easy past to an inarguably more difficult future; we were, it could no longer be denied, unstoppably bad. Although the death of any hope for humanity was surely decades in the making, the result of many intersecting systems described forbiddingly well, it was only that short period, between the election of a new president and his holding up a hand to swear to serve the people's interests, that made clear what had happened, that we were too late.
It's a lovely paragraph rhythmically. It includes semi-colons, which I am a fan of. Yet the sentences don't really say much — their content is vague, bland. Intentionally, I'm sure, as the rest of the book works hard to embed this kind of free-floating ennui within the specific circumstances of the narrator's life. That's the crux of the problem, though. The book reduces the world to the size of the narcissistic narrator rather than expand the narrator (or, more importantly, our understanding of her) toward the world.
Kobek's narrator is primarily interested in himself not as a self but as a being upon which the world works its powers and histories. The narrative reflects a personal consciousness, certainly, but that personal consciousness is never separate from the forces of the world.
As contrast with the first paragraph of FA, here's a passage from Only Americans Burn in Hell (not its first paragraph, but the firstness isn't the point):
The people who'd voted for Trump went nuts because they'd won and had no idea what to do with their implausible victory.
The country's political liberals went nuts because Trump put them in the position of facing an undeniable and yet unpalatable truth.
This was the truth that the political liberals could not deny and could not face: beyond making English Comp courses at community colleges very annoying, forty years of rhetorical progress had achieved little, and it turned out that feeling good about gay marriage did not alleviate the taint of being warmongers whose taxes had killed more Muslims than the Black Death.
You can't make evil disappear by being a reasonably nice person who mouths platitudes at dinner parties. Social media confessions do not alleviate suffering. You can't talk the world into being a decent place while sacrificing nothing.
Instead of pointless assertions of people feeling that the world is ending and the future is bad, this passage at least claims to know something. It is straightforward, casual writing, but has an aphoristic eloquence of its own, and it doesn't dismiss horror with lilting anomie.
Only Americans Burn in Hell also does something that FA does not, even as some of their subject matter is the same: it defamiliarizes things we take for granted. This is an old technique, arguably as old as Don Quixote, and it's one of the things that makes Kobek sound so much like Vonnegut, because their methods of defamiliarization are similar. They explain common things as if to a child — but a child from another planet. This also makes Only Americans Burn in Hell sometimes sound like the Strange Planet cartoons of Nathan Pyle. Both Vonnegut and Pyle are orders of magnitude more popular than Kobek, however, for various reasons. One of those reasons is that Kobek's defamiliarizations are based on expressions of anti-imperialism and anti-militarism that are now broadly unpopular in the United States. Vonnegut often offered anti-militaristic and anti-imperialist ideas, but he established himself as the beloved curmudgeon of the counter-culture when anti-militarism was popular (since middle-class kids were getting draft notices), and he was already an established, famous bestseller by the time militarism and American imperialism got popular again. His tone also often undercut the seriousness of what he tried to convey. People who had "I support our troops!" bumper stickers covering their Hummers could say, "Oh, that's Vonnegut being Vonnegut, isn't he funny!" (Beware becoming a brand, writers, because though it may get you lots of money and attention, it will also make you easy to dismiss.)
In contrast, here's Kobek:
People had stopped arguing about the divine right of kings and now screamed at each other about human rights, about how terrible it was that some inequality in the internal society had made a mockery of that society's values, and then retreated into their homes and feasted on the mass-murdered flesh of animals while their militaries dropped bombs on distant locales and the mechanisms of their societies destroyed the poor with unfair labor practices.
Wonder Woman was a film made by people baptized in the primordial ooze of unconscious American life.
The attendees saw a story about the unexamined glory of American foreign policy, of the meaningfulness of war and violence, and a story about how a woman could be like a man in her ability to simulate genocide.
Only Americans Burn in Hell is premised on the fact that the United States was founded on genocide and slavery, and the related fact that once the United States had succeeded at genocide and been forced to abandon de jure slavery it took up militarism and imperialism as its core values, and these premises make Kobek's a broadly honest novel in ways many others are not. FA wants to be seen as honest about contemporary life, and in its own limited way it is, but it is not honest about the societies it depicts. It shows not a glimmer of understanding of genocide, slavery, militarism, or imperialism, even though the two countries its narrator lives in are two of the most murderous in the history of the last few centuries.
Both books question the value of certain types of writing, and do so within their own forms, but Only Americans Burn in Hell makes that questioning central to its purpose, while FA is less committed to deconstructing itself. (Deconstructing is too polite a term for what Only Americans Burn in Hell does to its narrative — it's more like a self-flaying, the shreds of literary skin draped across the pages, blood dripping through the whole.) There's a section halfway through FA where the narrator tries to write in a mode common to certain types of fiction — short paragraphs without transitions between them, a form with a long and complex global history that the narrator brushes off as too much like Twitter. "What's amazing about this structure," the narrator says, "is that you can just dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work." Well, yes, you can do that, but as this whole section proves, halfhearted collage is not a compelling form, and real collage (whether in art, or, in this case, paratactic writing) requires purpose and skill if it is to be effective. Instead of questioning or undoing the novel's own form and purpose, this section of FA diminishes the intelligence of the narrator, and insults the intelligence of the reader, achieving little.
What all of this makes clear is that, like most people who write them, LO still actually believes in novels. FA would have been a lot more interesting if it were committed to blowing itself up, but instead the narrator just goes back to her previous way of yammering on in long, but connected, paragraphs.
Only Americans Burn in Hell knows that traditional narrative is inadequate to the atrocities of now. It embraces and demonstrates this inadequacy in a variety of ways, most consistently through the presentation of the completely unconvincing, not-even-half-assed fantasy story. "This chapter is a poorly fleshed-out fictional pretense to write about something that isn't fictitious," the narrator tells us at one point. "This is, after all, a novel written in an era when the entire purpose of fiction has been outmoded and destroyed by vast social changes."
And if this were a book written by someone who still had the ability to build suspense or cared about meaningful plot resolution, there'd be about three-to-four thousand words about how Celia went in the building and found Fern and discovered what Fern was doing in Los Angeles.
And it would be so dramatic.
Your heart would be in my hands.
But this book isn't being written by that kind of someone.
I'm burnt out.
Donald J. Trump was elected to the Presidency of the United States!
So there's really no point.
Stop hoping that books will save you.
Everyone else has.
(After reading this passage, I almost stood up and cheered.)
The problem for me with FA and so much of the prestigious Literary Fiction published in the US now is that it still pretends that books will save us.
Saying that, I don't mean that books are pointless and everybody should stop reading and fry their brain watching children play video games on Twitch. Books do, in fact, actually and indisputably save lives — they relieve loneliness, provide a sense of meaning, allow the imagination to expand, help us understand each other. But here's the thing. If this moment is not the moment of five years ago or ten years ago or a hundred years ago, if you believe that things are, in fact, truly different now, then the stuff that is Literary Fiction in America is mostly inadequate, because a book like FA, despite some metatextual flourishes, has the same relationship to an idea of reality as do novels from long before this moment. Despite its Millennial patois, it's older-fashioned than a Boomer, its aesthetic no more contemporary than a dad joke.
To return momentarily to one of Kobek's other statements: No, I don't myself think novels ought to compete with smartphones. What is this "competition"? Whatever it is, it's not a competition worth entering, because the smartphones will always win. Heroin is also more fun than novels, all novels, but that doesn't make doing heroin a good alternative to reading novels. But yes, most novels — Literary, Serious, or otherwise — are boring because they apply the aesthetic and cultural assumptions of a long-bygone era to our own. But just because there's no competition with smartphones and heroin doesn't mean novels can't at least try to provide some new avenues of pleasure, even joy. For all its bile, Only Americans Burn in Hell is a book that gives lots of pleasure and joy, because there's fun to had in watching the kind of performance it offers and thinking about the kind of insight it provides. There are pleasures in FA and similar books, too, particularly at the level of the sentence, but those pleasures are outweighed, for me at least, by annoyances and banalities.
Just today, the New York Times published an article headlined "Our digitized world hasn't just changed how we listen to music. It changed the music itself." That article asserts:
It’s inescapable that today’s aspiring artists and songwriters must operate, for survival, in a landscape of streaming services and social media. From Spotify to TikTok, the goal is to create music that will grab a listener’s attention from beginning to end. You’re not just competing against other creators. You’re also competing against everything else that takes up our time: podcasts, TV, apps and more. So to keep streaming consumers engaged, it is increasingly common for songs to begin in medias res — with a hook, followed by a hook and ending with another hook.
Of course, we could — and should — list many inarguably bad features of this environment for music, for artists, for humans, for the entire biosphere. We should push against and seek to find refuge from some — most — all? — of this world. (I'm doing my part, writing a long blog post. A long blog post! Is there anything more desperately irrelevant?) Nonetheless, the Times article makes a good point: the rigid song structures of pop music are aesthetic phantom limbs.
The same is true for a lot of fiction. But for various sorts of genre fiction, it's not a big deal, because genre fiction thrives on other types of innovation than innovation of form — indeed, in much of the best genre fiction, the familiarity of form allows the strangeness of a lot else. However, fiction (like FA) that specifically seeks to engage with the current moment, and to do so without being genre fiction (though certainly Literary Fiction is a genre) has to fight against received form, or else it's little more than a pastiche of a 1980s pop song. Or an 1880s pop song.
Only Americans Burn in Hell is not significantly more avant-garde than FA — its complaints about narrative were earlier made by writers who've now been dead for longer than I've been alive, and many of those writers did far more radical things with form — but Kobek knows that novels are themselves anachronisms, and their anachronistic qualities are part of his playground. Importantly, Only Americans isn't nostalgic for a time when Novels Mattered To The Culture. They never really did, even though there was a time when the rich white guys who controlled everything used certain books and writers as status symbols. One thing Trump taught America's ruling class, if they hadn't already learned the lesson, is that you don't have to pretend to like art or be literate. Arts and literature are, Trump proved, irrelevant to power. Novels are long. Nobody who's busy ruining the world has time to read them.
Most writers need to feel that they are doing something meaningful, even when they know, in their hearts, they'd probably do more for the world by supporting a local nonprofit organization, mutual aid group, or anarchist gardening society. Discontent is good for making art. The disconent doesn't need to be primarily formal, either. Many of the best novels currently being published are written by people who are unsatisfied with the whiteness, Americanness, maleness, and straightness (among a host of many -nesses!) of novels past. I think this is an absolute necessity today. There are good novels being written by people who are straight or white or male — sometimes all those things! — but they are novels that absolutely hate the aggregated straightness, whiteness, and maleness of the novel as it snowballed its way through US literary history.
Perhaps we should judge novels by their hatreds, and perhaps my biggest gripe against novels like FA is that they do not hate deeply enough, widely enough, or wisely enough. But, again, that is why such novels garner great reviews, pile on the award nominations, win awards. They are, within their discourse community, polite books, well-behaved books, books that flatter the kinds of people most likely to pick them up and read them. That's a good strategy if you want to get distributed by a one of the world's biggest media conglomerates, reviewed by major newspapers and magazines, nominated for major awards, blurbed by famous people whose books are also published by companies that once employed slave labor. Be not angry. Be polite. Flatter the powerful. That's how it's done!
(Thinking about women, writing, politeness, flattery, and anger, I wondered how many literary awards Kathy Acker won when she was alive. All I could find was that she won a Pushcart Prize for a short story in 1979. Kathy Acker was not polite, and she was often angry. She was also one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. She didn't win awards.)
(Thinking about women, writing, politeness, flattery, and anger, I remembered the awards Octavia Butler won. A MacArthur "genius" grant was the most important, an award that really helped change her life, not because it was an award but because it came with a heap of money. Most of the awards she won were for short stories. Her novels, which are now seen as so important, sometimes got nominations for science fiction awards, but that was about it. Butler is being absorbed into the mainstream more than Kathy Acker, but the impoliteness and anger in her work remain strong, and her best novels do not flatter any reader at all, which is one reason why it has taken quite some time for them to gain the kind of mainstream popularity that other, lesser, science fiction did before them.)
That I am so bothered by polite Literary Fiction (especially American) is itself a sign that, despite all my cynicism and curmudgeonliness, I am optimistic. That bother, that sense of annoyance, is a weapon against indifference and fatalism. I know that novels save lives, I know that literature is important — don't I? — because it bothers me so much to read highly skilled writers like LO create novels that could be and do so much more; and it thrills me so much to now and then stumble upon a book like Only Americans Burn in Hell that reminds me why I fell in love with novels in the first place.
Here's a last bit of Kobek:
"It's my guess," said Fern ... "that generating art, and experiencing it, has no connection to the possession of intelligence. There have been millennia of humans writing words and making music and printing posters that insult politicians. Nothing has changed. Still you wallow in your filth. Still you elevate pigs above you. Only a fool would seek intellect among human aestheticians. Better if you look for inspiration among your plumbers."
images via Inspirobot