Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Bleak Present

The latest issue of The New York Review has a piece by James Salter on the new Selected Letters of William Styron. The piece quotes a passage from one of those letters, written to Norman Mailer on the subject of The Deer Park, which stuck with me immediately upon reading it:
It's amazing how solid a book it is, in the sense that its effect hangs on, even if you don't particularly want it to. I think this is because there is in the book an unremitting determination to be truthful, and that beautifully distinguishes it from most of the novels which are coming out these days, the writers of which have become so bewilderingly entangled in the dishonesty and million-dollar hokum of contemporary American life that they've lost their point of view entirely, so that their slickly cynical distortions are accepted as realism and truth. Most every form of expression in America is now keenly attuned to the second-rate, if not third-rate….
I found it difficult to read this passage without recalling last year's posts directed at the mindless babble of Jonathan Franzen, not to mention acknowledging poignantly that Ray Bradbury is no longer among us. This is not to suggest that our country no longer has writers driven by that "unremitting determination to be truthful" (Toni Morrison comes to mind). Nevertheless, whenever I pick up a volume of recent American fiction, I find myself ready to bail within the first 25 pages as I realize that the only "unremitting determination" in the text seems to be that of masturbatory self-gratification. Furthermore, I suspect that the focus of Styron's criticism gone global, considering the sort of writing one encounters in Umberto Eco, Yasmina Rezsa, or J. K. Rowling. Perhaps this is just another example of how the Internet changes everything.

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