The Tunnel Vision of Contemporary Literature

THE ROAD TO THE 3-D STORY

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THE RISK for any arts critic is to embrace the consensus of the presumed greatness of their art.

They’re almost forced to believe in it, surrounded as they are by the promotional noise of giant media conglomerates– including “Big Five” publishing– and other arms of an enormous status quo literary scene. That for all its enormity, whose many appendages carry the same premises and think the same way.

On some level the careers of the inhabitants of the established literary hive are dependent upon that belief in their art’s greatness. Their very number and the very size of the hive reinforces the belief. Which prevents them from looking outside the art, away from the current system.

The latest well-hyped release appears on their desk, and everyone is praising it. Can they fail to do likewise?

This limits their imaginations. They don’t search for those who don’t-play-the-game-the right-way. They don’t look for ways their art could be changed– or seek out those who are changing it. They fail to glance outside the tunnel– for instance, at other possible ways of writing the short story. At alternate modes of literary creation.

Many of them dismiss the idea.

Which reinforces cultural stagnation.

The mundane, the predictable, the dreary.

The authentic artist destroys the predictable. The cautious. The same.

It’s the only way to operate.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit News

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The Decline of Literary Criticism?

OR THE DECLINE OF LITERATURE?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

AN INTERESTING ARTICLE appeared last week at the Time Literary Supplement“Death of the Critic?” by Michael LaPointe. The article addresses the topic of the decline of literary criticism via addressing two recent books on the subject.

LaPointe argues against nostalgia for bygone literary days. He says the importance of literary critics circa 1950 was an aberration. In his eyes the absence of strong figures like Edmund Wilson and Lionel and Diana Trilling today is not to be taken too seriously. He concludes, in fact, by suggesting literature must become more detached from the culture-at-large. From general society. You know, like monks scribbling away in monasteries in bygone medieval days.

The bigger story is right in front of him, but Michael LaPointe waves the story away– the decline of literature in the culture.

CULTURAL FOOTPRINTS

Publishing seems as healthy as it’s ever been. Book readership has kept pace with GDP growth, demographic changes and the like. But that’s the point– it’s only kept pace the last seven decades, maintaining incremental improvement year-by-year, while overall cultural noise has exploded exponentially. While rival claimants for attention– notably sports and music– have increased their cultural profile many times over.

QUICK: Can anyone name an NFL player from 1950? Bob Waterfield maybe? Or a basketball player??

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In 1950 NFL football was scarcely a blip on the cultural radar screen. It produced zero (0) figures as recognizable and renowned as Ernest Hemingway.

Today the situation is reversed. With the rise of the NFL has come countless commentators and analysts– magazines by the score and entire cable networks– devoted exclusively to picking apart every last personality and encounter involving their favorite game.

Music? The music business began increasing its cultural footprint beginning in 1956– interest generated by energetic new products and wildly charismatic personalities.

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With the rise of rock came the creation of the rock critic, via flagship rock magazines like Creem, Rolling Stone, and many others.

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Meanwhile, the ship of literature floated placidly along. Unconcerned. Unaware. Complacently satisfied that within the stuffy world of letters, all seemed fine.

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Literature’s leading figures became less charismatic, less interesting. Finally– with the likes of Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen– either reclusive or irredeemably bland.

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The art’s attempts to reverse this situation– with authors literary or popular from Roxane Gay to George R.R. Martin– are going no place. (Bret Easton Ellis fights heroically to gain cultural attention, but is himself too identified with a moribund and stuffy “Big 5”-backed establishment literary scene to make much headway.)

Without an exciting underlying art to describe, there are unlikely to be exciting critics to describe it.

IS THERE A SOLUTION? 

YES! The solution is the one we prescribe: to mesh both poles of the art, the literary and the popular, creating a new synthesis that’s relevant and meaningful yet connects with a large portion of the populace at the same time. Popular critics would arrive as byproduct.

This starts with a better product. (See recent posts of ours about the 3D Short Story here and here and here.)

Then, more striking personalities to become faces of a renewed art.

Quixotic? Maybe. Art is never transformed by the timid.

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It’s time for literature to walk away from its clubby salons and musty university lounges and step fully back into the game.

THE 3D STORY DEBUTS JUNE 6 AT OUR MAIN SITE.

http://www.newpoplit.com
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

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For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.

New Hemingway-Fitzgerald Discovery?

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Is New Pop Lit about to make some literary history?

We had assumed someone else had written about this– maybe someone has– but it seems that in the answer to our Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question lies a different take on the relationship between those two giants of American letters. It’s important because the two talents stand today as THE largest personalities dominating the field of American letters– in particular, the novel and short story. Iconic figures.

The new take is this: Ernest Hemingway took some obvious shots at F. Scott Fitzgerald over the years. But what if Fitzgerald had been creating some snarky portrayals of Hemingway, in his fiction, first? This appears to be the case.

We’re readying an explanation of all this. . . .

Hyper-Talents of the New Literary Age

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Part I: STORYTELLERS

The foundation of American fiction from its beginning is the ability to tell a story. Ernest Hemingway referred to this ability when he announced that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

 American literature as a unique art form began as an expression of stories told not in refined drawing rooms, but on whaling ships, on riverboats or trains; around prairie campfires or cracker barrel stores. The story– many told orally in regions without books (at best, with cheap pulp journals and dime novels). Certainly, from a time and place without televisions or smartphones.

In his novel The Virginian, Owen Wister celebrated American storytelling via an extended tall tale told by one of his characters. A tale within a tale. Another example is Mark Twain’s celebrated story, “The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County.”

The main feature of this style of fiction is the narrative thread. The idea: To keep the listener listening. The reader reading.

This ability has extended through the history of American lit. From the Big Fish That Got Away stories of Herman Melville, to popular magazine stories like Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” From rugged populists like Jack London, Frank Norris, and Rex Beach, through William Faulkner with his gothic legends of the South; even, perhaps, to present-day page turners.

Through operating this modest but ambitious project, we’ve encountered two men whose work embodies the traditional ability to tell a story, while making that story relevant to what’s happening in the present-day world.

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Our introduction to Scott Cannon‘s art was his long, eerie tale, “Lucid Dreamer,” which combines imagination with the possible, so that it has the feel of an unsettling story told in the woods. Or under a streetlamp at night on an urban streetcorner.

We have, as part of this series, a new story from Scott, with quite a different setting. “Yacht Party” exhibits the writer’s ability to have you see, through sharp description and economy of words, what his characters are experiencing. The best fiction doesn’t distract the reader with unwieldy linguistic fireworks. It puts the reader in the moment. With the plot having something to do with Iran, the story is eerily timely. (Scott sure is a fast writer!)

Check it out!
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Another storytelling talent we’ve published multiple times is Tom Ray.

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As with Scott, Tom’s stories are often quite long. They depend upon hooking the reader at the outset.

Tom Ray’s best setting is Washington D.C., that playground of creepy politicians, oily lobbyists, and the staffers who keep the entire complex bureaucratic machine operating. Could any subject be more topical?!

Our most recent story from Tom, “Benjamin Franklin and the Witch of Endor,” gives us an experienced Insider look. Like Scott, Tom Ray seems to have begun seriously writing after establishing himself in another career, as if he built-up a reservoir of knowledge and stories inside his head waiting to break out.
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Why do we open this series with two storytellers whose style is traditional?

Because American literature’s opportunity to renew itself depends upon a foundation of authentic American writing. A foundation upon which to build. To express American culture, one has to know American reality and American roots– and know writers whose style is an expression, consciously or not, of those roots. A continuation of a storytelling heritage, combined with the American landscape, which made our writers and writing unique.
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NEXT: We look at “Portraitists.” Stay tuned!