“There is no ‘great’ literature being written today.”
I was having dinner with a few of my husband’s colleagues, and I must admit that I was ready to pounce on this statement. My dining companion and I had discovered common ground: We both majored in English and were passionate readers.
He was a little disillusioned with the current literary landscape. In an era where a book like “Fifty Shades” gets an entire publishing house an extra year-end bonus, I could understand why. But no great literature? No, that couldn’t be true.
Or was it? In the heat of the moment, I found I couldn’t come up with a single example that I’d be ready to defend.
Is this so surprising? We live in a country that hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 20 years. It has been said that we’re too insular, too narcissistic, and incapable of producing writers who can write about larger, more worldly themes.
In a way, it’s a strong argument. The literary trend for more than 30 years has been “realism” – as Alexander Nazaryan put it in an essay for Salon.com a couple of years ago, the MFA way of “writing what you know.” If you really think about it, it’s rather limiting advice.
Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly frustrating with American literature, particularly the much-hyped “greats” such as Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, neither of whom I suspect have ventured – in person – into the real world at all. At an earlier age, I did enjoy John Updike’s Rabbit novels, but Roth’s American Pastoral nearly killed me in the reading.
A couple of years ago, I saw with utter clarity the problem in contemporary American literature. I read a book weeping with self-indulgence on the heels of a book about greater societal issues: Franzen’s Freedom was opened just as I’d closed the bookjacket on Sapphire’s Push. I’m sorry, but the whinging of an upper-class (not, as Franzen inaccurately described them, middle class) couple doesn’t compare to the desperation of a wounded, underprivileged and abused teenager – and the societal forces that fostered her situation.
It’s ironic, actually, that Franzen has complained about America’s solipsistic culture and lamented that today’s fiction is one-dimensional, since he and his novels are of a feather. I suppose it’s possible that I’m not “reading the text intellectually,” but I doubt it. Freedom is an insipid novel and emblematic of American literature’s current state.
Anyway, this isn’t about Franzen, necessarily, or Roth or even Updike. It’s also not only about these “great white male narcissists” as David Foster Wallace once called them. There are women narcissists as well (Elizabeth Gilbert comes to mind, as does Lena Dunham).
We are, in fact, an entire culture of narcissists. But is this a bad thing? We’re Americans after all, and this country, in its own way, has been created and propelled forward by a unrestrained sense of self. Our literature – at least some of it – should represent both the spiritual and physical journeys we make.
Which brings me to this week’s review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The 52 Books Project: Book #1
Wild is a memoir; so by definition, it’s egocentric. Strayed is a broken woman at the age of 26. She mourns her mother, who recently died; she has cheated on her husband and destroyed their marriage; she has dabbled in heroin. Her life is a mess. Then she has an idea: she’ll hike the Pacific Crest Trail for 1,100 miles – from Southern California to Oregon – alone. It’s a journey of self-reliance, self-discovery and physical rejuvenation.
Many of the reader reviews were critical of Strayed, saying that she was stupidly underprepared for her journey, foolish and very full of herself. These criticisms are valid, and yet, I’m inclined to be more forgiving.
Strayed doesn’t shrink from assigning herself blame. She’s a mess, it’s her own fault, and she knows it. She doesn’t ask for sympathy.
Raw is the word that comes to mind when I think of the book. Strayed’s pain is stripped to the bone. Her fears and doubts keep rising to the surface, and over the long hard miles of the trail, she slowly sheds them just as she sheds most of her toenails. But it isn’t an easy task.
“How fabulous down was for those first minutes! Down, down, down I’d go until down too became impossible and punishing and so relentless that I’d pray for the trail to go back up. Going down, I realized was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.”
You may read Wild and question Strayed’s life, her decisions and her journey, but she is a talented storyteller. The story had momentum. I read well past my bedtime, and at the end, well – I just wanted to flip the book back over and start again immediately.
It’s a rewarding story, as worthy of the word “inspirational” as Eat, Pray, Love is not. Is it “great literature?” No. It’s too introspective, and Strayed is a fluid writer but not a great one.
Still, I’d recommend it. It’s a keeper.
Next week’s review: What in God’s Name, by Simon Rich