Thursday, September 3, 2009

How Twilight Killed "The Wasteland"

Lev Grossman, book reviewer for Time Magazine, has bravely prophesied an end to modernism. In his Wall Street Journal article, Grossman posits that the modernist stranglehold on novel-writing is finally over. A new day has come! Nuts to you, Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, and Kafka. You guys are history! No longer will readers suffer through beautiful language to get to an epiphany. Today's readers want plot, plot, and more plot. "Lyricism is on the wane," gloats Grossman, citing high sales of the Twilight series as proof that plot trumps beauty for these kids today.

Grossman, possibly unaware that Joyce and Eliot have been dead for fifty years, believes that these "modernists" have tricked us into thinking that a decent plot is indicative of a weak book. So, we're secretly reading mysteries and scifi, wishing literary writers would just take heed. "Should we still be writing difficult novels?" he asks, "Isn't it time we made our peace with plot?"

Grossman has graciously forgiven the moderns for blowing up the conventions of the Victorian novel. But he now feels that the time has come to embrace plot again. His evidence? The popularity of young adult novels, which never aspired to disregard plot in the first place. For Grossman, there have been no intervening literary movements. No novels of consequence that delivered any measure of plot with their lyricism, or any lyricism with their genre. The article has the intellectual weight of a strawberry tart, and yet the internet is upside down with panic over it. Is literary fiction over? Do we all have to start writing vampire novels?

Relax. Grossman's thinking is reductive, cowardly, but mostly just silly.

Consider these three major flaws:

1. It's weak on literary history. Did modernists shatter plot? Maybe. But look at the novels Grossman cites: Wharton, Hemingway, Lawrence, Fitzgerald. Really? These writers may be moderns, but in theme and ethos, not in formal experimentation. Pound, yes. Kafka, yeah. Joyce, okay. But Grossman's list of defiant modernist novels is full of plot. Sorry.

2. He uses the word "Pavlovianly."

3. His prognostications don't make sense. In proving his point that plot is back in style, Grossman uses Chabon, Lethem, Niffenegger, Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke as examples. These are the literary champions that are boldly bringing back the storylines we have all been silently, hopelessly craving for 80 years. However, these writers are all contemporaries of the Twilight juggernaut. The figures that Grossman so gloomily references (adult trade sales down 2.3% while Twilight author Stephanie Meyer sells 8 million books) would seem to reflect that while Chabon and Niffenegger may have been slinging Grossman-approved level of plot, the book-buying public wanted to buy Twilight books anyway.

I hope that writers of difficult books will not pause to listen to Grossman's confused ramblings about how literary movements from one hundred years ago are stultifying contemporary fiction. I hope writers will disregard all petulant whines about how "we the people" really want to read inglorious garbage like Twilight. I hope writers of difficult books will not take plot advice from a guy who lifted his own plot from Harry Potter. Yes, Twilight is selling. Yes, cheap fiction does move. It always has. But greatness is not easy, in reading or writing, and you weren't really writing for guys like Grossman anyway. Write for the smart people, the people that filled a football stadium to hear T.S. Eliot, the people who still celebrate Bloomsday. Write for me. I will still work for an epiphany.

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