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Monday, January 19, 2009


I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of what's considered contemporary American literature. Yes, there are some current American writers who produce works of great beauty and merit, but if you were mention their names to most people frequenting university English departments they would merely scratch their head and say "who?" Katharine Haake, a writer of rare quality and seemingly an absolute unknown outside of small So. Cal. circles may be chief among my list of the under appreciated.

I suppose part of my problem is the resistance I feel to the writer's authority. It seems that current American writers have taken on the need to have something to say. The theme of the work becomes the primary purpose of the work, suggesting that fiction is synonymous with editorial, that a lecture has somehow become equivalent to "story" or conversation. The author throws his pearls of wisdom to the swine, the ignorant rabble groping for comfort and leadership (if not for the author, maybe they'll cling to their guns or religion). For the most part, American literature since the 1950s seems intent on teaching the reader "great" truths, imparting upon him/her some pat wisdom, and changing his/her mind toward a set viewpoint-- a set goal.

Personally, I get very nervous with the elitist structure that is created from this idea-- the reader subjugated to a passive role, becoming merely a blank and unthinking page on which to emboss the writer's ideology (here pigs take your pearls). It seems to presuppose the basic inferiority of the reader as well as suggest a frightening-- but unrealistic-- malleability.

When I read Yusanari Kawabata or William Golding or Herman Melville, I don't feel that I'm reading a newspaper editorial diguised by pretty words and narrative structure. Yes, certainly Golding (author of Lord of the Flies certainly not a book lacking in a solid theme) and Kawabata (The Sound of the Mountain) and Melville (Billy Budd, the Sailor) all have something to say. The difference being that their work opens a discussion with the reader, not subjects him/her to a lecture. While engaging the work, it is up to the reader to tease out what the writer has to say, and in doing so the reader makes this theme his/her own and gives the reader that much more freedom to reject or accept the theme to varying degrees. With most popular American literature writers, the format creates very little freedom and the reader is usuually only allowed the option to accept wholly or reject utterly because nothing of the work is his/her own. The reader has invested no thought into the work-- only attention and emotion.

I suppose because of this attention to emotion American literary writers seem so attracted to topics that so easily generate emotion-- race, contemporary politics, feminism, etc. Let me be clear, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with these topics being the subject or theme of a literary work. All of these topics are very deserving of thoughtful discussion-- and that probably is my problem right there. How very few times these topics are given thoughtful examination in contemporary American literature.

Something very unique in literature is lost when the writer flexes his authoritative muscles, turns fiction into editorial. One of the great appeals of written fiction, at least to me, is the active manner in which a reader's mind engages the writer's words. The words stimulate, the mind thinks (not merely absorbs like a sponge), and meaning is derived through the interaction. The reader gains knowledge through his/her own mind's active churnings and not passive observation. The writer is a moderator between his/her ideas and the reader. The literary writer is not a teacher.

This audience participation is unique to written fiction, a wonderfully clean place where story is laid down to its essentials, unencumbered by a performance (either by actors or a speaker) outside of the narrative itself. It seems regetable that the current trends in literature seem so intent on controlling the active minds of the readers.

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