I came across this interesting article by Lev Grossman in the Wall Street Journal:


Grossman says the popularity of YA (up 30.7% so far this year), which he suggests is widely read by adults, versus adult titles (down 17.8%) is explained in a hunger for story, plot, pacing.

As for serious literature he has this to say: "The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again ... Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction ... They're forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century ... It's a revolution from below, up from the supermarket racks."

I have to say some of the best crime fiction I've read in recent years has been by Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn), Price (Lush Life) and Cormac McCarthy, who is also mentioned in the article. But I think the article would've been better if he'd looked in the other direction too, to people such as James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith and John le Carre, authors who have long been categorized as genre writers but who transcend the genre, who simply write great novels.

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Interesting observations. I'm also very pleased to see Patricia Highsmith listed among the admired books.
Excellent article, Eric. Thanks for sharing.
"...busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction..."

Been there, done that. Heh.

On edit: it's obviously true that not all "good" writers are interested in literary subjects, which generally run toward the domestic unless you're Cormac McCarthy or George Saunders. It's also true that those writers tend to get weeded out in MFA programs, or else pushed into doing work that more easily the lit fic mold. I think a lot of that was honestly due to the influence of feminist theory in academia--the idea that writing "guy stories" was inherently silly, a kind of macho posturing that went out of fashion with Hemingway. It's good to see the pendulum swinging back the other way a bit.
I think I like that observation. Good writing should be genderless.
Feminist theory, or the fact that the road to becoming a writer now passes through an MFA program instead of through journalism and traveling around the world.

One thing that I've noticed is that the period in your early to mid-twenties when people sometimes go from youth to adulthood is now spent, for many people trying to become writers, in an academic setting, trying to get good marks which means pleasing professors. This is where we get the idea of, "literary subjects," instead of just subjects. And the setting itself is quite, um, maybe juvenile isn't the right word, but it's not really adult, either.

I think MFA programs are good a idea, I just think people should take about ten years between an undergraduate and an MFA program.
I think it depends on the student. There are plenty who profit greatly from graduate training right out of undergrad school, others who'd probably be better advised to wait. Trouble is, it's hard to sort them out in advance, and the students have their own ideas, of course. Most of the pressure to conform in MFA programs, in my experience, comes from students--who have a keen sense (often incorrect, but there you go) of what's "hip" and what's politically cool, and what's not. It's the instructor's job to protect good work from that kind of sniping, but that assumes that the instructor's awake, sober, had his/her coffee, gives a damn, and knows the difference. That's assuming a lot, obviously. There's also a lot of pressure to publish in MFA programs, mostly peer driven but also driven by "career" concerns. Smart students study recent published work intently and then do their best to emulate what they read, because that's what "sells." Nothing wrong with that, it's part of the learning process. But it does have the effect, aside from peer influence or instructor influence, of creating a kind of sameness to the work that shows up in graduate workshops. That said, my own experience was what you describe, John--I waited almost ten years after getting my BA before applying to MFA programs, and I had some stuff to write about when I got there, unlike many of my younger peers--and they were ALL younger. I figure the MFA saved me about ten years of writing in the wilderness, trying to teach myself the craft--so well worth it, especially considering they paid me. Never go into debt for an MFA, I tell my students.
Sorry y'all, but Feminist theory is to blame? How about the concept of 'those silly womens' stories' and the idea that we should all follow Mailer down his macho misogynistic path? I also disagree that good writing 'should' be genderless. We can't separate from our world view, and our world view is necessarily colored by our gender. I find that I much prefer women authors to most men (sorry guys), because they generally tend not to humiliate, mutilate and/or stereotype women for entertainment value in their books. I'm always amazed when an otherwise wonderful male writer throws in a woman getting the coffee, a female sexual object who has nothing to do with the story, and/or other hallmarks of White Male Privilege, seemingly without realizing it. It's hard to see, when you're soaking in it.

My point was that the academic pendulum may have swung a bit too far away from "guy" fiction in a knee-jerk way (that's my observation, for what it's worth), not that we should encourage students (or anyone else) to write sexist crap, or that there isn't a need for a feminist critique of literature in particular or the culture in general. The problem is the workshop's tendency to overcorrect, which in my experience often results in the dismissal of "guy" stories as sexist crap out of hand, even if the specific elements of sexism you object to aren't actually present. And you're not pinning Mailer on me. Sorry--he's not my fault.
Well, damn it, whose (who's?) fault is he?
Agnew? You're quoting Agnew? Here we go again with yet another round of incoherent anti-intellectual rage. What's your personal experience with MFA programs, Dan? Or do you just dislike what you hear?
I'm not crazy about the notion of YA in the first place. It's mostly watered-down (dumbed-down) adult fiction. Let the kids read whatever they want. I will except books like the Harry Potter series from this, because it clearly takes off from childhood imagination and I think that myth and fairytale are a very necessary part of growing up.

The popularity of YA among adults (are they talking about the juvenile vampires series?) is more troubling because it implies that adults have retreated to the world of childhood both for its lack of complexity and its flight from reality.

As for some of the writers cited above, I found them either uneven or mediocre and saw no reason to search out other books by them.
Maybe instead of YA they could call it "Smart Kids" fiction, or something. The problem's with the label, not the books--except for that vampire crap, obviously.


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