Monday, January 14, 2008

The Curse of Ordinariness

I've alluded to this before, but I think maybe it deserves a post of its own. The other night I was trying to read a galley of a forthcoming book by a pretty well respected youngish midlist writer, and I honestly expected to like it. It involved terrorism, college professors, free speech--all kinds of sexy current stuff--and has all the hallmarks of a book that's going to get tons of great reviews and be nominated for awards.

The writing wasn't too bad, aside from some embarrassing grammatical and usage errors that I sincerely hope will be corrected in the published article...but it kept getting bogged down in the ordinary. I'm talking about those lengthy, lush examinations of Regular American Moments that we see so much these days, and which I think have come to be synonymous with "contemporary literature." Excessive elaboration on the obvious and normal--this, I think, is the disease du jour of American letters.

Raymond Carver reminded writers that there was a lot of material to be mined from "regular" America--he had the guts to point out, in his stories, that the educated and privileged did not own pathos and epiphany, in an era when it was unfashionable to do so. Certainly, this was a good thing, and he was good at it. But I fear that he, and some of his more skillful successors, inadvertently spawned an army of highly educated people who fetishized averageness--and this has since evolved into a mannerism so pervasive as to be largely invisible.

Here's my complaint: ordinariness is not interesting. Period. What a good writer discovers is what is extraordinary, hidden beneath the cloak of ordinariness. Think of Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, a hilarious page-turner about tooth-brushing, drinking straws, and milk cartons; or Alice Munro's brutal dissections of small towns, married love and betrayal. The proper aim of "ordinary life" fiction is not, in fact, to show just how very very wonderful it is to be ordinary; rather, it's to show that ordinary life is not ordinary. That people, regardless of how they choose to present themselves, are strange and interesting.

Now, the book I was reading does indeed come to heave itself out of the tar pit of regularity, and eventually becomes quite dramatic. But the overall sensibility remains slack--its observations are workaday, its sentences way too long. I worry that this isn't even something we notice anymore, until we read something really strange--new or old--to remind us what it's all supposed to be about. That life is bizarre, no matter how conventional it thinks it is.


rmellis said...

The problem is in the eye. When a mediocre writer looks at something "ordinary," her observations confirm for her and for the reader that yes, all is as it should be: this is Ordinary. Phew! We can all relax.

When a really good writer looks at an ordinary thing, suddenly it seems realer than real-- not kooky or bizarre (necessarily) but just more vivid than you've ever seen it. I remember reading about one of those ubiquitous folding brown-laminate buffet tables in a strip mall in a George Saunders story, and being totally electrified by the thought that I had never really noticed a buffet table.

I wish I could do that!!

gnomeloaf said...

I went looking for an anecdote Saunders tells about how all of his early stories start with "Nick walked into the Wal-Mart," and found this instead, which is better:

Realism is a funny thing, because it's just a collection of agreed upon attitudes. You can have a sentence like, "Frank and Jim sat in the nicely decorated midtown apartment." But who has ever lived that reality? There is some quest for truth in my work, but the truth is something weird, and the feelings that we actually have on a given day in America are pretty wild.


5 Red Pandas said...

I get what you're saying, but now I really want to know what book you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, good post, but while I was reading it half my brain was occupied trying to figure out whose book it was. Maybe give us the author's name but in an anagram or some sort of code?

moonlight ambulette said...

"When a really good writer looks at an ordinary thing, suddenly it seems realer than real" -- that is so good and so true. And right, the strangeness in the ordinary. I think there's a lot of mind-numbingly "ordinary" stuff out there, and am glad to see you call it out in this way!

Anonymous said...

Isn't this technique an aspect of Russian Formalism? I think it's called "ostranenie" and means making the ordinary extraordinary. A little bell is ringing in my mind from way back in my ubdergrad experience.

Anonymous said...

Under- not uber- grad

Anonymous said...

Is it Glenn David Gold? I hear he has a new book. Matt Haig? Meg Wolitzer? Is this annoying and entirely missing the point of your post?

ed said...

John, I immediately thought of Roth's thorough digestion of the glove-making process in American Pastoral as a kind of ordinariness that becomes balletic. Glove making is pretty ordinary. Or it once was ordinary. But that's not what you're talking about, I know, & agree with you. I see it in my high school students, the best ones in terms of composition and reading comprehension and eagerness to write stories--some suggestion comes through contemporary culture, not just lit, that reproducing ordinariness is the goal, that there's something subversive in it. I have a few students who came to writing by writing fan fiction (which is the worst thing in the universe, worse than black holes and ankle sprains), but I've noticed that their tendency is to take something wild (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, often things sci-fi or fantasy--and the best thing in the world is a milkshake) as their source of characters and situations, and then make them do ordinary things. Same impulse, I think. It's a kind of self-torture, some defense against the imagination.

Anastasia said...

I wonder whether the authors in question actually intended to portray ordinary things in ordinary ways or instead simply made the mistake of believing their portrayals extraordinary.

I also think of the ending to Jhumpa Lahiri's "Third and Final Continent," a story that succeeds so tremendously at describing the strangeness in the everyday. You have to read the story to get the full effect, but that word "ordinary" at the very end always sends shivers down my spine:

I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

rmellis said...

Actually, after some more thought, I think what you're talking about is a literary tic more than anything else -- a way of reaching 400 manuscript pages. "Pam sat on the sofa, ran her hands over its nubbly, yet somehow smooth, texture, and thought about the time she and Brian drove to the Ikea in Northport to buy it. The sun shone down on their Ford Prurient that day, and the wheels of their car hummed and sang and said to them, "Buy! Buy!" etc etc blah blah blah. Or maybe, "Joan sliced the pears with her special blue-handled knife, the one Karta gave her for her birthday that year, and the blade slid through the soft, sweet pale flesh, and the juice ran out and covered her fingers as she placed the slices on the plate with the tiny green flowers on it as she thought about the time she saw......."

It's like the literature's high-fructose corn syrup.

max said...

"ordinariness is not interesting"
"The proper aim of 'ordinary life' fiction is not, in fact, to show just how very very wonderful it is to be ordinary"
"life is bizarre, no matter how conventional it thinks it is"
Connell's Bridge novels chronicled the life of very "ordinary" people. Two of a hundred possible examples of how interesting the ordinary is -- because real people are interesting. (And don't claim that everything good is "bizarre," because that's not playing fair.)
Can you name one modern novel that showed "just how very very wonderful it is to be ordinary"?
But this post is really about one thing -- the bizarre premises and characters prevalent in modern fiction. It's often no more than a gimmick. (Think Palahniuk -- or Nicholson's indulgences.)
Of Saunders' "Bohemians" I wrote: "A blast of buckshot. Bizarreness flying everywhere. The people, the situations -- all bizarre. And that’s it. No evocation of childhood, no revealing of character, no point."
"Sea Oak" was bizarre too, but had a moral purpose and presented a view of life -- it had substance. I have a feeling Saunders knows the difference between the two works.
The outstanding stories in the 2008 Best were about real people: Munro's "Silence" and Reddi's "Justice Shiva Ram Murthy." Both by older people.
Maybe it's a generational thing.