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.