The New York Times Magazine published a very nice profile of Padgett Powell today, which is great for him and for his publisher and editor, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of JR's and sent us a copy of the book. Which I haven't read yet, though John has, and he will no doubt write about it sooner or later. I like Powell's writing because, as Dan Halpern points out in the article, "What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision." Powell's one of those writers I read just for his paragraphs.
But what I really wanted to talk about was a comment by Barry Hannah which is highlighted in the profile: "'At the moment, American fiction is kind of dull, frankly,' Barry Hannah says. 'I don't know who else is adding to it besides Padgett. Very few people are bringing something new. He is.'" And then, later on, Halpern says, "What Powell does that most writers don't dare anymore is to risk that failure" -- "that failure" meaning, of course, failing to connect with a reader.
Okay, hold it right there. If American fiction is in fact dull right now, it is not because writers have lost their nerve. Every writer risks failure every single time he puts his hands on the keyboard. Writing isn't easy, and, as far as I can tell, most writers don't have much of choice about what they write on any given day. They write what they can write, and if it's a 500 page Bildungsroman packed with social commentary, well, that's what it is. But if what they can write is a novel made entirely of random questions without answers, as Powell's book is, that, too, is what they write. Writing at all is risky. I mean, we could be planting garlic or coaching our kid's soccer team, for the love of god, doing something useful and good and admirable, instead of probably wasting our time in a small room somewhere.
The real risk taker, here, is the publishing house. Right now there are thousands of writers out there, I promise, who are writing the strangest, "riskiest" stuff imaginable... but no one's publishing it. Ecco Press took a chance on this book, and that is great.
However... it's probably not as much of a risk as it was a few years ago, now that all the 80's writers seem to be making a comeback: Lorrie Moore on the bestseller list, Jayne Anne Phillips nominated for a National Book Award. Knopf is rereleasing two of the late Laurie Colwin's books next spring. I've been going through next season's catalogs at the bookstore, and there's a notable lack of youth in them. Lots and lots of books by old -- and even dead -- people are being published. Also, books by white people, especially non-American white people: tons of Brits, Scandinavians, and Australians. For the time being, anyway, the fad for Asian and Middle Eastern writing appears to have waned a tiny bit. (Oh, and if you are a young new writer, and there are a few of them in the catalogs, it helps to have long flowing hair (women) or very short beard and tousled hair (men).)
It's the economy, of course, making everyone want to go with the tried and true. So maybe it's not even the publishers we should be blaming for any perceived lack of riskiness in American fiction. It's freaking readers! But wait, don't blame readers! Readers are great, they're keeping this whole thing afloat! (Inasmuch as it is afloat!) And who can blame us for not wanting to spend $26.95 on a book by some young punk we've never heard of? I only spend that kinda dough on books I'm sure about.
Anyway, yeah. It's easy to blame writers for whatever failure might be sinking the industry -- after all, they're a suspicious, unsavory bunch of people who don't have real jobs, drink too much, probably don't exercise enough, and rarely give us exactly what we want. It would be so much easier if they did, wouldn't it? If writers' abilities conformed exactly to public taste? If you could always find exactly what we wanted to read, if books were never rejected by publishers, if bookstores didn't have put huge boxes of stripped paperbacks into the dumpster. This guessing what will sell, what we should write, what we should buy -- what a pain in the butt.