Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This new thing the kids are doing

A student recommended Mary Miller's Big World to me the other day; we were at a bar and she brandished it like a pack of the best cigarettes anyone has ever smoked.  It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes, too, and has an ashtray on the cover.  I bought it and am reading it now, and it's pretty good.

It does this thing, though.  Amelia Gray does it also, with mixed success, in her recent book that I reviewed in the NYTBR.  And the student who recommended the book to me does it, and so do a couple guys in my recent undergraduate workshops.  It's partially a McSweeney's thing, I think, although my student would probably bristle at that; she's not a fan of the mag.  And it's also kind of neo-Carverian.  It's minimalist, sort of, and sometimes it's selfconsciously odd.  It employs serendipity and timely pop cultural references and short unadorned sentences.

I'm not sure I like it.  I like some of it, of course--my student is very good at it, I think, and I liked parts of the Gray book and the Miller book.  (Oddly, I like Gray's twitter feed better than most of her stories: her tweets are genuine non-sequiturs, intended as non-sequiturs, and are really funny.)

But what is it exactly?  I think it's this: there's a new breed of minimalist writers who appear confident that passing something through their particular consciousness, however seemingly banal that thing is, will lend it sufficient weight to justify its inclusion in a story.  Some of these Miller stories are nothing but that: rambling lists of banal acts and observations.  And damned if she doesn't pull it off half the time.  These things do take on weight in each other's presence, and rendered in her lazily precise prose.

The other half of the time, though, stories like this just seem precious, or random, like stuff you find in somebody's dead grandma's glovebox.  You read them and you think, I guess you had to know grandma.  Or they feel like a night spent smoking pot in your sister's apartment with her grad school friends.  You know they're smart, and you know you're as smart as they are, but you don't understand a thing they're saying.  It's not for you: it's an insider code.  The context is missing.

It would seem that the key to doing this thing right would be to provide that context without appearing to do so: giving the reader the key on the sly.  Letting the reader be inside and outside at once.  A neat trick, if you can figure out how to do it.


Hugo Minor said...

I agree with this. I thought maybe this was an Internet generation thing, not only in terms of attention spans but because many online mags publish writing that's short (often under 1,000 words). So there's no incentive to push for more words or have more 'insider code' for the reader.

jon said...

I think this gets into a part of writing people don't often discuss, which is why a writer is writing something. An artist should have something to say in addition to having a style. There are important books that are aesthetically not so hot. But a book with a compelling style and nothing to say is unsatisfying. If I'm going to read a book I don't want to waste my time. It relates to your post yesterday. Over-rated books, hyperbole vs. criticism. Carver was getting at something in an oblique and original way. Styles come and go, minimalism and maximalism, Hemmingway and Faulkner, Coover and Pynchon. The cneed to communicate something of importance to the writer, and making it inmportant to the reader, is the true inspiration.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of what I was saying to my freshmen comp class the other day, in response to an initial run of lousy essays. In high school, your job was to regurgitate information back to your teacher. In my class, your job is to BE INTERESTING.