Granta‘s new “Best of Young American Novelists 2” issue is now out (the followup to a 1996 issue), and The Los Angeles Times looks at the under-35 authors who made the cut this time, noting that “many of the list’s 21 writers were raised abroad or are nonwhite. Are stories of transnational identity where the literary action is these days?” Taking the counterpoint is Salon critic Laura Miller, who tells the Times, “Writing about immigrants saves you from having to write about mass culture.”
“American novels have an extremely ambivalent relationship to mass culture and have a very difficult time coming to terms with it,” she said. “Because it’s supposed to be the opposite of all the things that people want from literature. People would just rather avoid it,” and writing about ethnicity or migration allows them to.
Those comments have already drawn some fire from Bookslut, and while Quillblog has never understood the obsessive antipathy some litbloggers seem to bear for Miller, she is guilty of a pretty big generalization here. Undoubtedly, many “transnational” writers come by their subjects honestly, should write about what they want to write about, etc.
On the other hand, Miller probably isn’t talking total nonsense either. Didn’t another much more celebrated critic, James Wood, sort of say the same thing in a review of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane a while back?
[Literature with immigration themes has a] momentous service to perform, which is to return fiction to its nineteenth-century gravity. This it does by re-importing into the Western novel traditional societies, with their ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civic duty, and pressures of propriety — and thereby restoring to the novel form some of the old oppressions that it was created to comprehend and to resist and in some measure to escape.
Wood’s position is admiring rather than fretful – he loved Brick Lane – but to Quillblog it sure sounds like a wish to retreat to the good old days when fiction was both simpler and more substantial.