Author and critic Lev Grossman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, claims that “difficult” novels have had their day, and we are witnessing the rebirth of old skool storytelling and books that everyone can get into:
All of this is changing. The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.
This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century
There’s nothing wrong with arguing for more populist, less hermetic literary fiction, and it’s true that even some of our thornier authors are writing books that would, with all due respect, make for a good movie. (And have.) But Grossman tips his hand with repeated references to the harsh economic realities of literary fiction, noting the relatively poor sales for Nam Le’s The Boat, which received rapturous critical praise. He also admits that all those obscurantist modernist authors writing difficult books ended up producing “a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over.”
In other words, yeah, you might get some masterpieces of literature, but forget about paying off your mortgage with royalty cheques.
As well, Grossman’s repeated insistence on “plot” as the single defining feature of non-difficult fiction seems to ignore what it is that really makes difficult fiction so difficult.
After all, if you were told that a novel was about a licentious older man who moves in with and marries a widower because he is obsessed with her daughter, plots to kill the new mother before he is run over by a car, takes off with the girl and is chased across the country by a smooth-talking pornographer whom he eventually murders, whom would you guess had written it?