One may quibble with the shading and proportions (and there is certainly a gross generalization or two); nevertheless, Tim Parks’ recent posting at the New York Review of Books, “the Writer’s Job,” offers a decent portrait of the pressures shaping modern American literary careers. The piece’s mix of acuity and personal bias is best displayed in the way he re-centers the commonly-accepted roots of what in the U.S. is often derisively called “the workshop story”:
Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey. Much rarer is the sort of book (one thinks of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, or Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This, or going back a way, the maverick English writer Henry Green) where the writer appears, amazingly, to be working directly from experience and imagination, drawing on his knowledge of past literature only in so far as it offers tools for having life happen on the page.
One final note: in citing Bakker, Stamm, and Green, Parks means quietly to laud a kind of anti-establishment primitivism, an eccentricity, rarely recognized by the market, whose spiritual pedigree goes back (at least for purposes of his article) to Lord Byron; and yet, one can’t help but notice the choice of international writers—and two works in recent translation—as emblems of literary fiction free of the taint of literature-as-genre. Parks has elsewhere tried to sound a clarion against the potential damage done by the globalizing of literary markets, but here, whether he means to or not, he seems to be suggesting that the crossing of literary borders remains one of the truest ways to measure the calcification of our conventions.
— Hugh Ferrer