Detroit Fiction: On Rightsizing American Literature

Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway? Eulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like "Where Have All The Mailers Gone?", a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction "a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers." The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction...has always thrived.” The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art -- in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue. In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists -- they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates. That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden. This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century. I am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban -- these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent. There is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions. I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century -- the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again. In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game. And the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either -- cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them -- and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today's suburbanized literature -- a dim light bulb -- has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do. Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn't to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller's furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog "the hot lava which was bubbling inside me." So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart." That's about as far from the suburbs as you can get. Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Friday Night Fumble: When Mediocre TV Masquerades as High Art

For six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered. It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory. That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself. In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married...with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell). With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment...But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.” And we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault. For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned. I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married. Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.'” “Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them.  Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind. Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas. It begins with the whole "clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose" mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth. There's nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself. Mad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be. But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially - every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed. Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side? Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt. I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas. The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that. And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football. This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image. I don't care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers. To be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn't diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either. Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn't changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same. This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end. There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more. What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks. My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.

Darkness to Light: Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father

The most startling fact of William Styron's existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger. A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron's memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking. William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would "stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007. Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie's Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial). As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled. Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s. This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success. For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it. But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.” But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food. His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital. A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.” There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness. But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.