The function of literary fiction

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid contends that, in Britain, literary fiction of the last fifteen years fails to “engage with the present day.”

She says that crime writers are the ones writing about the realities of contemporary British society–“about the ways in which social institutions, the way we live, the structures we set up in our society,” are often as morally reprehensible as the people who commit crimes.

Concerns about the nature and function of literary fiction in the U.S. and Britain have arisen frequently within the past year and a half.

Last August, Robert McCrum noted in The Observer that:

One or two critics have begun, nervously, to point out that literary fiction has become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the label could simply be a way of describing a novel that places style before content, puts prose before plot and subordinates character and narrative to nebulous aesthetic concerns

McCrum’s article seems to have been inspired by BR Myers’ attack, in The Atlantic Monthly last year, on the “growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.”

I like many of the writers Myers disdains, particularly Cormac McCarthy. And I can’t agree with his out-of-hand dismissal of Delillo’s White Noise or Proulx’s The Shipping News. But the article is worth reading, if only because it serves as a reminder that a tightly-plotted novel–a good yarn–can be a fabulous thing.

Meanwhile, I haven’t written a tightly-plotted story in my life. My brain doesn’t work that way.

Father racks up debt in daughter’s name

A friend who works for Wired just pointed me to this story:

It was her first credit card application, or so she thought, prompted by an offer on her Ohio college campus for a free T-shirt.

But a rejection letter uncovered troubling news: someone had already opened four credit cards in her name and racked up $50,000 in debt.

That someone, it turns out, was her father.

I guess a shredder isn’t the best protection against identity theft these days.

Also, a belated link from last week’s issue of The Onion, just in case you missed it: Modern-Day Proust Emails Friend Six Times A Day. (Thanks, Ang.)

The “Non-Taxpaying Class”

In an article for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne predicts that we “are about to hear a great deal about how working Americans at the bottom of the economy are not paying enough in taxes.” (Both TBogg and Talking Points Memo have linked to the Post article.)

According to Dionne, The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page “always provides important clues about the Next New Thing among conservatives, and there it was last week assailing ‘The Non-Taxpaying Class.'”

The WSJ article decries a system under which “almost 13% of all workers have no tax liability and so are indifferent to income tax rates. And that doesn’t include another 16.5 million who have some income but don’t file at all.” Who, the editorial asks, “are these lucky duckies?”

Dionne does a good job of analyzing the actual burden on low-income taxpayers, who he notes are disproportionately burdened by sales and excise taxes. He observes that “between 1979 and 1997, the last year for which figures are available, the average after-tax income of the top 1% of households, adjusted for inflation, rose by $414,000 — a 157% gain. For the middle fifth of households — the middle of the middle class — the comparable gain was 10 percent, or $3,400. The bottom fifth was stagnant.”

Dionne does not note the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report, which establishes that poverty among low-income taxpayers is on the rise and that median household income is falling.

According to the Bureau, “the nation’s poverty rate rose from 11.3% in 2000 to 11.7% in 2001. Median household income declined 2.2% in real terms from its 2000 level to $42,228 in 2001.”

The poverty rate and the number of poor “increased among several population groups between 2000 and 2001, including all families, married-couple families, unrelated individuals, non-Hispanic Whites, people 18-to-64 years old and the native population.”

As if the rise in poverty weren’t enough, homelessness is becoming a major issue, especially in urban areas. In New York City alone, as of mid-November, there were 36,000 people using the shelter system–an all time high. Roundly criticized for housing the homeless in abandoned jails, the city is now considering a plan to place them on defunct cruise liners.

Those lucky duckies.

Delightful little dim sum dumplings

This weekend Max & I gave a friend’s birthday short shrift, and I forgot that I’d made brunch plans with another friend, who was remarkably understanding (especially considering that she sat waiting at the appointed spot for an hour or so).

Beginning with a rehearsal dinner on Friday night, we were caught up in the whirlwind wedding festivities of some friends.

All weekend long we basked in their glow and ate like royalty and drank good wine. At the reception on Saturday night (held at the Puck Building), we danced into the wee hours.

The celebration culminated yesterday morning with dim sum in Chinatown.

I’m a pain in the ass to eat dim sum with, since I don’t consume beef, pork, or poultry, and I’m always peering into the dumplings and trying to identify their ingredients without calling attention to my weird eating habits.

Luckily, our friends who got married keep kosher. While the demands of a kosher diet are different from my own bizarre, pseudo-vegetarian rules, the wife’s unparalleled skill at figuring out the contents of dumplings through their dainty little wrappings came in handy. She helped me find the shrimp and vegetable offerings.

Unfortunately, something I ate must have disagreed with me because I’ve, um, had some digestive troubles since yesterday afternoon.

I was hoping to make it to the Dog & Pony Show tonight, but in light of my gurgling stomach, right now I’m just wondering if it will be logistically possible for me to work the full day.

Sedaris interview

In a chicklit interview, David Sedaris talks about his acting opportunities (“I have no desire to act”), Dave Eggers (“He’s a horrible person . . . but he’s a really good writer”), and what he misses from the U.S. after settling in France (“Canned clams”). (Link stolen from Bookslut.)

I haven’t gotten around to reading Sedaris’ latest Christmas offering, but it’s posted on Esquire along with the rest of the Sedaris archives.

By the way, if you’re looking for an inexpensive holiday gift, you can pick up Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice for less than $10.

Philip Dick’s world?

Hadley Freeman reviews AL Kennedy’s latest, Indelible Acts, a short story collection, for The Observer. Kennedy, Freeman says, has “an admirable style, but a very claustrophobic one, leaving you longing for Kennedy to uncramp her more than capable pen . . .”

I’ll have to pick up the collection; I’ve never felt that way about Kennedy’s writing. I adore her Original Bliss (the Salon review is here).

In other news, Laura Miller considers the predictive powers of Philip K. Dick in the Sunday NY Times, and contends that Dick was more successful than Orwell and many others who attempted to predict the future in their writing. Miller says:

Dickian devices and themes — implanted memories, commodified identities, simulacra — haunt contemporary literary fiction . . . The naming of years after corporate sponsors in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; the downtrodden, stigmatized souls in George Saunders’s futuristic short stories, with their degrading theme park jobs; the dream worlds Haruki Murakami’s characters tumble into and out of — all partake of Dick’s peculiar mixture of wrenched ontology and underdog sympathies.

Continue reading…