Alexander Nazaryan had an interesting article in a recent Salon.com on why American writers have not recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. He also appeared on NPR talking about this issue. Nazaryan says that recent "American' fiction is dominated by 'great white male narcissists.' (Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike ...cough cough...). In this, he is following David Foster Wallace, who accused them of that in 1998. After you stop laughing, I think unfortunately this extends to many U.S. female writers too. The white guys get the awards, but the women bring up the rear in the self-same department. Self-involvement is the heart of middle-class fiction, after all. This is not to say that all literature does not borrow from a person's life - the question is, how much?
Toni Morrison, a black woman, was the last U.S. citizen to win a Nobel in 1993, probably for "Beloved" - which was a great book, but not about Toni Morrison. Take heed.
Nazaryan and others locate one of the promoters of this small-bore navel-gazing preoccupation in the MFA programs at our esteemed universities, which counsel - 'write what you know.' And this truism disguises the fact that what many peole know is ... not much! Female writers are urged at the Loft and other centers to write 'memoirs' - even if nothing in their life is memorable. We are treated to endless stories of addication and disfunction, as if literature was purely therapy. In this culture, middle-class writers shy away from large social issues in order to fit in politically and culturally. They would rather write about personal issues like infidelity or adultry than unemployment - which they probably haven't experienced anyway. It is all disguised, sometimes, as 'art for art's sake' when they are feeling especially peckish.
So the comparison I did between "Prague" and "Petrol Bombs" is typical of the real problem. There are no more John Steinbecks or Upton Sinclairs. At least not on the NY Times bestseller lists.
Red Frog, 10/11/2011