Well I’ll be dipped! (White privilege of course, for being dipped means soaked in oil usually as punishment for running away when you were a black slave…sometimes poor whites were also dipped in oil but only to serve as examples to the poorer people.) Anyway, I’ll be dipped cuz believe it or not, someone wrote to say I’m too angry on this blog. What was her tipping point? I said Karl Ove Knausgaard, Anthony Doerr, and Jose Saramago were phony writers who use disablement or ennui to suggest they are more interesting than they really are.
Pfffffft! You’d think I’d said the Statue of Liberty wears a Victoria’s Secret thong stitched from a Russian flag. (She does.)
We’re living in an era of great literature and also a moment of terrible creative writing. Its not polite to say so and few are brave enough to even hint at the hornswoggling of taste. (Taste is automatically denigrated because it is “privilege” to have it and you bet taste makers have always been top dogs and by jinkies they’re university educated and generally white. (Think Rudyard Kipling.)
Taste rises from grass roots as much as the top. James Baldwin didn’t get invited to The MacDowell Colony in 1958 because the folks at Yale understood him. In America there’ve always been sharp readers in the underbrush.
For all the sharp readers in the tall grass there are middle brow forces at work—in overdrive.
By this I mean middle brow which actually tends to low brow. Today’s literary reviews are essentially fifth grade book reports—even in the New Yorker. Its enough these days to say what happens in a novel or nonfiction treatment. Maybe toward the conclusion the ersatz reviewer will say: “I do with we’d heard more from Hitler’s chauffeur…”
So today’s mainstream creative writing is mostly TV pap and the reviewing industry is largely dead.
There are superb novels being written in our midst but you’ll seldom hear of them unless you read the Times Literary Supplement.
Meanwhile we’re forced to read in the NY Times about Knausgaard who’s contentless, talentless naval gazing is passed off as literature.
Min Jin Lee is a terrific novelist.
I don’t say she’s ignored.
I do say we’re awash in awful writing and we’re told to spoon it up.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger