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Does the Novel Have a Future? The Answer Is In This Essay!
A certain literary discourse, about what others should or shouldn't be doing with their art, will probably always exist as a distraction from writing novels writes Tao Lin

I discerned this afresh while studying said discourse for my addition, arguably, in terms of "the future of the novel," to the discourse. My addition—herein, itself a distraction from the composition of my third novel—summarizes part of the discourse I've studied, then asks, "What different kinds of novels actually exist?" and "What, then, is the future of the novel?" and can be read, in entirety, as an effort, while distracted, to encourage myself (by first discerning what exists in the absence of distractions and if I desire that) to be less distracted in the future.


1976. The New York Review of Books publishes "American Plastic" by Gore Vidal: "The New Novel is close to forty years old." Mr. Vidal views its origin as Sarraute's Tropisms (1938) and reviews the oeuvres of the four writers whom, two years earlier, Donald Barthelme said were the only Americans worth reading. (Mr. Vidal says in a footnote: "I am told that Mr. Barthelme later, sensibly, denied having made such an exclusive pronouncement.") These include William Gass, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and—aberrantly—Grace Paley, "a plain short-story writer" of whom Mr. Vidal "got a good deal of pleasure from reading," contrary to the others: "I am obliged to remark upon the sense of suffocation one experiences reading so much bad writing." The 11,254-word essay quotes Mr. Barth as "sensibly," in Mr. Vidal's view, saying that "the permanent changes in fiction from generation to generation more often have been, and are more likely to be, modifications of sensibility and attitude rather than dramatic innovations in form and technique."

1985. Mississippi Review publishes an entire issue—"On the New Fiction"—of essays about writers whose work Kim Herzinger describes in the introduction: "If 'minimalist' fiction is 'about' anything, it seems often to be about 'endurance,' tracing the collision of the anarchic self and its inexplicable desires with the limitations imposed by life in the world, with special attention paid to that moment when the self confronts its limitations and decides to keep going."

1986. Harper's Magazine publishes "Less Is Less" by Madison Smartt Bell who says "minimalist" writing has oversaturated the market and exhibits a "steadily deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world." He blames, finally, to some degree, publishers—for publishing these "minimalists." Mary Robison is fully, somewhat bafflingly, praised (perhaps to give the illusion that the essay isn't personal taste stated as objective rule) because, Mr. Bell says, she "departs from the trend by allowing her characters freedom."

1986. The New York Times publishes "A Few Words about Minimalism" by John Barth who, at Johns Hopkins, was a teacher of "minimalists" Frederick Barthelme (Mississippi Review editor, 1978 to 2010) and Ms. Robison. Mr. Barth says "the history (and the microhistories) of literature and of art in general" is of cyclical corrections, "a cycle to be found as well, with longer rhythms, in the history of philosophy, the history of the culture," and that "between minimalism and its opposite, I pity the reader—or the writer, or the age—too addicted to either to savor the other."

1988. The New York Times publishes "On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans" by Frederick Barthelme as a response, in part, to negative charges against minimalism "in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire and all the literary mags; one can't read a book review these days without encountering the obligatory attack on 'minimalist' prose (even in USA Today)." Mr. Barthelme says he and others were most interested in Hawkes, Gass, Barth, Donald Barthelme (his older brother) for a time in the '60s but at some point "started looking around for other things to do" and saw John Cheever, Jean Rhys, Joan Didion and 26 others. "It was a wonderful world," says Mr. Barthelme.

1989. Harper's publishes "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" by Tom Wolfe: "Unless some movement occurs in American fiction over the next ten years that is more remarkable than any detectable right now, the pioneering in nonfiction will be recorded as the most important experiment in American literature in the second half of the twentieth century." Mr. Wolfe cites Emile Zola's Germanal (1885) as inspiration and example. Wolfe summarizes "minimalists" in two sentences: "Anesthetic solitude became one of the great motifs of serious fiction in the 1970s. The Minimalists, also known as the K-Mart Realists, wrote about real situations, but very tiny ones, tiny domestic ones, for the most part, usually in lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings, in a deadpan prose composed of disingenuously short, simple sentences."

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The New York Observer