An Interview with Diana Sheets: The Decline of the Contemporary Novel

Jan 5, 2012 by

Diane Sheets - Literary Gulag

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1.      Diana you have recently had two opinion essays published in “The Christian Science Monitor”—let’s take the first one—what was its title and what points were you trying to make?

My opinion essay “Is ‘Twilight’ a romantic teen fantasy—or a deeply religious parable?” published in “The Christian Science Monitor”, http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2011/0902/Is-Twilight-a-romantic-teen-fantasy-or-a-deeply-religious-parable, examines the underlying Mormon sensibilities in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series.  Given the rise of cultural/political influences loosely shaped by Mormonism in our culture of late (the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon”, the Republican political candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, and, of course, the phenomenal success of the “Twilight” book and film franchise), I thought it would be interesting to consider how Meyer’s Mormon beliefs shaped her narrative.  As Susan Jeffers has noted in her essay “Bella and the Choice Made in Eden”, published in the edited collection “The Twilight Mystique”, the eating of the apple of knowledge that lead to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden represents for Mormons not a tragedy but an opportunity for redemption and salvation.  It is a necessary first step in the embrace of free will, the acceptance of the Christian beliefs of Jesus Christ, and the willing pursuit of a virtuous life that offers the possibility of immortality.

As I note in my extended essay on the subject, “Twilight, Harry Potter, and the Youthful Reader: Morality, Gender, and $$$s in Today’s Fantasy Blockbusters”, posted on my website, Literary Gulag, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/62, the transgressive romance between the mortal (Bella) and her immortal Vampire suitor (Edward) serves as a metaphor for the exalted status of Mormons who as outsiders never fully embrace mainstream Christian beliefs.  The reader identifies with both the good vampires (the “vegetarian” Cullen family) and the chaste werewolf (Jacob Black) rather than the clueless humans who are devoid of moral agency, at least as they are depicted in “Twilight”.

2.      You seem to feel that the contemporary novel is in decline. First, what has led you to make that conclusion, and can you provide one example?

In the late 20th century, Allan Bloom, Alvin Kernan, and Harold Bloom chronicled the decline of Western culture and literature.  In “The Death of Literature” (1990), Alvin Kernan suggests “Literature began to lose its authority, and consequently its reality, at the same time that the ability to read the book, literacy, was decreasing, that audiovisual images, film, television, and computer screen, were replacing the printed book as the most efficient and preferred source of entertainment and knowledge”.  His case was made authoritatively more than a decade before the Internet became the primary purveyor of content for many Americans.

With the demise of the literate reader came the death of the contemporary novel.  Where once literate Americans looked to fiction as a means of illuminating their world, today our references are almost exclusively pop culture.  As a society we no longer embrace a literary worldview based on our cultural heritage.  Consequently, we do not refer to the literary Canon, that repository of great literature upon which we once based our intellectual and social memory.  This I discuss at length in my essay “The Great Books and Cultural Identity: The Rise and Fall of Western Memory and Its Implications for Our Time”, which is in an edited collection “Reading in 2010; A Comprehensive Review of a Changing Field” offered by Nova Science Publishers.  It is available as a free download by clicking on this hyperlink,  https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=14560 and then clicking below the PDF icon shown on that page.

The demise of a shared literary culture and its community of readers who regularly discussed books and ideas has necessitated a practice of designating a “Book in Common”, a book selection that everyone agrees to read and discuss.  Yet in  1968 this would not have been necessary since most Americans who were serious readers would have recognized the names of writers whose books were finalists for the National Book Award for fiction (Thornton Wilder, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Chaim Potok, William Styron).  Today, however, ask a literate reader not associated with the MFA writers’ programs if they recognized the names of the finalists for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction (Jesmyn Ward, Andrew Krivak, Téa Obreht, Julie Otsuka, Edith Pearlman) before the winner was announced in November, 2011 and perhaps only Téa Obreht, who wrote “The Tiger’s Wife”, published by Random House, would have been identified.  Indeed, Roxana Robinson, reviewing “Binocular Vision”, a collection of new and selected stories by Edith Pearlman in the “Sunday Book Review” of “The New York Times” on January 14, 2011, admitted her ignorance when she asked, “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman?”  Indeed.  That short story collection, published by Lookout Books, the literary imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is an academic press, not a major New York publishing house.  And Jesmyn Ward, whose novel “Salvage the Bones” won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, is a professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama.  The implications should be clear: literary fiction has been ghettoized and marginalized to the realm of MFA programs and academic institutions and possesses no universal audience.

3)   If the decline of the contemporary novel can be traced back to romanticism, where exactly or even approximately did this begin and more importantly, why did it begin?

For our purposes, let’s accept Wikipedia’s description of Romanticism as a movement that began “in the second half of the 18th century in Europe” and that it grew in response to the Industrial Revolution and was a reaction against the Enlightenment.

4)   Now, please give us your definition of Romanticism, and a contemporary example?

Let’s accept the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia’s characterization of Romanticism—as provided in Answers.com—as having an “intense focus on the individual consciousness” emphasizing “the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. Among its attitudes were a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality; . . . a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator; an emphasis on imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth. . . .”

And let’s accept the characterization attributed to art critic Robert Hughes that Romanticism represented “the inaugural moment of modernity”, a perspective shared by Camille Paglia.

In my essay, “Romanticism, Existentialism, and the Postmodern Cult of Self”, posted on my website Literary Gulag, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/64, my focus is on the late Romanticism as exemplified  by the poet Swinburne and the critic Pater.  Late Romanticism, Paglia argues, severed desire from procreation.  Romantic sensibility became transgressive, solipsistic, and decadent.  The late Romantic’s narcissistic focus on self was a rejection of scientific rationalism and the Enlightenment.  It is at this juncture that the modern novel of consciousness turns its back on realism and naturalism.  However I would argue that while a case might be made that Proust, Joyce, and Kafka were attempting to depict consciousness based on contemporary perceptions of the phenomenon, recent advances in neuroscience have shown late nineteenth and early twentieth century literary depictions of interiority to be trapped in an antiquated time warp of consciousness.  With the possible exception of Borges—who arguably was inventing creative nonfiction under the guise of creating short stories—literary fiction has not advanced beyond the methods of late nineteenth and early twentieth century practitioners.  Thus today’s literary novels employ antiquated techniques to render consciousness that were devised nearly a century ago while our scientific understanding has substantially advanced.  By contrast, realism holds a mirror to contemporary reality that continuously updates itself.  It is in the movement, forever taking the pulse of the present.  Had the contemporary literary novel rejected Romanticism, existentialism, and postmodernism in favor of a rejuvenated realism, I feel the contemporary novel would have been spared its solipsistic irrelevance and potentially contributed meaningful stories about our civilization’s struggle to survive.

If we care deeply about literature and history and if we feel that the novel is possibly the best way to characterize our contemporary anomie, then it behooves us to discover why the novel ceased to be relevant and how it might be revitalized.  Fiction bequeathed the truth-telling insights of realism to film and video.  In so doing it consigned itself to a premature demise.  What it retained was an endless interiority that was neither an accurate reflection of what we today understand as consciousness nor a realistic representation of our world.

5)  Moving right along—phenomenology—how do you define it and how has it impacted the contemporary novel?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great definition of Phenomenology: “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view”, which also might serve as a suitable description of the contemporary literary novel.

6)  I know there is “European existentialism” and “American existentialism”. First can you provide an example of each, and then tell us how existentialism has contributed to the decline of the importance of the contemporary novel?

Despite the arguments made by George Cotkin in “Existential America” (2003), I’m not convinced there is an “American existentialism”.   Nor am I swayed that existentialism really existed as a movement that extended beyond the philosophical bounds of Jean-Paul Sartre and his immediate circle.  Even Camus, who is closely associated with existentialism, went to considerable efforts to distance himself from Sartre’s existentialism as Michael Y. Bennett has shown in his recent study “Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter” (2011).  And Cotkin’s argument that every dark or nihilistic moment in American literature, philosophy, and art should be characterized as American existentialism rings hollow.  Existentialism was born out of the European cataclysmic experiences of World War I and World War II.  As such, it is embedded in a particular historical and geographical time, anticipated by Dostoyevsky’s fictive characters and grounded in the foundational philosophies of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.  America has its own dark literature, but this does not constitute “American existentialism”, although some of our twentieth century fiction was certainly influenced by existentialism.  Sartre’s “Nausea” (1938) is an example of the existential novel.

Existentialism, as I note in my essay, “Romanticism, Existentialism, and the Postmodern Cult of Self” is typically characterized as “the subjective human experience of living in a hostile or indifferent universe while assuming freedom and responsibility for one’s moral action”.  For Sartre, whose philosophical worldview came to personify existentialism, enlightenment rationalism was rejected in favor of endeavoring to find meaning in a nihilistic world.  Today’s contemporary novels of consciousness have advanced little beyond late Romanticism and existentialism.  Today’s literary novel still searches for meaning in a seemingly Godless universe.  It is still drenched in narcissistic solipsism.  Since Sartre is the prime exemplar of existentialism, it is to him we must look to expose the decadence of the contemporary novel.  Sartre’s existentialism is based on a creative reinterpretation on Heidegger’s phenomenology, which has deep ties to Nazi Germany.  Sartre imbues the existential search for meaning in a purposeless universe as a noble quest for freedom, possibility, and self determination.  However, as I argue in my essay, Sartre was a de facto collaborator under Nazi occupied France.  He never joined the French resistance.  He personally profited from the anti-Jewish laws and his opportunism coupled with his intellectual bravado helped ensure that he would become France’s most prominent public intellectual in the years immediately following World War II.  Sartre’s exercise of “free will”,  I contend, was a de facto submission to Nazi tyranny.  His moral relativism—a refusal to pass judgment on the importance of bona fide ethical choices—anticipated the cultural relativism of today’s postmodern authors and their solipsistic fiction. The decline of the contemporary novel has anguished roots in Romanticism and existentialism—laying the bedrock for today’s narcissistic novels of consciousness.  Anyone who has read French structuralism and post-structuralism that followed Sartre’s existentialism knows that the critic and the reader replaced the novel and the author as the ultimate signifiers of “the text”.  Thus, in the post-existential literary world, the novel has been substantially devalued.  To the extent that the literary novel survives, it has been heavily influenced by Romanticism and existentialism, and it is to these literary movements that we must look to “deconstruct” the failings of the contemporary literary novel.

7)  When I hear “contemporary novel” I think immediately of a book store in an airport. I have to fly to London or Paris, and I desperately need something to occupy my mind or as a diversion- are we on the same page in terms of contemporary novel?

For our purposes, let’s define the contemporary novel as fiction since 1980.  Fiction that came of age after the countercultural rebellion of 1968 that embraced cultural relativism and rejected the cultural foundations of Western Civilization.

8)  Next stop—the Hastings Book Store—and I am pursuing David McCullough’s latest tome. How has romanticism, phenomenology and existentialism impacted his work?

David McCullough is writing traditional historical books about the founding fathers or traditional biography or social history.  These are nonfiction.  They are chronological stories that present a cohesive narrative.  Romanticism, phenomenology, and existentialism are noticeably absent from his works except, possibly, in the form of intellectual ideas discussed within a social or historical context.  His writing is not countercultural.  It is not decadent.  Despite the diminished reading skills of Americans, nonfiction remains relatively healthy because it has never succumbed to the solipsistic pablum of today’s literary fiction.  McCullough’s books have something meaningful to convey about our history.

9)  Last stop public library—and I have never read “Great Expectations” or “The Little Old Curiosity Shop” and decide, after the New Year, to read these works of Dickens.  Am I off base or what would you recommend?

Everyone’s taste is personal.  I’ve never been an enthusiastic reader of Dickens, who seems to me to be preaching an overwrought moral catechism for the middle class.  I recently finished Michael Scammell’s “Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic” and John Carey’s “William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies”, both of which I loved.  I just read Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” and Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern”.  I’m looking forward to reading John Lewis Gaddis’s “George F. Kennan: An American Life”. I want to take another look at Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” and, following your suggestion, Jack London’s “Martin Eden”.  I’m about to dip into Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul, “The World Is What It Is,” and Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography of a jazz genius, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original”.  Belatedly, I’m going to take a look at David Wessel’s “In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great Panic”, which examines how Ben Bernanke, as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, managed to prevent America in 2008 from experiencing another Great Depression.  I’ve found it remarkably easy—with a few notable exceptions—to avoid contemporary fiction.

10) Do current novels reject realism, and if so, why?

Realism has become a dirty word.  Writing about reality today is neither pleasant nor eloquent.  If you believe that our civilization is in decline and that Americans are less knowledgeable and less well read than forty years ago, then the realistic novel must convey the “dumbing down” of our society. Your comedy of manners quickly devolves to social satire, and you’ll be hard pressed to find pretty words or long interior monologues that convey the banality of our age.  My novels, “The Cusp of Dreams”, http://www.literarygulag.com/novel/show/2, and “American Suite”, http://www.literarygulag.com, depict an America in crisis.  A realistic novel need not use complexity in the language if it is accurately depicting what is.  It may not employ postmodern high jinks if that distorts the story.  It may be disturbingly real.  The characters may be despicable.  The narrative may challenge our moral sensibilities.  Today’s literary readers crave diversion, not realism.  They want the fiction they read to affirm their cleverness or moral worth.  Realism is disturbing.  It is nasty.  It is brutish.  These disturbing truths about our society have become déclassé.  It’s not the world we want it to be; it’s the world that is.  Often that means coming face-to-face with uncomfortable truths.  We tend to limit our gritty realism to police procedurals on television or in films. But two of the most important stories of contemporary American fiction remain Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”.

11)  Now, what do you mean by “celebration of the solipsistic self”? And why should readers care about this concept?

Readers long to read about a more glamorous or decadent version of “me”.  They want their lives validated with a smarter, more clever version of themselves, or they wish to read a story that diverts them from life’s unpleasantries.  The result is fiction that seldom expands their worldview or elevates their understanding.  They read for a validation of self.  It becomes a world where one never need come into contact with anything outside one’s worldview.  Imagine an entire universe of “me”, all smoke and mirrors.  That’s the journey of the “solipsistic self”.

12)  How has Romanticism, existentialism, and the postmodern self destroyed contemporary fiction?

As I note in my current essay, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/64, the postmodern, relativist, and solipsistic self can be traced back to late Romanticism and existentialism.  Romanticism gave us a “brooding preoccupation with self”.  Existentialism rejected our Enlightenment values and embraced a “nihilistic universe”.  French intellectuals (existentialists, structuralists, and post-structuralists) exerted undue sway over the literary novel.  Sadly, their moral and intellectual universe was corrupted, first, through Nazi collaboration and, later, because of their affinity with Soviet Marxism.  As a consequence, the decadent, solipsistic novel lost its connection with the world.  It was denied that most essential ingredient: the ability to tell the truth.

Depicting a society in crisis is, perhaps, the most potent of stories.  However, the perpetual lies of our politically correct writers casts a shadow over the most ambitious endeavors of those of us determined to present reality.  But, as I argue on my website, Literary Gulag, truth shall set you free.

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