The anxiety of envy

"Big names dominate the industry, and yet their fiction feels incredibly same-y."

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A drawing which shows envy as a naked hag angrily soaring through the sky, by William Hamilton
Source: Picryl

All writers have their idols – the giants of literature whose turn of phrase and inventive forms inspire envy. Without Dickens, Joyce, Pynchon, and the like, contemporary literature simply wouldn’t be what it is. But are the towering figures of past literary landscapes hindering contemporary writing as much as they are inspiring it?

In his landmark piece of literary criticism, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argues that poets feel the weight of their forebears so heavily, that to overcome this weight and craft a truly individual style takes monumental effort. Forty-five years on, can the same still be said of literary fiction?

In an age of decreasing readers and increasing viewers, the sphere of literary writing is becoming ever-narrower. Big names dominate the industry, and yet their fiction feels incredibly same-y. The most flagrant offence may be found in American postmodernism. The shadow of Pynchon’s writing, most prominently Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), looms over the pinnacles of contemporary American literature. DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Underworld (1997), and Foster-Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) mimic and marginally modify Pynchon’s style. This style, dubbed “hysterical realism” by critic James Wood, has since crossed the Atlantic to manifest itself in British authors such as Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. As Wood explains it, this literary style is “characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs.” Though this style isn’t inherently bad (though Wood will tell you otherwise), it is agonisingly widespread in contemporary literature, seeming to paradoxically constrain itself into flabby abundance. It has an element of ‘anxiety of influence’ to it – feeling as if many postmodern writers feel pressured to live up to the achievements of Pynchon’s 900- page Gravity’s Rainbow. And if they aren’t able to span all the realms of Freudian hermeneutics, colonial dodo-hunting, and biochemical engineering in one book, they have somehow failed as an intellectual and as an author. It is an incredibly silly form of literary envy – authors env y their predecessor’s cleverness, and seem to believe that using this single form will push them into the same exalted positions as the likes of DeLillo and Foster-Wallace.

In Foster-Wallace’s fiction especially, the anxiety of influence is tangible. In his essays, Foster-Wallace is relatively concise and legible. And the maxims he preaches seem to directly contradict the monstrosity he has created that is Infinite Jest. In the essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’ (1993), Foster-Wallace criticises the effect of television upon American fiction, writing, “I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that, at the same time, they are agents of a great despair and stasis in US culture, and that, for aspiring fictionists, they pose terrifically vexing problems.” And yet, Infinite Jest is ironic through and through, down to its very title. Perhaps it is life-affirming; this is what I hear from the few friends who have had space in their life to read it. However, I only got through the first 100 pages, rapidly becoming dismayed by the quantity of posturing and irony, and the lack of something genuine and human. But most of all, it all felt rather tedious and useless, because I’d already read Gravity’s Rainbow and Foster-Wallace didn’t seem to be doing anything particularly different from Pynchon.

In British postmodernism, as well, this overbearing sameness weighs heavy. McEwan, Faulks, Barnes – I was struck by how incredibly similar British contemporary fiction felt as I tried out and discarded each successive author. This is probably unfair; I know these authors are well-loved by many, but, stylistically, I discern little significant difference.

Literary fiction has become a tin-can, each rolling penny inside making the same cacophony as the others, till the sound all rolls into one great din. Few authors try to do something truly unique with their fiction, and when they do, it often feels gimmicky. Ali Smith’s Autumn, for instance, was intensely, self-gratifyingly bad. To quote a truly exemplary passage:

“All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people had pinned their hopes on it. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain. All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened other people. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane. All across the country, politicians lied.”

As tedious as that was, it didn’t nearly capture the genuine agony of reading the original – the banal repetition goes on for almost two pages.

I’m not saying that all contemporary fiction is bad – far from it. But it is being held back by the literary status quo, by the envy of great postmodern experimenters. And this inability to craft a style and form which is unique and inventive and not contorting itself into some beast of compulsive self-congratulation is the result of the politicisation of literature. In the 21st century, we’ve come to feel that literature has little depth or value unless it is commenting on the world at large. Ali Smith was determined to write a Brexit novel. Why? Because of the expectations of British readers, the feeling that someone had to do it.

Taking up old forms of writing is an important, even necessary, part of any writer’s growth. Even Virginia Woolf, modernist writer through and through, had her experiments with Victorian style in Night and Day (1919). However, the important part is that she progressed beyond the Victorian form to find her own voice. The politicisation of contemporary literature has led to a stylistic pragmatism; writers are simply borrowing the most popular styles of their predecessors without adding much of anything new. There is no need for anything new – the readers of literary fiction have grown complacent, easily wooed with the originality of gimmicky novels such as House of Leaves (2000) and If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979). Reading of novels for their political sentiment means that readers are free to ignore form, instead focusing upon the marvels of social criticism in fiction. Hence, contemporary writers have little reason to break free of the anxiety around relying on influence. There is no reason to feel anxious when style is no longer an important factor in fiction.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Underworld (1997), and Foster-Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) mimic and marginally modify Pynchon’s style.”

    WTF? Underworld and Gravity’s Rainbow might look similar from afar (ie they are both long, bulky books), but aesthetically and in terms of prose they have nothing to do with each other. At all. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, is obviously the progeny of Gravity’s Rainbow, even though Wallace would have liked it to have turned out more on the DeLillian side.

    Before you write, maybe, read…? I dunno. Just a suggestion.

  2. We emulate our inspirations, but the mark of a truly great writer is the ability to go beyond the limitations their inspirations have – either real or imagined, self-imposed or thrust upon them by a public increasingly hungry for pre-digested, spoon-fed formulaic entries.

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