Last year, I found myself mildly obsessed with a cache of YouTube clips, featuring the novelists Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and Nathan Englander at a 2006 literary conference in Italy called Le Conversazioni. Part of what interested me, in a gate-crashing kind of way, was the backdrop: midsummer on the Isle of Capri, with flora aflame and a sky the color of Chablis. Another part, inevitably, was watching Wallace with the knowledge that he would kill himself two years later. Mostly what I kept coming back to, though, was how lighthearted, how loose — how young — these writers seemed here. It’s not that they weren’t already an accomplished quintet, with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award to their credit. But in 2006 the gravitational center of Anglo-American letters still lay back on U.S. soil with Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy and John Updike and Toni Morrison and Philip Roth — those towering figures who, according to a Times survey released earlier that year, produced the greatest American fiction of the previous quarter-century. By comparison, Le Conversazioni might as well have been “The Breakfast Club” and Capri a weirdly paradisiacal high-school library.
Five years later, in 2011, the islanders finally overran the mainland. Franzen’s “Freedom” was ubiquitous, and just when it threatened to drop off the best-seller lists, the posthumous “Pale King” by Wallace stepped up to take its place. All year long, Zadie Smith was issuing a running commentary on world letters from her post as the house critic at Harper’s, and through the fall, it was hard to tune in to NPR without running into Eugenides — or to miss his giant billboard avatar looming over Times Square.
It may seem like a journalistic contrivance to read this group’s collective ascent as evidence of an aesthetic trend. (If you don’t hear people throwing around the term “hysterical realism” anymore, it’s because any net broad enough to catch “The Virgin Suicides,” “The Corrections,” “On Beauty” and “Infinite Jest” is going to have a hard time excluding, say, DeLillo’s “Angel Esmerelda” or much of Philip Roth.) On the other hand, several of these younger writers have actively invited us to see them as standard-bearers, holding forth in essays and interviews about “today’s most engaged young fiction” and “the novel’s way forward.” Is there a sense, then, in which Le Conversazioni’s class of ’06 really does represent a bona fide school?
I know. . . . I had my doubts, too. But then I picked up Eugenides’s new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” an exuberantly bookish book that offers the clearest account to date of his cohort’s collective aspirations and anxieties. There is, it turns out, a unifying thread; it’s just not a matter of form. The central question driving literary aesthetics in the age of the iPad is no longer “How should novels be?” but “Why write novels at all?”
The roots of this question, in its contemporary incarnation, can be traced back to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who at the dawn of the ’80s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. Bourdieu documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is — the novel very much included — the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in his analysis, the only real value that “refined” tastes have.
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this riposte to the aesthetics of “transcendence” must have seemed 30 years ago. You don’t have to subject yourself to the sweep and rigor of Bourdieu’s book “Distinction” to feel how thoroughly a lower-calorie version of its ideas has been absorbed into the cultural bloodstream. As the music critic Carl Wilson argues in “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste,” his book on Celine Dion, “In early 21st-century terms, for most people under 50, distinction boils down to cool.” And the Internet has rendered the competition for cool more transparent than ever. We who curate our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls understand that at least part of what we’re doing publicly, “like”-ing what we like, is trying to separate ourselves from the herd.
Writers of Eugenides’s generation understand this, too. Not only does Bourdieu’s “game of distinction” foreground the kinds of cultural affectations that the novel of manners has always loved to skewer; now the characters themselves are hip to the game being played. We see this in the choral voice of the “urban gentry” that opens Franzen’s “Freedom,” and in the cavalcade of status details that voice records. We see it in the campus-centric culture clashes of Smith’s “On Beauty.” We see it in the carefully parsed snack cakes at the center of Wallace’s story “Mister Squishy,” which exist “less as a variant on rivals’ Zingers, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos . . . than . . . a radical upscaling and re-visioning of same.” And we see it in the vocational crisis at the center of “The Marriage Plot,” the novel that presents in clearest form the shared preoccupations of the Conversazioni group.
As “The Marriage Plot” opens, our heroine, an English major named Madeleine Hanna, finds herself enrolled in a course in semiotics, where her classmates unmask the novels she loves as collections of unstable signifiers, shaky attempts to impose order on an entropic world. On one level, this provokes in Madeleine a suspicion that the careworn volumes she keeps in her bedroom are just another class-specific way of fashioning an identity. On another level, she’s not so naïve as not to consider the source: “upper-middle-class kids who wore Doc Martens and anarchist symbols.”
For the Conversazioni group, this “game of distinction” is a kind of inexhaustible comic engine. It levels whatever it touches. Curiously, though, when these writers have turned to thinking aboutthe novel, rather than within it, attempts to modify or counteract the logic of the cultural marketplace have produced mostly vexation and muddle — for example, Franzen’s specious division of books into “Status” and “Contract” camps or the inflated distinctions of Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel.”
One reason cultural capital ties literary novelists in knots is its abolition, in Bourdieu’s words, of “the sacred frontier which makes legitimate culture a separate universe.” Writers since at least the heyday of Gore Vidal have bemoaned their audience’s defection to other forms of entertainment. But pop-Bourdieuvianism deprives them of the sense of high-canonical purity with which they’ve traditionally consoled themselves.
To try to reclaim either purity or audience by drawing aesthetic bright lines, as Smith and Franzen do, is to run into another problem: Bourdieu’s ideas aren’t properly aesthetic at all. Note his subtitle: “A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.” In chalking up judgment to factors beyond the thing we’re judging, “Distinction” remains agnostic about that thing’s internal particularities. A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse. To hell with style, then; the novelist now has to confront the larger problem of what the novel is even for — assuming it’s not just another cultural widget.
“The Marriage Plot” proposes its answer in the scene where Madeleine discovers Roland Barthes’s “Lover’s Discourse”: “It wasn’t only that this writing seemed beautiful. . . . What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place. . . . Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone.” And if this last line sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably heard it before.
The idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness” crops up all over the writing of the Conversazioni group: in Franzen’s nonfiction, and in Wallace’s, and in Smith’s beautiful encomium to Wallace in her book of essays, “Changing My Mind.” It also helps to explain these writers’ broad turn away from various postmodern formalisms and toward the problems of the human heart. Indeed, when we consider the web of influence that connects them to old roommates and friends and lovers and students — a list that includes David Means, Rick Moody, Mary Karr, Donald Antrim and Jonathan Safran Foer — and to newer work by writers like Karen Russell or the Irish novelist Paul Murray, “Here is a sign that you’re not alone” starts to look like the ascendant trope of and about literature today.
Its problem, as a mission statement, is not that it’s symptomatic of our self-help culture; Aristotle saw narrative as therapeutic, too. It’s that it’s not specific enough. Does “the sign that we’re not alone” ultimately refer back to the solitary reader, as Wallace often suggests? (“If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.”) Or does it refer to the author, as in Franzen’s “Why Bother?” (“Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”) Or does truly great literature point to some third thing altogether?
This is where “The Marriage Plot”’s titular enjambment of literature and love — those two beleaguered institutions — is so clarifying. Think about it: I can love you because I want to feel less alone, or I can love you because I want you to feel less alone. But only the latter requires me to imagine a consciousness independent of my own, and equally real.
So far, our new leading novelists have cleared this second hurdle only intermittently. In Smith’s “Autograph Man,” in Franzen’s “Strong Motion,” in the otherwise dazzling “Mister Squishy,” and, alas, in “The Marriage Plot” itself, we encounter characters too neatly or thinly drawn, too recognizably literary, to confront us with the fact that there are other people besides ourselves in the world, whole mysterious inner universes. These works may delight us, but they do not instruct.
I’m cribbing these words — “delight,” “instruct” — from a 2,000-year-old theory about the purpose of art because they seem today more apposite than ever. Even as you read this, engineers in Silicon Valley are hard at work on new ways to delight you — gathering the entire field of aesthetic experience onto a single screen you’ll be able to roll up like a paperback and stick in your back pocket. It’s safe to say that delight won’t be in short supply, and as long as there’s juice in the battery, we won’t have to feel alone. But will we be alone? Literature, to a degree unique among the arts, has the ability both to frame the question and to affect the answer. This isn’t to say that, measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment, the delights to which most contemporary “literary fiction” aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. It’s just that, if the art is to endure, they won’t be quite enough.
New York Times Garth Hallberg