Several questions came to me while reading Garth Risk Hallberg’s Timesriff, "Why Write Novels At All?" And by "questions," I really mean "moments of skeptical irritation."
To Hallberg, “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?’.” He identifies Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides as the new literary big guns, and then, from what I understand, asserts that the challenges these writers face are not so much questions of form or craft; the new shit to ponder and be judged by is how well the work manifests a sense of connectedness with other people.
Hallberg seems to be saying that these writers have eschewed an exploration of formal principles and standards that would separate themselves from "lower" forms of art. The challenge now, for the, like,super good top literary writers, is to run with this whole empathy thing, making sure not only to "delight" readers, but to "instruct" them as well. But simply because these writers have asked similar questions in and about their work doesn't mean they've ceased to concern themselves with matters of craft. Jonathan Franzen is deeply invested in the style and forms of domestic, realist fiction. David Foster Wallace was an enormous influence on bringing hyper-realism into mainstream culture. These writers have in no way ignored the questions involved in how novels should be.
Another issue I have is Hallberg’s identification of Franzen, Smith, Wallace and Eugenides as writers who are driving literary aesthetics. While these writers are the more literary on the top-seller lists, they are not working in a vacuum. There are other writers at work. Whole pockets of lesser known (even "experimental") writers have been playing with language and style in very serious, exciting, and different ways. They may be on the outer edge of well-known fiction, yet the very fact of their play with language and form pushes its boundaries all the same. To claim that the new "literary" standard is a warm gooey center of feeling surrounded by some sort of message is simply a mistake.
The other boner to be contended with, as far as I see it, is the underlying assumption that the hallmark of "special feelings of togetherness" has usurped formal considerations. Special feelings have always been at work in literary fiction. This whole "not being alone" moralist emotionality has always been at play, in conjunction with formal considerations. Not a dichotomy. Great literature has very special feelings! Great literature stirs very special feelings in the reader!
Screw the whole "message" nonsense (I’d need a whole other post to slog through that wad of sunshine), but feelings! And standards. My god, please, standards, rules, principles. Not everyone can get a gold star. The "age of the iPad" doesn’t change that.