book therapist's couch

Postmodern Mainstream Literary Realism (for Adults)

Let’s talk about ‘postmodern mainstream literary realism’ for a second. What does ‘postmodern mainstream literary realism’ mean? Basically, anything that’s not genre fiction (Sci-Fi, Westerns, romances, fantasy, etc.). They’re all terms for the same thing, I just lumped them together. If you see it on the NYT best sellers list, it’s PMLR.

And I hate it. I can’t stomach it. I can rarely read such stuff. It’s pretentious, it’s wordy, it’s nonsensical, it’s dull, it’s repetitive, it’s boring. I’ve made numerous attempts to read The Great Gatsby that ended up in failure. Then there’s The Almost Moon, Heart of Darkness, The Catcher in the Rye, East of Eden. These are often the lowest rated books in my trove. Some literary books I like, e.g., Reservation Blues and The Help. But what I’m really talking about is stuff they made me read in high school and college.

The Great Gatsby Book Cover
Can anyone tell me what is on this cover?  And where it is in the book?

I could never figure out why such books get such high accolades and praise, while they remain so unreadable. Why is it J.R.R. Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and others get continually snubbed? Now I know, thanks to an article by David Farland (to which most of this content is credited).

William Dean Howells almost single-handedly created the PMLR movement when he wrote an article decrying certain tropes. Famous historical or mythical creatures. Exotic settings. Uncommon events, like murder, arson, pillage, ghosts, beasts, escapes, shipwrecks, monsters, 5,000-year-old ladies, witches, sexual innuendo or any of the like. And no moralizing. He praised stories that dealt with mundane. The common man living an everyday life. Truthiness and honesty were the new calls to arms. Show the world as it is. Write with beautiful imagery instead of exciting events.

Personally, this sort of manifesto makes no sense to me. Why set restrictions on literature and art? Why reduce your subject matter to only the most banal conflicts and characters?

Why should anyone listen to this guy? Because Howells was the editor of The Atlantic Monthly at the time. At the time, one short story sale here could keep a writer in ‘pork & beans’ for a year. So of course, writers who wanted to eat paid attention and did a face-heel-turn. Thanks to this, Star Wars novelizations that outsell NYT bestsellers 3-to-1 never make a peep. It’s like the MPAA using ratings to keep non-studio films down.

What happened was that, since the magazines picking up this PMLR movement were The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, etc., popular fiction & poetry moved toward elitism. This started the careers of poet snobs like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings (ooh, sorry, ee cummings, I forgot you’re too good for punctuation) that used imagery to create the story.

pipe this is not a pipe picture
This is not a pipe. It’s a PICTURE of a pipe.

Except that doesn’t work, unless you’re making a comic strip. I mean, come on, read any of those poems I linked to and figure out if they mean anything profound. The only way you can translate their meaning is by continually analyzing, discussing, and guessing. And sometimes you need the writer to just up and say it, which is like having Rubik solve the cube for you.

Or how about Hemingway and Faulkner? I know your teachers assigned that stuff in high school. I already talked about these two before. Faulkner wrote about nothing. He wrote pretentious prose and words that were English but didn’t go together. At least Hemingway was readable, but his stories were not stories. Hemingway left too much to be interpreted. They were half-finished or missing the parts that would cement the meaning. We call that “unformed” stories. And it’s not like he did this to leave it mysterious. He knew what the proper beginning/ending was (in the case of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, or (in the case of “Hills Like White Elephants”) what the subject matter was. He purposefully chose to leave those parts off. Why? I don’t know. Maybe he was a douche-bag. He certainly was one in real life.

That’s where the elitism comes in. Can’t you imagine a bunch of Ivy league professors with monocles and handlebar mustaches, smoking and drinking fine scotch, staring at these texts. No one knows what it means, but it seems like it should mean something. Everyone interprets it differently and each thinks he’s right, which is like that old joke about the blind men and the elephant. It becomes more fun to argue about the work than to read it.

Everything became so existential and unmoralizing, absent of theme or clarity. It was like no writer could take a stand on something they wanted to say. These people write and write and write, and end up saying nothing. Except maybe something angsty about how life is meaningless. “Life’s a bitch. You have sex, then you die.” They were proto-emos.

And if any of you took creative writing in college, you can see what ended up happening. My professors concentrated so much on IMAGERY. Everything had to have an image associated with it. A piece had to have “beautiful imagery”. We had drills where we each had to spout a powerful image gleaned from some story. And then a few days spent on point-of-view and stylistics and way too much time spent on poetry. Does any of this sell books? No.

Guess what I learned in the real world? It’s about characters. Plot and characters, plot and characters, plot and characters. It’s about character creation. It’s about plausibility. It’s about grammar, punctuation, sentence structure. It’s about query letters. It’s about high concept. It’s about tools in the tool box. It’s about writing something that people want to read. It’s about not using adverbs. It’s about characters that want something. It’s about good villains or tough obstacles. It’s about avoiding pitfalls like character soup, too much backstory, and readable prose.

Here’s the real sad part. Howells didn’t make his proclamation based on any sort of research or looking at past, overused trends. No. Howells was a socialist. He made his proclamation to further his political agenda. He wanted more work about economic issues, to serve as propaganda. He had no interest in furthering literature as an art.

And it shows. Genre fiction’s never been more popular, only no one will admit it. Nearly every top-grossing movie is genre-based. Except for Titanic, which is romance, you have to get to #39 (The Da Vinci Code — a mystery) before you get something that would be on the NYT best sellers list. You might say that’s simply popular vote, not critically acclaimed. Oscar nods feature the occasional angst story like “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone”, but there’s also “Black Swan”, “Toy Story 3”, and “Inception”.

There’s plenty of great works before and after PMLR that have witches and ghosts — works of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. I don’t care that the elitists don’t like it, but you have to at least acknowledge it. You can’t look at a book that’s outselling every other and say “Oh, that one doesn’t count. It has elves. They don’t exist,” or “Unless it takes place in the real world, it’s commercial fiction meant to appeal to the masses.”

The only restrictions you should place on a book are that it must not be boring, it must not be incomprehensible, and it must have something to say. PMLR is a genre just like any other — it has its own features like its settings (contemporary, in the real world), themes (it doesn’t moralize), characters (non-special, everyday joes), and style (high imagery and unformed-ness). Acknowledge that. Live that. Learn from that.

And I’ll be in my spaceship if you need me.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

One Comment

  • Anonymous

    Try reading The Late Gatsby – added vampire mayham & humor liven up the dull parts of Gatsby (though personally, I think the original's petty good too).

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