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Betty Smartt Carter
Looking Up from the Navel
Judging by their fulsome endorsements on the jackets of so many novels, it's apparent that some critics don't get out much. To blurb-bestowers, no work is ever just moderately entertaining. Books are "captivating," "enthralling," "sprawling," and even "festooning." Maybe I'm just naÏve, but when I read a book that's billed as "a masterpiece of savage comedy," I expect something like Wise Blood or The Loved One. "Riveting from first page to last" is a description that gets my hopes up: it promises at least the intensity of Crime and Punishment, and a lot more than Babbitt. Obviously, I deal with some disappointment. I guess honesty doesn't make good jacket copy, or we'd see more blurbs like this:
- "A dense book in which very little happens."
- "A well-written but depressing novel, lacking in excitement what it makes up for in style."
The latter especially could apply to so much "serious" modern writing. As Annie Dillard observed 20 years ago in Living by Fiction,
The serious novelist takes pains to distinguish his work from trash. If popular films and popular novels have good stories, then literary novels shall not. If despite all your precautions your novel is epic in scale, if it embodies such quaint narrative virtues as enlargement and diversity of action, forcefulness of dramatic conflict, vivid spectacle, and heart-pounding suspense, someone will accuse you of writing with an eye toward a film sale. No one will like you anymore.
Dillard describes a gradual internalizing of the action over the novel's three-century history. Eighteenth-century fiction was open and outward, and society was its stage. By the twentieth century, the theater of action (once again, in so-called "serious" writing) had moved to the mind:
at some point, the people in novels stopped galloping all over the countryside and started brooding from chairs. Everything became psychological and interiorized . …We swallowed the arena and can no longer watch the show.
One effect of this inward movement was to ...