If it’s boring, it might be literary.
There are stylistic tropes that fling around literary writing, just like they do around marketing writing or humor writing. Marketing writing always includes some kind of manipulative “why not” statement that tips your weight off balance, making you accidentally click “buy.” Jokes tend to be gestural and feature costumes, accidents, squeamish sex or other bodily functions, self-deprecation and the like. Then we reach the literary, wherein the words are supposed to cling to our palettes like fine wine. More often than not, I find that it clings to the roof of my mouth like peanut-butter. It is precisely this everyday-plain-yet-sublime-concrete-details trope that I’m bored with. Personally, I never liked peanut butter as a child, especially since my mom always bought the chunky kind. Any other nut could have made the spread more glorious. I mean, why not grind up pistachios, instead?
Here’s an example.
Susan Straight — award winning author — writes the following paragraph in her story, “The Perseids,” found in the most recent issue of Granta:
“He turned the binoculars on his house – thirty feet away down the long cement path bordered with river rock, past the old plow and stone water trough. The ancient redwood shingles on the house had darkened to tight black scales. The first time his best friend Manny’s father picked up Dante for baseball practice, he said to Dante’s father, ‘Damn – these shingles aren’t even painted, homes!’”
(my emphasis added)
These are precise details, surely. Yet, to me, they are so uninspiring in the imagination, that I get that peanut-butter-sticking-to-the-roof-of-my-mouth feel from reading this. Perhaps the nausea rather than sentimentality towards my Spokane, Washington upbringing has something to do with it. Our faded-glory landscape featured plenty of river rock (as I recall from when I lived there). The main geographic feature of that area was a river. This portrait reminds me of the middle-class homes that people like me could have afforded in my parents generation. River rocks remind me of the 1970s when people had an opportunity to make significant changes in society and didn’t, opting for Nixon followed not long after by Reagan. “River rock” reminds me of how my grandparents, who would take me, in the twilight of their dementia, down to the river to show me how to skip rocks. We’d watch adorable ducks waddle by, and my grandpa would tell us stories of duck hunting. The river rocks even remind me of the popular Christian-Methodist summer camp I joined once, situated along the Spokane river, with the teenage cliques and full-blown group-think episodes of Jesus-acceptance catharsis that made me feel even more alienated than my own Catholic-republican family did. River rocks as evocative details are such a turn off for me.
On to “old plow” and “stone water trough”–don’t even get me started. These are clearly out-of-use relics that have been turned into middle class decorations. Why not throw in some old boots, a long saw-tooth blade and a buffalo skull? These things once had a function, you know, and those times were not as simple and easy-going as this nostalgic home-portrait suggests. These were backbreaking days that led to newly worshiped inventions: motorized tractors and lighter weight materials such as plastic. The ease and convenience of our new technological advancements in fact make the objects in this portrait fantastical, like a stage-set designed by Ralph Lauren. Placing these items inside the frame of the picture does nothing to highlight history, since our white parents with their complicated stories of genocidal Indian Wars paired with immigration and agrarian hardship aren’t usually the history-disseminating types. So we ponder our origins by decorating with old plows. These objects aren’t placed here to hint at the forces that shaped history in this dainty portrait, but to delete them with an emphasis on our limited, yet satisfactory, purview of cozy domestic life.
Next, the “ancient redwood shingles” emphasize the distance of time as if to slap us on the face and say, “get nostalgic!” This was so far back in time, they could actually cut down redwoods and turn them into something as mundane as shingles and not even protect them with paint! Back in those days, they could easily replace such shingles, so paint was but a mere afterthought. Oh my, how the prices have changed and our world has been turned upside down by clear-cutting. It’s as if the toilet in the house is studded with diamonds–and moreover, they didn’t even bother to wipe the piss of of them! This is not a pretty picture. These were distant times with vastly plentiful resources that are now scarce. (Oops!) Rampant expansion known as “civilization” happened and now the memory of abundance tugs our heart strings. How about that California drought? Not just shingles but entire redwood forests are turning black.
The “tight black scales” of the house emphasize the ruinous state the house is in. Moreover, this house is but a fish, and that could be a reference to the Bible, even, in case you haven’t had enough of the Bible stuffed down your throat in summer camp. And do you see how the “river rock” and the “fish scales” of the house turn the portrait into a river-setting without once pointing out water? Don’t stories with rivers usually feature drowning? Just like Chekov’s theory that introducing a loaded gun in the first act only leads to one conclusion. Yet, you’ll notice how the paragraph is “balanced” with these “scales.” These interpretations are all a stretch, and the stretch doesn’t take me anywhere that triggers insight or intrigue.
I’m still bored. And the homey disrepair of the era is again emphasized by the onlooker, who gently criticizes his neighbor, as if unaware he is doing so. He is, in fact, a bit rude. But we are somehow obliged to forgive his folksy ways, because he is just a suburban bumpkin, unaware that his comments are potentially condescending. Because in ‘merica, monkey see, monkey say. We verbalize and apologize later, all unawares. We expect hearty comradeship without push back, especially in white-on-white dialogue. In other words, literature in ‘merica means a no-nonsense embrace of the banal.
Sometimes, I cannot stomach literature. Indeed, the above details are not “nice” or “sympathetic” or even “interesting” to my ear. The paragraph is the definition of nausea for me, and my boredom increases with each added “concrete detail.” Details alone don’t make a story good. The details are always strapped like a damsel in distress to some overriding Godzilla-like associations, beliefs and ideologies which can easily sweep the text away from a reader. It doesn’t comfort me to read about good-‘ole white America (the elephant in the background of this text).
I crave wit, provocation, originality, estrangement, a sense of history and an outsider status. Those are my google keywords. Perhaps that’s why I eat up Roberto Bolano’s writing like ice-cream. And perhaps this article is not fair to the author or the text. I admit I couldn’t read much beyond this paragraph of the story, so my analysis really only applies to that paragraph.
But I’m not trying to be fair, I’m trying to define my literary taste.