Feb 1, 2009

Why do embittered losers write books?

A wonderful piece in the New Yorker Observer about how emotionally misshapen losers are taking over contemporary literature:—
One strain in particular—characterized by a self-loathing impulse to confession, a kinetic demeanor and a claim to authenticity expressed through vitriolic social critique—has emerged as a dominant model. The patron saints of this mini-genre: Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and pretty much every character Chuck Palahniuk has ever written. Some of these characters are not far from monsters—not good underneath all their flaws but worth paying attention to because of them. Disfigured, pathetic, unapologetic and occasionally hopeless, they are, on the whole, contemptuous of the world around them because of what it’s turned them into and confident that the reason for their alienation is the inescapable, toxic nastiness of modern life. They are losers—spiritually dysfunctional, often ugly physically—with chips on their shoulders and resentment in their hearts that takes the form of a self-consciously unforgiving, bombastic mode of social criticism. Over the past decade or so, characters like these seem to have become the vehicle of choice for young male writers seeking to express a certain sort of disaffection.
This is a little too kind to Paluhniuk — Palunhiyuk? I can never get that guy's name right — but it holds water. Edge sells. Gritty and unflinching rule the day. I was struck reading the obituaries of Updike, how many people paid tribute to the delightedness of his descriptions. Sam Anderson, in New York magazine, noted "his almost pathological cheerful[ness]". Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, went one better than pathology:—
Updike the humorist is probably the least known or recognizable Updike of them all, but something of the White-cum-Thurber sound of the New Yorker that he joined—that bemused, ironically smiling but resolutely well-wishing, anti-malicious comic tone—lingered in his work till the very end. In the last year of his life, he wrote to an admirer that “humor is my default mode,” and that he still dreamed of being the new Benchley, the next Perelman.
I wish people wouldn't wait until you are dead to say such nice things.


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