*Serious Noticing*, the new James Wood book

The subtitle is Selected Essays 1997-2019, here is one excerpt:

A genre is hardening.  It is becoming possible to describe the contemporary ‘big, ambitious novel’.  Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens.  Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.  It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.  Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.  Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.  Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

I do not love the big, ambitious novel, as portrayed here.  As for Wood, the best parts of this book are excellent, and none of the lesser parts would seem to lower the sustainable growth rate of gdp.

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Zadie Smith seems like a nice lady. I thought "White Teeth" was overambitious for her young age when she wrote it, but that's not a terrible defect.

"Serious Noticing" ought to be your book.

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I have come to lower the sustainable growth rate of GDP, not praise it.

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So you don’t think that Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is a big ambitious novel? I agree that it’s interestingly different from Dickens or Foster Wallace but it also has also has lots stories and sub-stories and “glamorous congestion”.

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Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie should be influenced by Dickens, as they are rather much British writers, working in Britain, in the capital which inspired him to write as he did (with density of connections and extremity of character). It would be surprising if they were not.

(I enjoyed White Teeth of course, though I was probably as immature as a reader then as she was as a writer).

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"I do not love the big, ambitious novel, as portrayed here."

This requires further remarks as many including myself are curious why a discriminating reader of interesting taste would feel this way about an entire genre of writing.

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I've started reading James Wood when he moved to The New Republic in the mid-1990s and have always found him to be an astute literary critic. I've also read my share of 'big ambitious novels' whatever that term might mean. Unlike Tyler, I do enjoy the challenge of reading them. While Dickens may have been the forefather, Joyce's 'Ulysses' was the game changer. Sadly overlooked, William Gaddis's 'The Recognitions' was the major work that led to newer forms of the genre and maybe it is this book that Pynchon's 'Gravity's Rainbow' is most similar. I still believe that 'JR' by Gaddis is one of the best fictional accounts of American business ever to be published. It takes some concentration by the reader as it's written almost entirely in dialogue but quite rewarding once one gets in the flow.

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The writing in this excerpt is rather self-indulgent. "Wow, look at me write!"

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Would Catch-22 be a precursor to the trend he's noting? Loved that one but I just can't make heads or tails out of Pynchon, Gaddis etc. Wallace was best as a magazine reporter.

I much prefer novels that are spare and stripped down, with just a few characters and an intensely neurotic or deluded inner dialogue.

I've a perverse sort of provincialism - I love Dickens and Dostoevsky but have an aversion to the idea of reading a big, ambitious, sprawler that's set in 20th-century America. Too easy to reflexively find fault, perhaps. Nor can I tolerate the non-Dickensian but still-ambitious contemporary "This is how we live now" sort of book I associate with Jonathan Franzen - though I'd name him one of my favorite writers, because of his magazine pieces, the one about the plush puffin and the one about the Antarctic cruise especially. Then again, for such essays I love John Jeremiah Sullivan too [The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie! and the one about taking the long, long trailer to the Christian rock festival!], but would never think to look for novels by him, so probably just my own limitations.

I did try the all-dialogue "JR", finding the premise intuitively funny as presented by its many MR fans in a past post - but read and read and didn't get as far as meeting the titular character.

I think I'll give "White Teeth" a go. Time has passed and she's written other things, but it seems like that is the book she had in her?

There's a pretty good Claude Mauriac novel, The DInner Party, where you have to figure out which of the eight guests is talking (or thinking).

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Recent novels? Those aren't recent novels. The novel is dying.

The Great American Novel is DEAD.

The fictional form with living roots in American soil (despite academic neglect across recent decades) is short fiction: flash fiction has barely begun to emerge in print and polite society, its earnest and devoted practitioners still have work to do.

Maybe over the coming decade American novellas of 100-140 pp. max will fill in intermediate fictional gaps for those keen to feed specifically literary imagination (120 pp. being the length of a feature film screenplay).

A former book editor (philosophy, science, religion titles), I have wondered whether trade fiction publishers persist shoving lousy thick novels through Amazon's distribution system only because novels somehow keep their production unit costs low.

The European novel itself may well ail, but I spend more time wondering how their contemporary poetry fares.

Heft helps close the sale. You feel you're getting your money's worth when the book is thick.

The brave new Kindle world was supposed to free us from bloated physical books, but it hasn't happened.

It requires mental labor to enter even the briefest fictional world. That's why it's harder to read a book of short stories than a novel. With a book of short stories, you have to accommodate yourself to a new world every few pages. I don't have the time or energy for that. If I'm going to go to the trouble of entering a fictional world, I want to spend a lot of time there.

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Those aren't recent novels because that quoted excerpt isn't from a recent essay. It was written twenty years ago: https://newrepublic.com/article/61361/human-inhuman

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Soooo...I guess Stephen King, Robert Jordan, Tom Wolfe, Tom Clancy, Harry Turtledove [1], and others whom I can't think of in the moment don't count?

[1] Turtledove wrote--among many others--a "trilogy of trilogies" with a capstone tenth novel [take THAT, George Lucas!] spanning three-quarters of a century, from the 1880s to the 1950s. Each volume was on the order of 400-500 pages, had a good half-dozen narrative threads, and featured viewpoint characters in the dozens.

...Or is this one of those snooty "literary" things? :-(

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"A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe the contemporary ‘big, ambitious novel’. Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens."

Or: perhaps possibly maybe the more immediate progenitor of sclerotic novels in the English tongue is R. D. Blackmore (cited by American truth-curator Wikipedia as "one of the most famous English novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century").

The Penguin ed. of his enduring Lorna Doone comes in at 750 pp.

(However sadly, Blackmore's appeal was forever blunted for yours truly insofar as his work was nowhere excerpted or even indexed in the third ed. of the Norton Anthology of English Literature back in the day.)

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