Modern Fiction (was Re: DWJ's Faults and Robertson Davies)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Thu Apr 4 14:49:00 EST 2002

On Tue, 12 Mar 2002 19:01:51 -0700, Robyn Starkey wrote:

>>and P.S., but there are a number of well-admired writers I simply don't
>>comprehend, but *I* would NEVER dismiss them as bad writers because of my
>>lack of intelligence.  Like Robertson Davies, who is...sorry, I have just
>>not the faintest idea what the point is.  If someone could please explain
>>Modern Fiction to me I would be very grateful.
>I think these are two separate requests. I love Robertson Davies, but to me 
>he is not a typical example of modern (or postmodern for that matter) 

I suppose this depends on what you mean by "modern fiction," right?  I think
there are two classes of what we might also call literary fiction: one is
the elaborate, detail-rich kind that Davies writes (also people like Anne
Tyler, for example, or Reynolds Price or the other guy Professor Jorgensen
used to go on about, and probably Margaret Atwood) and the other is more
postmodern--I'm thinking Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, and I'm drawing a blank
on other names (those two are my favorites insomuch as I like that kind of
fiction at all).

But it *is* sort of two requests.  I see Davies as a person who bridges two
separate reading communities.  Readers of literary fiction appreciate his
use of language, symbolism, and context, but he also draws in a subset of
the fantasy reading community as well.

Here's what I'm thinking--and I feel very brave to admit this, because this
is honestly a hole in my reading skills.  I read the first book of the
Deptford trilogy and thought it was beautiful and poignant and clever.  I
was interested in the characters.  And I got to the end and thought, "What
exactly am I supposed to think about this?  Is it just an extended
meditation on character, or is something else going on?"  This is generally
the sense I get from modern fiction--that there is some aspect of the text
that is opaque to me, that is imbued with more meaning than I myself

Here's another example.  Ann Smith is another modern writer of stories and
novels.  I tracked down a story she wrote (that's another post entirely, but
came about because she and a friend sent away for the Silhouette Romance
novel guidelines in the hopes of making easy money writing potboiler
romances) and decided to read a few of the other ones in the collection.
The first one is about a woman whose husband leaves her for a younger woman,
and how she comes to terms with it.  And NOTHING HAPPENS. There's a lot of
activity, but in the end it's just this woman sitting on her lawn, letting
her dog roam free and terrorize the neighbors.  This is the kind of story
that makes me wonder if I am just stupider than the rest of the world,
because as far as I can tell it has no resolution, no conflict, nothing but
a description of this one event.  Sure, I could make up a meaning for it,
but so what?  There's something I'm not getting, and it bothers me.

Georgia said:

>I'm surprised you
>imply he typifies Modern Fiction for you, as I think of him as quite
>un-modern - very long novels often focussing on the relationships of groups
>of people in communities (small town/university etc), unafraid of big
>emotions, often not very much happening.

That sounds like a perfect description of modern fiction.  :)  Especially
what Dave Wolverton calls "Manhattan Angst" fiction, though that tends to be

Robyn again:

>What book did you try to read? He wrote books in thematic groups, 
>and often it takes a whole novel to develop a plot point for another book 
>(I'm thinking of the second book of the Cornish trilogy, for example); so I 
>guess they can sometimes be a bit intricate and slow-moving.

My assumption was--based on talking to other fans of his books--that they
were all very similar.  But it sounds like that's not so much the case.  In
your opinion, which is the best of his thematic groups (and how would you
define "the best"?)?  That's for anyone who likes Davies's books, by the

Anyway, the original point still stands.  If I don't understand the point of
a book, especially if I'm unfamiliar with the genre, the fault probably lies
with me and not with the author.  And in case this was unclear, I am not
being flippant when I say I don't understand modern fiction.  That's not my
backhanded way of suggesting the genre is stupid and unworthy.  I dislike
not being able to fully appreciate certain books just because I don't know
how to read them.

Melissa Proffitt
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