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

Robyn Starkey rohina at
Fri Apr 5 00:28:20 EST 2002

Thank you Melissa for raising another fascinating topic for discussion!

>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).

Okay, we really have something to sort out here. I have to say I don't 
think Anne Tyler is in Robertson Davies' league, and I don't know the other 
authors (or, well I may know the other guy the professor used to go on 
about, but I don't KNOW I know him), so it is hard for me to see if we are 
in the ballpark. To me, Robertson Davies is postmodern in that his work is 
highly intertextual, and it often is about more than just what the plot 
appears to be about on the surface. Plus he is really into that 
archetypical postmodern thing, writing the same story from a number of 
different viewpoints.

>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.

Okay, I guess I am both kinds of reader, because one of the things I like 
best about Davies is his use of language, but I also think he writes 
excellent plots. The thing is, that the plots often take all three books to 
unfurl. But in each of his sets of books, there is at least one overarching 
thematic exploration, which I also think engages me as a literary reader.

>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

Maybe this is partly the case, but you also probably need to read the three 
books before making a decision. If you aren't engaged enough to do it, that 
is another story. In the Deptford Trilogy, the books are very much about a 
Jungian world view, and I think if you have some idea about what this is 
before you read the books, you will get more out of them, but on the other 
hand, Davies spends a lot of time explaining what he thinks Jung's ideas 
are in the books. On one level, the books are often quite intricate 
biographies of supposedly ordinary people. So that isn't an unfair reading. 
But I think the exposition of the life is also meant to show you something 
larger about life in general through the examination of the characters in 
the books.

>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.

This is a different kind of book. Joanna Trollope writes them, too.

>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

I like the Cornish Trilogy best because it is the most intricately written, 
for me. It's thematic arc is about things I am familiar with and interested 
in, so that may be part of it. It's about books and the creation of 
knowledge, and what is real and what constitutes a fake, and about what the 
Myth of Arthur means to people in the twentieth century. Also it is about 
music and creativity and how they may be related to the more earthy aspects 
of humanity.

>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.

There's a lot to be said for this as point of view. It is pretty hard to 
enjoy medieval poetry if you don't know how to read it, so why should 
modern fiction be different - I mean the stuff that is intended to be 
literary. There is also a fairly valid point of view which says a lot of it 
is just not meant to be readable, or is plain bad.

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