The Decline and Fall of "Literary Fiction"

By Guido Mina di Sospiro (October 2019)

Man Reading, Emmanuel Levy



When I pick up a book in the “literary fiction” genre I do not perceive the respect towards that ineffable logos that breathes inside us. Language, as a result, is barren, sometimes seemingly synthetic, or at any rate artificial. There used to be a time in which Wittgenstein had such a profound influence on me, I could no longer pick up any text, simply because nowhere did I detect the respect and awe language ought to have inspired in its author. Perhaps all aspiring writers should be fed Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations as compulsory readings. If nothing else, they would begin to appreciate some of the intricate and ambiguous aspects of language, even ordinary parlance. Did they realize language could imply so much and/or so little at the same time?


Glossolalia predates language. It is not language deranged, or unsyntactic and unsemantic. I suppose one must learn it all, and then throw it all away, much like the poet and mystic Rumi did. Storytelling is cogent only if based on a profound understanding of the metaphysical importance of myth. If not, the whole art of the novel should be declared dead and buried. Anti-novels have proved the point, with James Joyce and Julio Cortázar among their preeminent champions. But their works betrayed a dissatisfaction with the (non)values of the Twentieth Century. Yet, they were unable to offer alternatives, hence, the death of the novel, as deconstructionist critics would like us to believe.


On the other hand, by erring so uncompromisingly on the side of modesty and uniformity, the prose in most works of “literary fiction” appalls me. I wonder: are all these writers ill? Have they all become numb? Are they asleep or catatonic? Their metronomic and synthetic prose reminds me of that distinctly man-made contrivance: the lawn.



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There is nothing like a lawn in nature. At the most, there are prairies, an entirely different notion. A lawn demands herbicides, pesticides, constant mowing, weeding, fertilizing, irrigation where rain is insufficient, sun, but not too much of it, some shade, better if dappled. It is an abstract aberration, definitely not lifelike. So is the prose I object to. It may aim at simplicity, but could not be more contrived—and insipid, standardized, inert, syntactically, semantically, and stylistically barren. It is an outgrowth of the inertia of modernism. The same ghastly, soulless linearity of modernistic architecture. But linearity is an abstraction, it is not lifelike. Poor disoriented modern man: anthropocentric, god-eclipsing, then godless, and finally soulless! Life is eminently non-linear. If you went to a garden shop, you would see that there are more herbicides and pesticides in stock than fertilizers. What has happened to humankind? What’s its obsession with killing and repressing? Let us fertilize and be fertilized! The fields of imagination are wide open, and for everyone to explore. Yet, the lifeless lawn. An antibiotic, literally—anti-life.


And yet, intuitively approached, the world appears vibrantly alive—every pebble, rock, or tree, feels and lives. Arguably, we are all cells of a giant organism, the Earth, which is in turn a cell of its galaxy, and so on and on, ad infinitum. Again and again, I must draw attention to the obvious: this beautiful planet, breathable, drinkable, edible, self-regulating and self-maintaining, is alive. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino maintained that the world is an animal. Yet the Western world explains away purported consciousness in beings other than human as “anthropomorphic.” Judging from the language employed to do so, quite convincingly, too. Prose has been sanitized, “functionalized,” oversimplified.


Poor modern reader—you are sober. I trust that you wouldn’t mind being inebriated, from time to time, the same inebriation we feel when we are in love. But you have been forced to sober up. Modernism has left you no choice. And what about technocracy, financial intoxication, international Machiavellianism? And yet you, reader, are rediscovering the awe-inspiring complexities of the jungle. The Cartesian spirit that wants to do away with jungles is the same specter that plagues modern “literary” prose, and the modern mind by and large. Yet you, reader, delight in architectonic masterpieces of the past—temples, churches, cathedrals, castles, palaces, villas and what have you. Somehow, they all have soul, regardless of their style. And you, female reader, love jewelry—in its infinite, highly intricate manifestations—and flowers. Much like the prolixity of Mahler’s late romantic symphonies was out of control, so is the barrenness of late modern prose. Its obsessive quest for economy has made it severely anal-retentive. Some of it is constipated. Constipated writers differ from the anal-retentive ones in that they would like to be more . . . productive, but cannot. The adjective prosaic aptly, as well as tautologically, describes their prose.


Hence, the impelling necessity for a cosmological reappraisal. While we are living in the “Chaotic Age” and the Theory of Chaos shows us the fascinating side of intricacy and unpredictability (and no longer merely in mathematical microstructures), too many writers, caught in their watertight compartments (God forbid if a novelist should bother with things scientific), ignore the phenomenally complex reality around them, and stick, out of inertia, laziness, unawareness or plain simple-mindedness, to that modernistic axiom, “less is more.” Adventuresome people must endeavor to recognize and befriend the good side of chaos. Graphically put, it’s as simple as this. Just a few decades ago, jungles were routinely razed and turned into grazing land for cattle. Within a few years, however, such pastures would become a desert. “Developers” would move on, and leave the desert behind. More jungles would be razed, and so on. The net result: no more jungles, no more pastures, no more cattle. Utter barrenness. Nowadays, jungles are being preserved (at least some of them) and even laypeople are beginning to appreciate the highly intricate, indeed chaotic order—though “harmony” seems more fitting—that governs such a complex ecosystem.


Unadventurous writers show us in the greatest detail the shadow side of order. And that is, their own squalid, empty, modernistic non-souls. Ugliness has been conscientiously cultivated and reproduced for over a century. It has shown us its devious charms, at best sensationalistic, never really charming, and quickly déjà vu. Existentialism became a pretext for whining, or for drug-addiction, or aimlessness. Everyone was to be blamed—the parents, society, the establishment. Never the individual.


Not so long ago, Sartre wrote that “nature is mute.” No, nature is not mute, you Gitanes-smoking, trench raincoat-wearing non-philosopher, but many humans in this machine-driven world have become deaf.


Jane Austen, Nikolai Gogol, and many more brought about the transition to 19th-century literary realism by writing about people and milieus with which they were familiar. At the time, focusing on ordinary people and realities must have been refreshing. But we have now had two centuries of increasingly ordinary characters in literature who cannot even be defined “antiheroes”. We have seen their X-rays, and learned in the greatest detail about the vices and weaknesses of their unremarkable lives. It has become worse than a cliché, rather like an obsession. Indeed, clinics should be opened that offer rehabilitation for those who have suffered from an overdose of nobodies.


Might average readers have an ambivalent attitude? They may want to read in novels what they are familiar with, to identify with the characters, while, on the other hand, these same people, when they wake up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror, find that image off-putting. This is modern man. We are all equal, he is told, and all equally insignificant, demanding ever less, never more, from ourselves. Alienation and estrangement are presented as inevitable and inescapable. Everything else is “pretentious” and “pompous”, adjectives that, in the realm of “literary fiction”, are equivalent to “fascist” and “racist” in politics.


In Act Five of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmund Rostand has his hero say, shortly before the end:


“Physicist, Metaphysician, Poet, duellist, and musician, And Voyager to the Heavens, Master of how to answer-back, A Lover toobut not to his gain! Here lies Hercule Savinien De Cyrano de Bergerac, Who was all things, and all in vain.”


Shortly before dying he says, memorably:


“But one cannot fight hoping only for success! No! No: it’s still sweeter if it’s all in vain!”




“As I go to meet my Deity, I will brush the blue threshold beneath my feet, something I bear, in spite of you all, that’s free of hurt, or stain,



“and that’s . . .



ROXANE (bending and kissing his forehead):



CYRANO (opening his eyes, recognizing her, and smiling as he speaks):


“My panache.”



That’s it: panache, the antidote for modern estranged, alienated and disenfranchised man. Panache applies to the mentioned lawn-like prose, too. To think that, at its purest, language is logos, or psychic matter in flux . . .


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While on the subject, does any writer of “literary fiction” bother with the classics? Does anyone of them study Latin and Ancient Greek? We are told that they work so very assiduously on their “craft” (that is, their seventh-grade prose awash in clichés and common places) most probably without realizing that, say, the Nine Melic Poets or the Latin Neoterics or poetae novi have existed and could teach them a thing or two. For example, Catullus’s famous Carmen 85, Odi et amo, a down-to-the-bare-minimum elegiac couplet (a hexameter followed by a pentameter):


Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.


I hate and I love. Why would I do that, you may ask?

I don’t know, but I feel it happen and am torn apart.


“Literary fiction” makes me think of Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse and other such authors. But today by “literary fiction” the publishing industry means those navel-gazing novels hinged on suburban angst, an extraordinarily claustrophobic Weltanschauung, if any, all sprinkled by a substantial serving of alienation—from the world, from one’s family and from oneself. As I write as much, my beard grows longer at an alarming pace.


Materialists may say that I am a mythomaniac. While I do not concede it, I see no harm in that. We all need myths to live by. The sin, in the view of the materialists (who of course are also atheists and nihilists), is for people to take themselves seriously. They are “pretentious”. Well, think for a moment of the inherent self-aggrandizing pretentiousness of the English language, in which the pronoun “I” is as a matter of course capitalized. They will also say that too much knowledge renders the writing ponderous and pedantic—not in the hands of a truly accomplished writer, though, who knows how to strike a balance. Lastly, while in-spiring, one must give himself up, body and soul, to the Muses. Why should the Muses speak to people who don’t care to listen? Or who don’t know how to listen? Undereducated, autobiographical, monolingual, small-minded “literary fiction” writers? The Muses shall have nothing to do with them. Of course, the latter will say they don’t need them. “Muses? Inspiration? A study, a tower, a sanctum (what the hell does that mean?) in which to . . . contemplate? Nonsense! Has he heard himself, that pretentious fart? What could be wrong with our modest pursuits? They are so genuinely modest. We just write about what we know. That’s the best writing, the most genuine. And so satisfying for the reader, too. Yes, keeping modest is definitely the best policy.”


Rilke wrote, “If I don’t manage to fly, someone else will. / The spirit wants only that there be flying. / As for who happens to do it, / in that he has only a passing interest.” And, “Maybe birds will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.” The “modest” writers ought to read the following carefully, and meditate (again by Rilke): “All wants to float. But we trudge around like weights. / Ecstatic with gravity, we lay ourselves on everything. / Oh what tiresome teachers we are for things, / while they prosper in their ever childlike state.”


No wonder fantasy novels sell by tens of millions of copies: most readers want larger than life. For modesty and uneventfulness they already have their own life. And what of the vicarious pleasure of adventure traveling? The reader is right there where the action is, taking part in the most astonishing adventures, yet with none of the risks.


In contemporary “literary” novels we are fed an endless sampling of the fetishizing of human relationships. The much trumpeted sexual revolution has contributed to this, and now it seems that the “energy” is only to be found in the relationships among humans. But, when considering the more-than-human out there, that one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe, we humans are not all that important.


Multiplicity in scope and range, and the inherent unbounded versatility of the mind, must not be confused with the Baroque, or with an exercise in overindulgence. Balance—structural, stylistic, semantic and otherwise—must come into play, and non-linearity can thrive on leanness of touch. Maximalism and minimalism, when felicitously employed, are equivalently powerful.


I am not advocating the cause of unreadable novels, far from it. Away from lettres classiques and belles lettres, into communicability. But communicability must arise spontaneously as the result of a “totalizing” approach, because nothing in the realm of the knowable is alien to us humans, as Terence would have it.



If jackasses never come in contact with a horse, in the long run such champions of self-unawareness will believe they are thoroughbreds. In the contemporary western world that distinct brand of blindness is called “self-confidence.”


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