And he isn’t the only male American novelist I hate. Not to be a feminazi or anything. There are just too many goddamn self-important-I-think-I’m-so-brilliant American writers… and nine times out of ten they’re men. The list goes on and on: Roth, Updike, Delillo, Bellows, Pynchon etc., etc.
James Woods (not the actor) wrote a pretty incredible article in 2001 about the need for American novels to “abandon social and theoretical glitter”.
The Great American Social Novel, which strives to capture the times, to document American history, has been revivified by Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a novel of epic social power. Lately, any young American writer of any ambition has been imitating DeLillo – imitating his tentacular ambition, the effort to pin down an entire writhing culture, to be a great analyst of systems, crowds, paranoia, politics; to work on the biggest level possible.
The DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die. Nowadays anyone in possession of a laptop is thought to be a brilliance on the move, filling his or her novel with essaylets and great displays of knowledge. Indeed, “knowing about things” has become one of the qualifications of the contemporary novelist. Time and again novelists are praised for their wealth of obscure and far-flung social knowledge.
Richard Powers is the best example, but Tom Wolfe also gets an easy ride simply for “knowing things”.) The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.