Skip to content

Literature as Flattery

In 1934, the Saturday Review of Literature published an ad on how to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. The ad is remarkable for its relationship to reading, democracy, and elitism. On the one hand, the ad dismisses critics who fret over the difficulty of the novel and presents it as a challenge that is rewarding to every reader. Yet the ad also makes it a point to link Ulysses with Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, and other critic-approved evocations of high culture. The implication is that reading is how every democrat can become an aristocrat. Today, this view of reading has created a whole subculture: Book People. These are the people carrying PBS tote bags, who listen to NPR every morning, who say the word “problematic” a thousand times a day, intermixed with exhortations to check out their podcast. You know, Book People.

This phenomenon is more interesting than just rolling our eyes at Park Slope. It appears tied to literature’s anxiety over its place in our culture. When novelist Jonathan Franzen was most concerned about the novel’s irrelevance he wrote the essay “Why Bother” (1996), which urged readers to think of themselves as outside pop culture. Twenty years later the essay collection MFA vs NYC picked up the thread and explicitly presented literature as a subculture. These trends impact how stories are written, and writers have developed tools that affirm and reinforce a way of reading that flatters the reader and valorizes membership in a parochial subculture. The dominant writing technique used in fiction today has become creatively exhausted because it requires this sort of intellectual provincialism in order to function.

Free Indirect Style

In 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story “Cat Person,” a realistic story about a college-aged woman who dates and then breaks up with a jerk, went viral. Curmudgeons love to lament the decline of reading, but “Cat Person” proves the written word can still cut through the cultural noise. Examining this success thus helps us to see the failures of contemporary American literature without blaming them on lazy readers or a competitive entertainment landscape. Without these excuses, we can see how contemporary writing techniques tend to have a provincializing effect on literature.

Part of what defined the “Cat Person” phenomenon was a strange, but familiar, controversy. Many readers reacted to “Cat Person” as if it were nonfiction, and assumed it was a memoir. A Vox article about “Cat Person” chronicled how readers mistook the author with the protagonist and commented on how “readers have called it an ‘article’ or an ‘essay’ or generally treated it as a piece of nonfiction rather than as a short story.” Compare that to a 2016 New York Times article which recalled how Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho sparked controversy when it was published: “In the moral panic over ‘American Psycho,’ so many smart people made a rookie mistake: They’d confused author with character.” Yet the two stories are radically different; one is a thirty-year-old first-person novel about a urine-drinking serial killer, and the other is a third-person story about a young woman navigating the emotional nuances of modern dating. Why is it that contemporary fiction so often produces this confusion? A look at some of the basic tools, techniques, and tenets often taught in fiction workshops can help explain this and will also help us see the fundamental similarity within today’s fiction.

Point of view is the first and primary choice a writer makes when crafting a story. Point of view encompasses more than just first or third person (or potentially second). Third-person fiction also encompasses what literary critic James Wood calls “free indirect style.” What Wood lumps into a single term is comprised of two aspects: linguistic distance and access to interior. Linguistic distance refers to how similarly the narrative voice mirrors the character. Access to interior is how much, or how little, the reader is granted access to the thoughts of the characters. These are similar but separate concepts.

Four examples:

    1. Vinny walked down 16th Avenue, scowling at the swelling crowd. (This sentence doesn’t give us access to the character’s thoughts, and the language doesn’t reflect Vinny.)
    2. Vinny walked down 16th Avenue and thought that the swelling crowd was not made up of native New Yorkers. (This sentence gives us access to the character’s thoughts, but the language still reflects a narrator and not the character.)
    3. “These jamokes did not grow up in Bensonhurst,” Vinny thought as he walked down 16th Avenue. (This sentence gives us access to the character’s thoughts and the language reflects the character, but narrator and character are clearly partitioned by the use of quotations and thought verbs.)
    4. Vinny walked through a crowd of non-native jamokes on 16th Avenue.

This last example is free indirect style. The narrator slips into the language of the character without announcing that we are entering into the character’s thought. “Jamoke” is Vinny’s word and “non-native” reflects Vinny’s thoughts. This allows the subjectivity of first person to be used in third person. Note how easy it would be to claim that this is the author’s observation. Is the author calling new Brooklynites jamokes? How dare he!

It would be a mistake to blame this confusion solely on unsophisticated readers, however. The frequency of this misunderstanding is evidence that this style of writing has a tendency to create a disordered relationship between the reader and the work. Moreover, the author-versus-character conversation often seems like a way to dismiss more trenchant criticism. To explore this, we need to think about why techniques like free indirect style developed.

In 1894 Anton Chekhov published the story “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” It is considered a classic example of free indirect style, and Chekhov is a staple of creative writing syllabi. In 1895, the Berlin Wintergarten Theater began to show movies. In 1897, Joseph Conrad said that the purpose of his writing was “before all, to make you see.” Nine years later, James Joyce started writing what would become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Thus, the germ of stream of consciousness predates the motion picture, and perhaps has its origins in monologues. But it doesn’t seem coincidental that almost as soon as movies were invented, writers began focusing on inward thought. Writers had to ask themselves a new question, the same one Jonathan Franzen would ask a hundred years later: Why bother? Conrad, a master writer working at the height of his powers with the efforts of constant revisions, can make you see. So can any schmuck with a camera. Why write a book rather than a movie script? What can the written word do that other forms of art can’t?

Writers, then and now, arrived at thought, or access to interior. A novel can get inside a person’s head in a way that a camera can’t. A camera will almost always be better at portraying the world because we experience the world through sight, but we experience ourselves through thought, and thought is inexorably intertwined with language. Film could never portray interior life the way William Faulkner throws you into Quentin Compson’s head.

The Gods beyond the River

Thus the use of free indirect style spread in order to emphasize thought, yet this progression is often reframed by two myths which share a single purpose. The first myth deals with literature’s ability to respect the plurality of human experience and centers around the artistic retreat of omniscient third-person narrators. In How Fiction Works, James Wood links this style of writing with the religious worldview. He tells us that head-hopping narrators, like those found in Jane Austen novels, are a dead, or irrelevant, tool of an older era. “Authorial omniscience, people assume, has had its day, much as that ‘vast moth-eaten musical brocade’ called religion has also had its.” This antagonism towards religion is born out of a desire to claim that literature is positioned to navigate subjectivity, and a world beyond moral truth. Yet attempts to position literature as a secular gospel fall flat because the exact same themes appear across all media.

The second myth goes in the opposite direction and recasts the novel’s emphasis on interior life as a moralizing quest for empathy. Author George Saunders once said that “Prose, when it’s done right, is like empathy training wheels.” Empathy is a vague word, so it’s important to note that it is popularly used to restate basic moral lessons for those who are too cool for religion. In the vernacular, it just means compassion. In fact, George Saunders has also called good prose “compassion training wheels.” This narrative seems to take literature’s marketing too seriously. Despite the “scientific studies” linking reading with empathy, the aspects of great storytelling do not inherently promote compassion.

Writers should obviously be concerned with compassion, just as they should be attuned to moral complexity. Yet notice that these seemingly contradictory myths are two different ways to flatter readers and writers: the combination is purported to be less dogmatic than the narratives of the past, plus it’s super moral. There is a fundamental contradiction, however, between these myths and how free indirect style functions.

Free indirect style is a form of dramatic irony. The word irony is abused in popular culture, so it’s important to remember that dramatic irony is just when the audience knows something the characters do not. Irony is not a synonym for cynicism. While this point may sound familiar to readers of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” it is important to note that my concern is about how dramatic irony conveys information, and not whether that information is cynical or sincere.

There are two ways a writer can deliver information to the audience without the characters knowing: (1) within the story; or (2) through signals that all reasonable readers are expected to see. For example:

Chapter one: Laura succumbs to temptation and begins an affair with the matador Eduardo Corrochio. Chapter two: In an effort to convince her that the distance will not impact their relationship, Frank embarks on a cross-country road trip to surprise his girlfriend Laura. In this case, the structure of the story, and the explicit information the story gives the reader, drives the dramatic irony. But what if this story began with chapter two, and the reader never saw Laura’s actions? As Frank drives across the country, Laura is slow to respond to texts. Probably studying. She’s such a hard worker. When she finally answers Frank’s call, her words are slurred. A man laughs in the background. Sure is loud for the library.

Most readers will pick up that Laura is cheating. Why? Well, because it’s obvious. All of those details, and all of the information conveyed, appeal to our basic knowledge about the world and about how stories function. In How Fiction Works, Wood uses the example of the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew to demonstrate how free indirect style and irony function. The writing is from the point of view of a child, so the reader can see where the child’s perspective is too limited to understand the complexities of her parents’ divorce. Just like in the Frank and Laura example, the reader is more perceptive than the character. Again, the irony is dependent upon shared knowledge which exists outside the story: what it’s like to have been a child. The reader sees obvious things that the character cannot. Henry James may write a beautiful portrait of the child that is filled with compassion, yet readers extend their own compassion from a place of authority. This authority is precarious because it depends upon the obvious. There is always a concern about where the author resides, but where does the reader reside?

Contemporary American literature is creatively exhausted because free indirect style places the reader above the characters. In both my example and the Henry James example, the reader is more perceptive than the protagonists. More importantly, this has to be so in order for this type of irony to function. This puts pressure on the writer to create situations where the reader can easily interpret something that the characters cannot see about themselves. The worst trope in horror movies is that the characters enter the basement. Haven’t the characters ever seen a horror movie? Free indirect style is exhausted because it creates characters who always go into the basement. Characters have to be blind to the obvious for the story to work. We are told this style is all about engendering empathy, but in actuality it functions by creating stunted characters. The reader is trained to look down at others, and the writer becomes obsequious to the oh-so-intelligent readers’ egos, always telling them, “Look how smart you are.”

The old concern over the narrator being godlike seems quaint. It is the reader who has become God. And just as the omniscient third person was tied to a religious worldview, so too does free indirect style seem tied to our dominant ideology. Rather than being less dogmatic than the fiction of the past, emphasis on irony means that fiction relies upon cultural and ideological assumptions in order to function. Furthermore, it pressures the work to conform to a narrow view of the world because if you stray too far from the “MFA vs NYC” bubble it becomes difficult to draw upon the cultural assumptions needed for sophisticated dramatic irony. Literature not only ends up perpetuating the dominant views of the milieu it is formed within, it also needs to be intellectually provincial to function. Pantheism congeals into a monolith of platitudes.

“Cat Person” as Flattery

If we go back to “Cat Person” we can see how the use of these writing techniques creates God-readers and limits the possibilities of the story. “Cat Person” is told from the perspective of Margot, a young woman who dates, sleeps with, and then breaks up with a pretentious doofus named Robert. The ironic gap created through free indirect style often involves red flags which signal that Robert isn’t just weird and gross, but also manipulative. Don’t go into the basement! After the two exchange numbers, they go through a texting period in which we are given this piece of information: “If she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to reinitiate the conversation, which she always did.”

The irony is driven by the shared knowledge surrounding the strange and often manipulative games people play while texting. The above sentence is a message from author to reader about information that goes above the head of the character. Robert plays games with his texts. The author flags information to the reader about Robert in other ways: he wears khakis and a button-down shirt, asks a twenty-year-old if she’s ever had sex before, fumbles with her bra, and calls hooking up a date. These flags all increasingly show that Robert is not the type of person Margot thought he was, but they all need to be interpreted through a specific worldview in order to signal that intended information. Bra fumbling, for example, might convey different information to someone raised reading the Koran. Boomers may not fully comprehend the strange millennial distinctions between hanging out and dating. The narrative drive relies, in part, on the reader being within a particular social milieu where these signals have a settled meaning. This limits the variety of characters who can emerge, stunts their ability to be fully capable humans, and places pressure on the author to throw easy-to-recognize flags so that our God-reader can observe it all.

If we focus on a nonpolitical detail, we see how the God-reader’s precarious place of power depends upon a narrow world. When Margot and Robert go on the first date, she worries that he is offended that she is not taking it seriously enough. She wears a sweatshirt while he wears khakis and a button-down shirt. This seemingly innocuous detail about khakis is a complex signal from author to reader. Khakis convey that Robert is trying hard, but in a particular way which is quintessentially not hip. Banana Republic aficionados might object: they’re appropriate for the office and the club! Yet you lose some of the information conveyed in the scene if you don’t already view khakis as reserved for seventh-grade dances.

Perhaps such details just display basic fidelity to the age-old fiction rule “show, don’t tell.” Margot worries that he is taking the date more seriously than she is, and this is shown in his outfit. Yet here is the important point: easy-to-recognize flags are telling rather than showing. The author relies on the reader seeing this in a particular way so that the scene can function. If you think, perhaps, that I am reading too much into this detail, consider that the scene wouldn’t convey the same information if Robert wore jeans. Jeans can convey multiple things. Khakis don’t. The author must stick to signals and symbols which already have shared collective meaning.

Robert as a character is a collection of these settled details. The author flags one after another and we recognize him as a particular sort of person, but the story never allows him to move beyond the neckbeard stereotype. By the end of the story the author can only do one of two things: either deny or affirm the stereotype. The story ends with Robert harassing and insulting Margot. So while Margot the character may be conflicted on how to view Robert, the internal structure of the story confirms everything the reader assumed from the first scene. This way of writing is creatively exhausted because it only affirms previously held prejudices, which limits more than just the story and the characters.

James Wood has pointed out that when a novel is written in first person, we can reliably expect the unreliable narrator. Likewise, when a novel is written using free indirect style, it tends to coalesce around certain choices: easy-to-read, preestablished signals and symbols. It narrows by its nature, and so even when irony isn’t being used in any given sentence, it tends to promote what’s fit for mass consumption. It lacks a level of self-awareness. This means the moral lessons hawked by contemporary literature end up looking silly to anyone outside a particular worldview.

For example, in “Cat Person,” Robert asks Margot if she has ever been with a man before, and Margot laughs. She laughs because it seems ridiculous that her first time would be after such a lame date. She then contrasts this with her real first time in high school: “Losing her virginity had been a long, drawn-out affair preceded by . . . a horrifically embarrassing but ultimately incredibly meaningful conversation with her mom, who, in the end, had not only reserved her a room at a bed-and-breakfast but, after the event, written her a card.”

Note how two adverbs do the emotional heavy lifting in that sentence (horrifically and incredibly). Adverbs never add new meaning to a sentence. They only reinforce what’s already there, which is why you can’t quickly meander, or cautiously gallivant. Adverbs expect the reader to agree that something is horrific or incredible without proof. This is evidence that the author is trafficking in a prepackaged emotional event. Imagine if the character “stared horrifically at her mother’s gravestone, which was incredibly meaningful.” We would all recognize this as hacky. It would be hacky because the emotions aren’t created in the scene; they rely on the reader having already been trained by a billion movies to recognize easy symbols. Gravestone: sad. Virginity: meaningful. It’s a false, and unearned, emotion.

The problem with all this is that the passage asks us to treat virginity with almost medieval reverence, but also treat sex as inconsequential afterwards. Strip out the worldview and the prepackaged emotions that affirm this and you are left with an absurd, almost surreal scenario where a mother gives her daughter a “you just got banged” Hallmark card. The whole scene is designed to flatter readers for having status quo views, but if they took a step back they might see how funny it is to combine enlightened libertinism with the most appalling sentimentalism.

A Wider View

The technique displayed in “Cat Person” has obvious political consequences, because this style requires that any critique of culture already be affirmed by the culture itself. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” would not make sense as social criticism if it was read by actual cannibals. Fiction which relies upon this sort of dramatic irony becomes culturally unintelligible when it tries to criticize the dominant view. This can be seen in another recent New Yorker story.

Zadie Smith’s “Now More Than Ever” is a polemic disguised as a short story about modern Twitter virtue signaling, and how the #MeToo moment feels increasingly like The Crucible. The story pokes fun at those who interpret the sins of the past through the specific lens of the present, and mocks those who need to constantly affirm that they have enlightened views. As a polemic, it correctly excoriates all that is wrong in today’s culture. As a short story, it is embarrassingly didactic. The New Republic, however, criticized the story for not being didactic enough. The primary criticism was that Zadie Smith’s personal views are not explicit enough to judge the work. “There’s not so much a lack of nuance here as a big privacy curtain erected around the way that Zadie Smith actually feels.” Again, character and author are mixed up, but here it is because irony attempted to go against the dominant ideology of our time. The story didn’t engender empathy for a contrary view, nor did it land satirical punches, because the irony tried to rely on shared knowledge that is contested. Hence the New Republic doesn’t know how to read the story:

In the end the reader is left in a forest of signs pointing in conflicting directions. Which way is the right way? . . . Is this the conclusion—that we walk through a big dark wood of moral ambiguity? It’s not wrong, but I’m lost.

It sounds like a literary critic criticized a piece of literature for making her think. This is the state of literary discourse in America. Today, readers are so used to fiction that flatters their assumptions that they don’t know how to read any other way. Contemporary fiction often resembles T-ball, setting up perfect scenarios for the reader to smash out of the park. Is xenophobia bad? Yes, yes quite bad! This mirrors how the university teaches students to read while cataloguing all the moral failures of the past. Sexism: check. Racism: check. Homophobia: check. Often, contemporary fiction sells the reader sneering moral indoctrination under the guise of empathetic plurality. So we are left with critics who are paid professionally to read and write, but who have difficulty reading outside the prism of their worldview. If writers like Zadie Smith want to criticize the dominant ideology, they cannot use irony without being misunderstood, and yet irony is the primary tool in their kit. Literature has been neutered as a forum for social criticism.

There are many generalizations here, so it’s important to end by noting that amazing books are published every year, and bookstores are filled with new books that do not fall into the traps outlined above, even if there is a tendency in that direction. Moreover, writers should not necessarily throw out any tools or techniques to avoid these traps. Free indirect style and dramatic irony developed organically for a reason. They shouldn’t be discarded for hazy political purposes. Rather, writers should recognize the narrowing effect dramatic irony can have on stories. It promotes and thrives on intellectual provincialism which refuses to question or to explore. Simply seeing that will help create fiction with a wider view.

Writers  shouldn’t walk away from this muttering “yes, yes, I am God not you!” Purposefully obscure or alienating literature just flatters the reader through different means. Alice McDermott, one of the greatest living authors, once said that the author is only God in the first sentence. Every other sentence is limited by the sentence before. You have to follow the story. Reading as proof of elitism is perpetuated when writers look down at their characters, or try to impose their wills in stale sermons, or rely on a rolodex of prepackaged emotions. Literature needs to escape the elitist subculture it has created for itself. There is a connection between how a culture views reading and writing and how it rules itself, and it is not a coincidence that the last twenty years produced an inward-looking literary culture.

In politics, an old way of thinking is beginning to crumble as people rethink stale paradigms. Writers should similarly question and invigorate old techniques, so that fiction can enter this new imaginative landscape with a proper vision of literature’s full possibilities.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2019): 202–12.

Sorry, PDF downloads are available to subscribers only.
Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log In