Epidemiology offers a fruitful perspective to consider the malignancies evident in much contemporary writing. My perceptions here are far from universal, first because no one can get a proper grasp on what is happening in literature everywhere, and second because I am not an especially voracious reader. Yet more and more I am seeing not just the usual badness, but a particular and I think new kind of badness in the books I come across, which I doubt can be divorced from the documented rise in narcissistic traits in so-called Western countries – a real trend, even if most of the writing about it is vague, tawdry, and alarmist – and from the peculiar distortions effected on subjectivity, not only by social media, but by the compulsion to identity that appears a part of our Zeitgeist.
The cardinal feature of the badness in question appears to be the presumption either of inherent interest or of a claim on others’ interest independent of the aesthetic virtues of the text in question (the word aesthetic is marked off here because in certain cases, other putative virtues appear to displace, substitute for, or supersede aesthetic value). Dividing the two is a thorny task: in general, one might say that exemplars of the first tend to enjoy the favor of some already extant mediator of regard or privilege, while those of the second seek to exploit some aspect of their alienation from said mediators as evidence of a reprehensible exclusion from consideration.
In books of this kind, though the author may believe himself to have produced something of value, the actual burden of generating interest is passed off onto the reader, who, if he fails in this task, is subject to one of two sorts of opprobrium: the age-old charge of philistinism, if the author is established, or that of bigotry, if the author is excluded, subaltern, or what have you. In either case, the predominant feeling for the reader who is aware of, but has not succumbed to, advance praise, browbeating, or the obligation to enjoy, is boredom, exasperation, and vague, persistent irritation.
Such writing finds its analogue in the perplexing phenomena of social media: the selfie and particularly the status update. In an essay on Ben Lerner and Teju Cole for Uwe Schütte’s Über W.G. Sebald, I used the term “literary selfie” to describe these writers’ work, which is less concerned with the places, circumstances, or persons described therein than with the authors’ prominent visibility against the backdrop they provide. A recent study in Toronto by Dr. Daniel Re, et al. concluded that “Selfies may therefore produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot,” and found that “Selfie-takers generally overperceived the positive attributes purveyed by their selfies.” I have the sense that similar illusions obtain in the literary selfie: that authors who believe they are conveying probity, sagacity, and acumen in general manifest obtuseness, inconsideration, and intolerable self-regard.
As these traits come to predominate, writing suffers in interesting ways. Plotting, traditionally the source of tension, becomes slipshod and piecemeal, because the presumption that the reader is always already interested strips it of urgency, and the rationale for a given incident’s presence in the text is often vague. Repetitions abound, because the author, like a friend who insistently posts photographs of his meals or of drunken nights out with friends, has lost sight of the possibility that he might be boring. In Leaving the Atocha Station, for example, there are forty-seven references to the narrator’s fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, eighteen to taking pills, thirty-five to drinking coffee, fifty-three to cannabis, twenty-three to the narrator’s “project,” and fifty-eight instances of the word “whatever.” Less than plotting, in the traditional sense, or character development, such iterations privilege a view of the subject as an accumulation of self-perceptions or “status updates.” This may account as well for the preponderance of adverbs in many books of this sort, which qualify non-falsifiable gradations of emotion.
The trouble with such writing, beyond its obvious complicity with the self-commodification increasingly requisite for literary success, and the abominable nature of a world in which the enticement of embodying an image or a product eclipses the temptation to be, is its vast incuriosity, its retrograde supposition of the fixity of the self. Even at its most brooding, it seems affected, more concerned with the lineaments of meditation than with its mechanics or the strange shores it might lead to, as though its representatives, starting to cramp from the unnatural posture, are already rankling, ready to post their update and move on.