I spent spring break on a road trip with my sister and our combined gang of five children – ages 16, 13, 11, 10 and 7. Any idea what five children do the majority of a week? They eat and they outgrow things. I’ve now seen every Walmart Super Center up and down the coast of South Carolina. On one of our forays into Wally World I picked up a cheap cotton jersey dress in a jaunty turquoise geometric pattern. Not until we got to my mom’s house in Hilton Head did I bother to take the tag off and try the dress on.
The dress? Cute, fit nicely, will probably last for three washes. What do you want for a $10 dollar dress! The tag, however, was a different story. I almost never read tags, but this one was super-sized and something about it caught my eye. The tag was so ridiculously demonstrative that I went ahead and made it the title of this blog entry. I use words for a living – not only do I write fiction that I know will be published some day (thanks Carol, for that bit of wisdom!), I’m also a published poet, and I write operations manuals for restaurant groups. I can wield a word for many different purposes. So, who in their right mind would use words on a dress tag that so clearly state the uncomfortable facts of life in modern America?
Our glory has certainly faded a bit, both as a nation and as individuals. I could look at this through any number of lenses – political, economic, inventive – but I use words so I’m going to stick with the world of words. The novel as an art form – as more than a history – has had a great run in America. We gave the world Henry James, Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway. You know, all the greats. We’ve also done some real experimentation with our novels – William Faulkner with his ever changing points of view and his 22 page sentences. Curiously, over the past forty years we haven’t churned out much that can be considered earth-shatteringly new or inventive. In this time period Latin Americans have given the world Magical Realism and the inclusion of formerly disenfranchised as writers have given us some very compelling reads that are clearly the rise to the surface of new voices. The one thing we have given the world is the memoir. And look at how that has turned out. James Frey with his brutal public busting by Oprah. Candy Spelling and Tori Spelling have new books out this month, bringing the term Faded Glory to its penultimate level. I think what we have done is given great importance to the individual voices of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, set off nicely by the egocentric homages to ridiculous wealth and the cult of personality. We’ve succeeded greatly at being splinter groups and publishing utter dreck under the guise of memoir and chick lit. I’m so proud.
The second piece of the tag is even more troubling, however. We’re fat. We’re a nation of fat people who can no longer wear clothes unless they’ve got a bit of lycra in them to accommodate our ever-expanding backsides. Okay, so let’s bring this down to the world of words again – my dress is an XL so you know I have no room to expand on the actual physical fattening of America. We’ve gotten just as fat and lazy and in need of stretch with what we read. How many times have you picked up a novel in the last fifteen years and puzzled over how bad it was? We’re stuck in a trend that requires us to write to the lowest common denominator. Mass market fiction used to have some elements of up market fiction – narrative structure that accommodated more than just dialogue; descriptive passages that allowed the story to breathe and the setting to rise up as a unique character. Most of what I pick up today is just dialogue. Why is the narrative passage so verboten? Our minds are fat, that’s why. We can’t take the time to read narrative because that requires active engagement of the brain. We just want it all handed to us in dialogue, with a side of Coke and a bag of Doritos. Re-read some of the great mass market paperbacks from the 80’s and notice that they are more descriptive, with greater room for character arcs and setting. Even romance novels from that time period are different. Where are the LaVryle Spencers and Jude Devereauxs of today? Maybe this dumbing down and loss of narrative is a result of our general culture. Fast, faster, and right now this minute.
We keep being told that we have to kill our darlings and cut the backstory because readers don’t like descriptive scenes. I like them just fine, thank you very much, if they are done with skill. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
I’m veering into the “Back in the old days” mentality and running the risk of sounding like the bitter woman I am, but maybe we need to find a path back to that clearer and sharper glory that’s faded so much. I like a little side of literary with the love scenes and I’ve purchased too many books lately that are just trite streams of dialogue with some really odd backstory inserted in conversation. Just a few years ago I submitted to a contest and got this as feedback from someone: “You should take some time to watch soap operas and note how they handle dialogue.” Soap operas? Is that the best we can aspire to? Maybe I’ll do that and then write a memoir about it. I know – I can title it