The word "modern" as applied to literature, is a slippery one. It does not mean what it means when used with "medicine" or "plumbing" -- that is, using improved methods and techniques. It also doesn't mean, the literature of the moment, since that would mean J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, not the list of largely unknown-outside-academia authors mentioned in your discussion.

The heirs of Dumas and Dickens are not any of literary writers mentioned in your conversation. They are Rowling and Grisham. Yet Rowling and Grisham don't have the bottle of Dumas or Dickens. They won't be read in a hundred years, but Dumas and Dickens still will be.

Here is the difference between writers, doctors, and plumbers, though. You would rather be treated by the least accomplished graduate of a third world medical school today that by the finest doctor of the 19th century, and the difference isn't even close. You would rather have you plumbing done to 21st century standards rather than 19th century standards as well, though the difference is perhaps not so stark. This is because modern medical schools and modern trade schools transfer a sound body of knowledge and methods of practice that have been honed and proven over the years so that todays doctors and plumbers are incomparably better informed and better trained and better regulated than their 19th century counterparts.

On the other hand, not one MFA program in the history of MFA programs has turned out a writer of the caliber of a Dickens, a Dumas, a Conrad, a Kipling, a Waugh, or a Steinbeck (and I could add many more names to that list without diminishing my point). The modern approach of research, standardization, training, and regulation as worked brilliantly in many fields, but not in the arts. At minimal its effect is neutral. A good case could be made that it is destructive.

What I think we mean when we say "modern literature" is the product of the MFA factory, and that factory produces "literature" by a curious process that has, I think, little to do with the process used by the hacks, soldiers, journalists, sea captains, and ladies of the gentry who produced the greats of the ancient tradition. It seems to be the product you get when you pull the elements of literature through a vast literary analytical function, then grind it in the mill of fashionable ideology, and then form the fine paste that emerges from this process into fantastic and grotesque shapes.

Our culture has a hole in the middle. We have the genre mill grinding out pabulum on one side and the MFA mill grinding out haute pabulum on the other. What is missing is the serious popular fiction that used to be the backbone of our culture.

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Aug 5, 2022Liked by Samuél Lopez-Barrantes

Since another commenter linked to the Parul Seghal trauma piece, I wanted to very quickly link to the OG trauma plot analysis by Yasmin Nair, written back in 2018. It’s much much longer and more thorough, and calls into question the economic incentives of trauma as a current trend: https://yasminnair.com/your-trauma-is-your-passport-hannah-gadsby-nanette-and-global-citizenship/?fbclid=IwAR3vTaQd2UJpDkt1OCDnwszdP-bQU2fKhE88v3dZ0WmCR9ay9u6QYEa-Yu4

Now that that’s out of the way — I’m a horror and dark comedy fan, which is to say: that is my own context and narrative preference, and that colors how I see things. I do think a lot of the idealism vs cynicism debate can come down to personal taste. Neither side is fully correct but people will vibe with different things, and that’s great.

Here is my take: complex emotions are hard. They’re hard to deal with and they’re hard to represent artistically. It is much easier to write non-stop dreariness, or all-consuming happiness, than it is to create something interesting. And I think a major problem of our current cultural moment* is that writers are required to churn out a constant stream of content to stay on top of the algorithms.

Is a lot of that writing very good? Yes! Of course! But a lot of it is also a *barely* touched-up first draft, or written to pivot off of the latest trend, OR written in the hopes of getting picked up as a Netflix miniseries, and it shows. When speed is prioritized and rewarded above all, writers are going to run down the well-trodden paths. The well-trodden paths are one-note; they are the easy answers.

Well-crafted cynicism is not without humor, or absurdity, or hope. Just like well-crafted idealism is not without pain, anger, or fear, something unsettling to rub against and know its limits.

We can’t talk about the Age of Illumination without also talking about the fanfic-ification of writing as a whole. There’s now a crop of writers very skilled at leading readers toward very flat, overwhelming affects at the expense of…anything else literature is capable of. So I wonder how much of this problem could genuinely be fixed by giving writers more time to think things through and actually focus on writing, not just the image of being a writer.

And I think it’s easy to forget just how unfortunate “idealism” can be! How often has idealism really just been a cover for jingoism? Or a way to maintain the illusion of perfection, or a shortcut to easy moralism? When we look back on the optimistic post-WWII culture at large, it’s worth remembering the codes and studio systems that enforced that tone. Many of the artists who wanted to deviate - or even just inject their idealism with some level of criticism - were simply shut out.

I agree with you, Elle, that not every character needs to be traumatized. There does need to be a distinction between ongoing hurt and actual trauma, which is a very specific bio-social condition that we still don’t fully understand. It is damaging to only see your identity represented as traumatized or deeply unhappy.

But it’s also damaging to see some twee version of your identity that has no human hardship or capacity for hurt. The LGBTQ characters on Schitt’s Creek were accepted, but they still had issues — those issues just had nothing to do with their sexuality. David and Stevie, especially, had a lot of characterization around fear and existential dread and desires for stability. They weren’t Tragic Gays but they also weren’t the smiling, empty-headed, fabulously-dressed puppets they would’ve been if the show came out in, say, 2005.

TL:DR; good fiction requires nuance, which is absent from the flat, ham-fisted cynicism vs idealism we keep pinging between.

*insomuch as literary fiction encapsulates the cultural moment, which I don’t think it does. Romance novels are still the pillars of publishing and that genre — by definition — requires a Happily Ever After.

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Aug 5, 2022Liked by Samuél Lopez-Barrantes

What a great post/conversation. Thank you for doing this.

I’m already looking forward to more. I completely agree

with your trudging comments. And I am not sure at all

that we need to trudge through yet more “doldrums of

nihilism” although I’m up for a good “swinging . . . lantern

of hope” anytime. Abysses, not so much. Have already

crawled out of enough of them. Not that I don’t want to

work for my literature, but I want writing that truly engages

as in grabs me and takes me for “the ride.”

I totally support your wish for a literary idealism direction,

especially given the doldrums of the daily paper/post/newsfeed/

etc., but that is so hard to do. I find your positive comments

about Schitt’s Creek quite laudable as I have yet to break

through my slightly petty/latent bourgeois attitude toward it.

(Any day now, however.) I totally agree with your thoughts on

the trauma obsession of today’s many narratives. Sadly, it is

too “easy” to write from a story perspective even though from

real-life perspective true trauma is hell to live through. So

now the question for me is what does a literary idealism look

like? The protagonist in my not-yet-debuted novel(s) is a librarian

who has her troubles with life like everyone, but takes them on

coming from a foundation of knowing right and wrong. That

is hard to do today as so many “rights” and “wrongs” are being

redefined. Still, I think good needs to defeat evil, in the end.

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Aug 5, 2022Liked by Samuél Lopez-Barrantes, Elle Griffin

Lovely conversation. I do like the concept of metamodernism -- whatever you might end up calling it. (I am so over post-modern everything).

And to me, this quote is gold and maybe my next quest...

"but if the author has managed to trudge across the doldrums of nihilism, still swinging that lantern of hope from across the abyss, well then there’s no greater gift, in my opinion, than this kind of novel"

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It's been such a joy having this conversation on this space. It's nice to find an online tribe. Your points re: characters in fiction all having to be fundamentally defined by their trauma is an important one. There was a great article by a writer named Parul Seghal a few months back that is very much worth the read (I'll put the link down below): "The experience of uncertainty and partial knowledge is one of the great, unheralded pleasures of fiction [...] The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority."

I think we all need a bit more mystery in our lives, and I think we all deserve characters whose pasts, to some extent, must remain a mystery. To reduce a character's purpose / personality to trauma responses and sublimation runs the risk of objectifying them and taking advantage of the reader. Characters whose past is not necessarily knowable is a simple, beautiful way to ask the reader the question just how much we all should focus on the past in order to understand the present. Now I've got another essay to start thinking about ... until then, here's to seeing what else comes out of this dialogue. It's been a treat!

[link for "The Case Against the Trauma Plot"]


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As a young writer (15 years ago), I thought dark was “cool”. So all of my stories centered around darkness, most of the time literally since my villains spawned from the Dark side. But I can see how I was possibly part of a generational thing, sort of like how Zack Snyder made Superman and JL have a dark tone.

I’ve obviously changed a lot in the past 15 years and I still want to write those stories because I think they are good ideas, but I’ve become hesitant to add to the overall zeitgeist of depressing and trauma-driven fiction. I’d more like to enjoy fictional worlds where the stakes are lower and the plot is character driven. So I’ve got a few ideas brewing thankfully.

It’s all so very subjective though, and I’m only able to elaborate on my personal journey. I enjoyed this discussion. Very thought-provoking!

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