Reading the Contemporary American Novel
Publication Year: 2011
A frequent complaint against contemporary American fiction is that too often it puts off readers in ways they find difficult to fathom. Books such as Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and Don DeLillo's Underworld seem determined to upset, disgust, or annoy their readers-or to disorient them by shunning traditional plot patterns and character development. Kathryn Hume calls such works "aggressive fiction." Why would authors risk alienating their readers-and why should readers persevere? Looking beyond the theory-based justifications that critics often provide for such fiction, Hume offers a commonsense guide for the average reader who wants to better understand and appreciate books that might otherwise seem difficult to enjoy.
In her reliable and sympathetic guide, Hume considers roughly forty works of recent American fiction, including books by William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Chuck Palahniuk, and Cormac McCarthy. Hume gathers "attacks" on the reader into categories based on narrative structure and content. Writers of some aggressive fictions may wish to frustrate easy interpretation or criticism. Others may try to induce certain responses in readers. Extreme content deployed as a tactic for distancing and alienating can actually produce a contradictory effect: for readers who learn to relax and go with the flow, the result may well be exhilaration rather than revulsion.
Published by: Cornell University Press
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Title Page, Copyright Page
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Anyone who has read much serious American fi ction published since around 1970 has surely struggled with novels that seem designed not to give readers pleasure. Not only do writers scream in your ear, but they do the mental equivalent of pissing on your shoes, holding a knife to your throat, or spouting nuclear physics at you as well. A surprising amount of the fi c-...
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A version of chapter 1, on narrative speed, appeared in somewhat dif-ferent form as “Narrative Speed in Contemporary Fiction,” Narrative 13.2 (2005): 105–24, with a follow-up, “Speed, Rhythm, Movement: A Dialogue on K. Hume’s Article ‘Narrative Speed,’ ” with Jan Baetens, Narrative 14.3 (2006): 349–55. Copyright (2005) The Ohio State University. Reproduced ...
Introduction: The Author-Reader Contract
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Wordsworth could startle his readers by writing about a leech-gatherer; how could such a person or activity qualify for aesthetic appreciation? Faulkner trampled even more forcefully on reader expectations when The Sound and the Fury commenced with an idiot’s version of events. Both works are now canonical. The same conversion will happen for many of ...
1. Narrative Speed in Contemporary Fiction
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Many contemporary novels subject their readers to a breathless sense that the events are hurtling by too fast for real understanding. Scenes and focal fi gures change quickly, and helpful transitions are missing. The re-sultant feeling of excessive rapidity is what I mean by narrative speed, and for many readers, this speed produces frustration and serious discomfi ture. ...
2. Modalities of Complaint
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As we try to come closer to being ideal readers of novels characterized by narrative speed, we learn to relax, to stop wanting to be in control. We attempt to open ourselves to the exhilaration of the rush. When we read complaints, that tactic will not work, because complaint does not produce exhilaration. We need other reasons to open ourselves to these irritating ...
3. Conjugations of the Grotesque
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In The Place of Dead Roads, William S. Burroughs describes the sex life of the lophiform angler fi sh: “During intercourse the male gets attached to the body of the female and is slowly absorbed until only the testicles remain protruding from the female body.”1 Simply as natural history, this is not grotesque, merely unusual and non-mammalian; I note with amuse-...
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In the context of fi ction that repels readers, a chapter titled “Violence” might concern horror fi ction. Genre horror in fi ction and fi lm does in-deed exploit physical and sexual violence, and some readers or viewers are horrifi ed and even terrifi ed. Overall, though, genre horror is extremely popular: in four years, the fi rst fi ve fi lms of the Saw franchise grossed over ...
5. Attacking the Reader’s Ontological Assumptions
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Having seen in the last three chapters tactics designed to arouse unpleas-ant emotions, we turn now to attacks aimed at our intellect, our sense of what is real. To function effi ciently, we rely on a set of beliefs about the nature of reality. These ontological assumptions provide stability as we deal with day-to-day living. They govern our responses to sights, sounds, and events; ...
Conclusion: Why Read Aggressive Fictions?
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This book explores an aspect of recent fi ction that criticism has ignored. Many of these novels were not designed to please readers, and the ques-tions raised by that practice have not been recognized, let alone answered. Without claiming a unifi ed fi eld theory to explain fi ction that attacks read-ers, I have sought answers to a number of these questions. How do in-...
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Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2011