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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Neo-Sentamentalism

Back in the fall of 2010 I did a spotlight and interview with a soon-to-be-fairly-well-known writer xTx. The interview was amazing and you should read it, but I call attention to it now because somewhere in the middle of it I launched into a long-winded theory about the dominant strain running through the current generation of writers.David Foster Wallace sort of predicted this when he wrote in his brilliant essay "E Unibus Pluram" that irony and sarcasm have become so ingrained in popular culture that the only way for the next generation to rebel against their elders would be to become neo-sentamentalists, to reject irony and instead dive headlong into pure and honest emotionalism. He then pointed out that these writers would probably be incredibly uncool because the dominant culture would still be attached to hip, ironic detachment.

I believed this in 2010 and nothing I've read from the most popular underground writers of my generation since then has deterred me from the belief that DFW got this entirely correct. I believe that the underground scene is thoroughly committed to a revamped Romanticism, a deep, abiding emotionalism that overrides any interest in formal or structural innovation, and instead focuses entirely on the emotional nature of stories. Just as Romanticism at the end of the 19th century sought to break boundaries of form and scale in order to depict the tempestuous nature of human emotions, these neo-sentamentalists incorporate genres into their literary works seemingly at random in order to better tell tales of the heart. That these stories include horror, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, and magical realism (sometimes all in the same story) does not mean that the authors are interested in the structural complications of mixing genres. These mash-ups are merely a product of the times, and if using elements of a specific genre fit the needs of the story, then anything goes.

The second point of DFW's, that these authors would probably be uncool, also seems to be somewhat correct. While there is enormous respect and support within the underground scene itself, with the exception of select few, almost none of them have found mainstream success on par with authors like Foer or Tao Lin or other decidedly hip and postmodern authors. The mainstream is still clinging to the ironic detachment of the postmodernists, while the underground spills their blood onto the servers of the world. I believe that one of the main reasons this movement has not gained significant mainstream traction is because for now the movement is almost exclusively short stories published in internet and some print journals. But many of the leading writers are beginning to write and publish novels, so we could be on the edge of a literary explosion once these things get out there.

Whether this movement turns into the literary equivalent of Grunge or Punk remains to be seen, but for now it is vibrant and productive, and producing art that is at once lively, engaging, and extraordinarily honest.

What follows is my question to xTx, which more or less lays out the details of my theory.  




TC: In reading your work and blog, as well as the work of the writers that you link to and praise on your blog, I see the nascent shape of a new literary vanguard in the loose conglomerate of writers grouped around the likes of PANK, and JMWW, and Monkeybicycle, et al. I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I state that far from the 20 under 40 crap the New Yorker is jabbering about, some of these writers, yours and my contemporaries, will be the voices remembered by our grandchildren. Not just because the writing is good, but because these writers better capture the current zeitgeist and are primarily publishing in the burgeoning and dominant medium...the internet.

A few characteristics of this new vanguard I've noticed, of which you are an important part (bear with me, this might take a moment):

A.) The primary point of connection is the relatively small nucleus of online and print markets which are edited, written, and read by this new vanguard (markets include the aforementioned ones as well as
Storyglossia, Hobart,The Foundling Review, Necessary Fiction, Kill Author, etc.). These markets all share a similar literary asthetic, and also by allowing the members of the new literary vanguard to both publish, and edit each other's work, creates a literal marketplace of ideas for the new online literary elite, in which the nucleus of the movement are constantly influencing one another in real time, which has historically been paramount in all new art movements, that cross-pollenization. The point being that a relatively small group of authors and editors are creating a secondary literary movement apart from the traditional, and decaying literary establishment.

B.) The generalized asthetic of the new literary vanguard is a Carver-esque gritty/minimalist realism (which you, xTx, do not actually fit into all that cleanly) which can include magical realism or fantasy, but only insofar as it is used to emphasize the realistic. But additionally the new vanguard is unabashedly sincere about this realism. It is not an affect or a device; it is the truth as best as these authors can present it, which is unique because, though linguistic irony and sarcasm are employed, the sincerity underlying the emotions in the work make the new vanguard effectively
post-irony, and hence post-postmodern.

Personally, I like the term Neo-Sentimentalism because it is directly lifted from David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram" in which he basically predicts exactly the coming of this movement. In that essay he states that irony as a dominant linguistic vehicle and postmodernism in general create nothing new, they simply eat themselves until all that's left is a self-referential soup that no one understands except the author (i.e., a world where everything is
Finnegan's Wake). So, DFW posits, we are left with only two options for the literary world after postmodernism: 1.) literature and culture are effectively dead or 2.) the next literary movement will be a group of Neo-Sentimentalists who reclaim irony as a literary tool and espouse sincerity as the new dominant linguistic vehicle. He thought that in a world where irony was king then only sincerity would be truly radical. I see this happening in your writing and in Roxane's and Alan Stewart Carl's and David Erlewine's and Ethel Rohan's and, hell, even in mine, where we have a generation of author's who were raised in the postmodernist soup and are no longer interested in hipster detachment, but rather in getting to the meat of human connection. The most curious aspect of this is that 30 years ago literary fiction was busy becoming more academic and meta- and sincerity and naivete was primarily the domain of popular fiction (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, etc.) but now popular fiction (Dan Brown, Michael Connelly), even popular literary fiction, has become crass and cliched and literary fiction is the place to find sincerity and honesty.

C.) The new vanguard have appropriated the internet, and effectively oligopolized it, in order to popularize its literary vision. While the
New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and The Paris Review may dominate the print market and hold sway with the dominant media, markets like PANK and Kill Author are busy building a vast internet empire that is relatively unknown to the literary elite (for now) but is well-known to this new literary vanguard. These internet markets are starting to have the sort of sway that the New Yorker used to have (albeit nowhere near the monolithic status of the New Yorker) but in the literary world of the future, control of the internet will be/is important and these leading online markets are doing their part to stake their claim. Hence, the use of the social-networking capabilities of the internet has made this new vanguard the first decentralized, geographically-speaking, art movement of the postmodern period. It used to be that in order to have the sort of intense cross-pollenization occurring now, artists would have to be in close proximity to one another, but now writers can influence each other's writing without ever even really meeting in person.

D.) The new vanguard is dominated by short story writers, though that's changing. Since the movement is primarily centered on internet-based publications it necessitates that the short story and flash fiction will be the dominant literary vehicles, however several of the writers I would place in this movement are either working on, or soon to publish short story collections, or novels.

So, having stated all that, my first question is: Do you see the same thing, and if so where do you see yourself fitting in all of this? I personally put you in the thick of it (despite your not necessarily "fitting in" stylistically) because you have been referenced as directly influencing some of the movement's leading figures, you've been published readily in the movement's leading publications, and your writing exudes sincerity (even with the whole pseudonym thing).


In relation to Item D, the dominant popular vehicle for fiction is the novel, and so I suppose much of the relative anonymity of the new vanguard is due to the short story being its dominant vehicle. However right now several writers are working on novels and will be seeking publication going forward. If this is indeed a movement, who do you see "popping" first (you can include yourself, I won't fault you)?

Sorry for the long-winded explanation, but this stuff has been rolling around my head for several months. I truly think y'all are on the edge of something big. Too many writers share too many features and are simply too darn good to remain on the fringe for much longer. And if one pops I think the rest will too in a sort of literary daisy chain (ala Seattle and Grunge circa early-1990s).

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