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02/06/2008

Comments

Chris

This is a really provocative post, and I've thought about it since it appeared. I wouldn't class Erickson among the major innovators, but I don't mean that to impugn his work. Rather, I think he's one of the more vital writers working today, if "vitality" can be defined (and I think it can) as actively trying to find a way to deploy techniques and approaches that have appeared over the past forty years. Given the hundreds of writers of "literary fiction" who ignore these approaches, or are expressly hostile toward them, Erickson's work is a sign of things continuing to move forward, if not by enormous leaps then by small steps. It's one thing to find Erickson's work wanting, but it's another to lump him with Richard Russo. That's really throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I would disagree with the assertion that Erickson's use of these techniques "dresses up" the conventional. Certainly it's a stretch to classify the Erickson novels I've read as conventional in any sense, especially given the meaning of "conventional" as understood by trade house publishing. To the extent that he is working within the confines of genre (another arguable characterization), he often is using such constraints to his advantage. In either case, "conventional" suggests something formulaic, or at least structurally consistent, and I've seen nothing to suggest that something countenancing modernist and postmodernist innovations has come along to replace Freytag's Triangle -- still the measure of the "well-made novel" by the lights of many influential book reviewers -- or to satisfy those reviewers' boundless desire for books with zippy plots, fully-wrought characters, overarching themes, lack of self-indulgence, and so on. I would suggest that, if anything, Erickson is working it the other way around -- like other very interesting writers working today, he's using the conventional to "dress up" the experimental, disruptive aspects of his work. That, or (a less cynical view) he finds aspects of a slightly older set of artifices still useful. Contemporary American writers who do this include Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Bret Easton Ellis, Percival Everett, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Toby Olson, Philip Roth, Stephen Wright, and many others. Some of these writers are more adventurous (or experimental) than others, but none of them is a revanchist.

Who cares how Erickson characterizes his own work? I can think of very few writers who care to describe themselves as "experimental." It's an inaccurate term, virtually begging for the narrow definition Erickson assigns it, and a pejorative one.

Dan Green

""conventional" suggests something formulaic, or at least structurally consistent,"

By "conventional" in this case I mean within the conventions of the post-apocalyptic fantasy. So many such narratives have appeared over the past twenty or so years (Erickson has, I believe, written several of them himself) that I do consider it a genre of its own, and I have to say I did find Our Ecstatic Days to be rather formulaic in its deployment of the genre. I could, however, have been clearer about how I was using the term "conventional."

J.D.K.

Erickson really is a conundrum, isn't he? I've read a couple of his novels and have been dissatisfied, not because of a lack of ambition on his part, but because of execution, or something like that. Rubicon Beach, and Our Ecstatic Days--they just lose steam at the end.

Because the term is overused, it's easy to lose sight of the importance of an experiment in fiction writing. The yield of an experiment is a new aesthetic experience, a new thing. To treat the novel as an experiment is a way making some new discovery. Breaking boundaries and going against conventions are not self-evidently valuable activities. But Benjamin and Adorno, for instance, and other Marxists, saw the work of art as instantiation of social conventions, of a status quo that limited the freedom of the individual and used him as a means to some end.

When I approach a work of art that I expect to be more than run-of-the mill 'literary fiction', I ask: what are its means of production. These means are not merely material--but they are the means, or conventions, by which the novel gets produced, the expectations of character, plot and so forth. With some authors, it is more or less clear in what way the means of production are being possessed or critiqued. It is easy, for instance, to see that Alfred Chester is freeing himself from the conventions of character in Exquisite Corpse. But with Erickson, I'm just not sure what the problem is. My guts tell me that he just needs to work a little harder--which is completely inappropriate, I suppose.

Anyway, sorry for sounding like such a encrusted old Marxist. I appreciate your criticisms on this blog; most stuff out there is just reviews and undue adulation.

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