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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 10, 2006
I thought I was ready to read contemporary fiction. Last fall, after a couple of years of sticking to the Greeks, Romans, and nonfiction, I taught Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin; she graciously agreed to speak to my class, and I was as impressed by her intelligence and articulateness as I was by her first novel. Inspired, I read Veronica between semesters. Veronica is certainly more mature than Two Girls, and stunningly written, but then, so’s the earlier novel, and Two Girls has a narrative drive the second lacks. Still, it was a beautiful, meditative read, and so, feeling energized and hopeful, I picked up David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It was a letdown, but at least it disappoints because the second half fails to live up to its own ambitions, and not merely the claims made for it in this overhyped literary landscape. And so, thinking I had gained some perspective, I agreed to be a judge for this contest.

I was wrong.

In an essay in Hatchet Jobs, I referred to fiction as the engine of capitalism. After reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Ali Smith’s The Accidental, I think I was being generous, at least as regards novels being written now. The truth is, contemporary fiction’s nothing more than an enabler of certain bourgeois illusions. At least McEwan seems to understand this; Smith doesn’t even pretend to a dialectic. Regardless, until writers realize the social compact is spiritual and species suicide, a pseudoethical pressure valve that allows Western society to pretend it’s examining its troubled conscience when all it’s doing is assuaging the guilt we feel for exploiting the rest of the world—and destroying it in the process—then the literary novel will remain little more than a series of embarrassing, irrelevant mea culpas. Speaking to the present context, this is my way of saying that I refuse to advance either of these books, even by the flip of a coin; as meaningless as the title “novel of the year” is, neither of these deserves it.

The truth is, contemporary fiction’s nothing more
than an enabler of certain bourgeois illusions.
At least McEwan seems to understand this;
Smith doesn’teven pretend to a dialectic.
But speaking more generally—hell, you’re all just waiting for the pull quote anyway—books like these make me want to join al Qaeda. It’s not so much the books themselves that make me wish our way of life would come to an end sooner rather than later, but, rather, the fact that seemingly intelligent and educated people find reasons to praise them.

People mistook Hatchet Jobs as an attack on contemporary writers, which suggests that I failed to make myself clear on at least one point. It takes two to tango. Writers wouldn’t be producing this twaddle if you weren’t reading it.

Editors’ note: Upon receiving Dale’s judgment, we called him and, though respecting his opinion, insisted he choose one book or the other so the Tournament could proceed. When he again (albeit politely) refused, we insisted on a coin toss against his wishes. A coin was tossed, and thus...

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