The time has come for a brief survey of contemporary literature, the bit of it I can see, from my vantage point as one who does not read as much as he would like to but feels nonetheless aware. In 2010, the David Foster Wallace essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" comes to its twenty-year anniversary. In that essay, Mark Leyner, hip at the time, comes under fire, and a future movement of radically sincere writers is postulated. It is fair enough, I think, to trace a certain strain of influence, from Wallace to Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's literary journal. There is a type of short story found in McSweeney's that seems something of its trademark, a type that Wallace himself actually had published in its pages: This is the sort of story where the goal, explicitly, is to move by emoting clearly, but does so in a voice that denies much of the awareness that was what Wallace gained notoriety for. It shuns intellectual fireworks in favor of a voice that is "dumb": Many of the narrators seem actually handicapped.
In the latest issue, 33, a George Saunders story is published, "Fox 8," that seems to be the logical conclusion of this whole trend. It's a good, effective, piece of fiction. I don't wish to spoil it, so it will have to suffice to say that it is narrated by a fox, ends with a straightforward plea for humans to be nicer, and that you can pretty much discern where it's going a few paragraphs in. It's good enough to make a reader think "this is what literature is like in 2010," in a way that is actually weird and discouraging if that reader also fancies himself a writer, because of this deliberate shunning of many signifiers of intelligence that occur within the mind of the writer. There's linguistic pyrotechnics, of a sort, interesting turns of phrase, but deliberate choices have been made to limit the vocabulary used. If stories were paintings, imagine Donald Barthelme with his color palette greatly reduced.
I like this stuff pretty well. It's by no means the worst thing I am aware of.
Let me preface a discussion of the actual worst with a tangent: There's also this tendency found within McSweeney's to publish fiction written by celebrities of a certain stripe. "Hip" celebrities: In 33, it's James Franco, a few volumes back, Michael Cera. Miranda July could also be included in this category. I don't want to dismiss their endeavors out of hand. I just want to acknowledge the aura, informed by television, in a different form than Wallace talked about in 1990. These people make "indie" films that get talked about as "twee" and while there might be a certain lineage to the voice of the Saunders piece that dates back to 1980s Beat Happening records, there's also the bit of knowledge that gives permission: That of Delillo's "most photographed barn" that gets brought up in the same essay.
The actual worst would be this writer Tao Lin, whose writing style is shared by his friends, according to an ANP Quarterly interview that filled me with disgust about a year ago, and a self-promoter via the internet. If I find the "TV/indie movie celebrity" aura around McSweeney's a weird portent, imagine how I feel about people on the internet commenting on Hipster Runoff. If I find smart people writing stories in a faux-naive voice for deliberate effect to maybe be even more limiting than the limits it places on itself, extrapolate that to guess how I feel about dudes writing in the a post-concussion mild-trauma state at all times, when it's used not to move a reader towards empathy and awareness, but to communicate a bored depression to those already sympathetic.
Luckily there are plenty of other writers out there, published and unpublished, not working in these modes, inside the U.S. and out. Plus there's books written years ago that are widely available. My first concern is for how high-profile works dictate the future, in terms of their influence on young writers and publishers' abilities to market them. Maybe with Saunders at the apex and Lin as the nadir we can collectively move on. My second concern is for those who confuse the two, but that is only in the present, and time will make these distinctions evident.