Sometimes I just feel perplexed by modern novels of the sort the New York Times reviews--the type that are chosen for literary prizes and taught in undergraduate literature classes. I'm not alone in this:
I'm going to wrestle once again with literary fiction, and ask once again what it is, and how it differs from other fiction, and why it is considered fine art, and why it is regarded as superior to other fiction, and why academics embrace it and teach it but won't teach popular fiction....I can't even get any agreed-upon definition of literary fiction. Its proponents usually tell me they know it when they see it, and are sure it is superior to popular fiction, but can't say why.
This is from a recent blog post by Richard S. Wheeler. I'm just a gal reading books in her woodland cabin (I do have a B.S. in English, but I spent most of my class time on "The Fairy Queen" and "Paradise Lost," with nothing more recent than George Eliot in my curriculum.) but Mr. Wheeler is a much-published novelist with some interesting insights, so I was surprised to find him in my same boat.
Sometimes I can see why a writer is admired, even if I can't bring myself to join in. John Updike's prose really impresses me--his descriptions of place and mood are vivid and I remember them years later, even though I could care less how Rabbit feels, or what happens to him. It's the same with Cormac McCarthy--that's mighty fine prose, but why are you telling me this?
I think it might be that I am not the intended audience for these sorts of books. Updike and McCarthy seem pretty concerned with what it means to be a man. That's probably not as important a topic to me as it is to them, although Ralph Ellison and Joseph Conrad and Feodor Dostoevsky engaged my interest in that same topic, and Franz Kafka drew me into what it means to stop being a man (and being a big bug instead).
Don Dilillo is a highly-regarded writer that I have avoided. A few months ago I decided to try again, and perhaps understand why I didn't connect with him. I got a copy of White Noise from my book trading site and read it through. If it hadn't been awarded the 1985 National Book Award, I wouldn't have gone past the first 50 pages. I understood it to be a satire on modern American society, including pop culture, consumerism, science, and medicine. These things are so often satirized that I didn't find much humor in this book--I'd heard these jokes before.
Maybe I would have been more amused if I'd read the book 25 years ago, I thought. I spent some time reading literary criticism on the Web, and found that the book is still assigned reading for many undergraduate classes, still the subject of literary criticism. (For example, Don Delillo's White noise: a reader's guide by Leonard Orr generously makes large chunks of text available on Google Books.) The folks who admire Delillo still like White Noise, so that's probably not my problem.
I think the reason I fail as Delillo's reader is my personal history as a science fiction reader, a disgruntled graduate student, an environmental scientist, a teacher of nursing students. Long before White Noise came out, I'd read several Philip K. Dick novels, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. More distopian and more outrageous than White Noise, Philip K. Dick's genre fiction stole its thunder, at least for me. It seems to be fashionable to take Dick's fiction seriously these days, but back when I read it, in the late 70's, it was just some really weird stuff that most sci fi fans didn't much like.
The most helpful Don Delillo Web resource I found was Curt Gardner's Don DeLillo's America - A Don DeLillo Site. He has links to many interviews with, and essays by Don Delillo, as well as a bibliography and reviews both positive and negative. I found Mr. Delillo's essays (indexed in Don Dilillo on Writing) interesting and thoughtful, which made me particularly sorry I fail as his fan. This analysis of his novels was particularly helpful to me: What to Read: The brilliant. The pretty unbelievably good. The rough going. The completely avoidable. Our guide to the DeLillo oeuvre. Of White Noise, it says: "If you're going to like DeLillo, this is the book that will make it happen." I guess it's not going to happen, and maybe it just comes down to liking it, or not liking it.