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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Are there contemporary fiction writers whose language approaches poetry?

In response to friend WS (not William Shakespeare) who asks: Are there any contemporary fiction writers whose language approaches poetry? Something a little richer than ordinary, natural talking at its best?:

I guess I'd have to say, in the battle of Hemingway v Faulkner, Hemingway won. Almost all of the great fiction written in the past 40 or 50 years, I'd say, has been in a more direct, clean, plain-speech style, focused (properly) on showing rather than telling, using natural dialogue and taut narrative rather than extensive interior monologue or extended passages of description (Carver's stories being perhaps the pinnacle). And the writers who, to a degree, work outside of this tradition, well, most are gone, or retired. Nabokov, Hawkes, Yates, Sebald, Garcia Marquez, and Updike are gone; Roth, Munro, and Trevor are or seem to be retired. Who's left? Maybe a few. James Salter is often cited as one of the best stylists alive, and I agree, though that doesn't mean that all of his books are great. Among other excellent stylists still writing: Naipaul for sure, my old grad-school friend Charles Baxter, possibly Dennis Johnson. Many people love Mark Halperin, especially Winter's Tale, but his style is too rich for me. And then there's Jhumpa Lahiri - but her stories only, not her novels, in my opinion - and also Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, which has some astonishingly beautiful sections although much of this long work is much more straightforward and direct in style, too.

Then, there are many books written in language that approaches poetry, although the authors either could not or would not sustain that style across their career: The Known World (Jones), Homecoming (Robinson), Secret History (Tartt), Snow Falling on Cedars (Guterson), Smilla's Sense of Snow (Hoeg), God of Small Things (Roy), Native Speaker (Lee), Edisto (Powell), A Delicate Balance (Mistry), Waterland (Swift). I'm sure I'll think of more later. Amazing how many of these are first novels, by the way - as if writers feel that the poetic style is something they should or want to leave behind? As if the first novel is more richly imbued with sensory memory and feeling, more personal in a way, and later novels are more crafted?

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