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The Pall of Seriousness 

Laura Miller points out in a recent New York Times that teachers like to assign books that make children cry, books in which kids go through horrible and "realistic" crises of abuse, death, destruction and questionable triumphs. Only a minority of teachers bothers with adventure and magic, things like Harry Potter, books that children really like. Her conclusion is that teachers hate children for their ability to dream and escape from the dreary reality the adults are stuck in. That seems to me right on, and it's only a symptom of a wider adult sickness that has publishers churning out one dreary "realist" novel after another. Novels (preferably first novels) about bad childhoods, horrible families, domestic abuse and terminal diseases are all the rage in publishing and in the writing schools. Open almost any new novel in the stores today and you'll be struck by a dank air of quasi-autobiographical trauma rendered in boring complete (and completely boring) sentences. It's as if color itself is being systematically drained out of American fiction. In the September issue of Harper's, Tom Robbins, the magician of some of the most vivid sparkling prose of the past three decades, nails the current malaise and wonders what happened. Literature used to claim for itself a unique territory of the imagination, inhabited by playful, daring and breathtaking words that created worlds. Granted, not every writer is Tom Robbins or Virginia Woolf, but the tragedy is that few writers even aspire to such writing. The bar has been lowered for the craft, the publishers prefer mediocrity, the reviewers like "well-plotted, well-drawn characters," and color is anathema. The new mandarins who dictate taste in reviewing and publishing prefer soap operas to literature either because they are badly educated or because they learned to talk in writing workshops taught by dull and bitter teachers. There is no reason for a reader to actually bother with most well-trumpeted contemporary fiction: It's no longer a unique place, but a lower species of journalism that television does much better. Between Orlando and The Corrections stretches a gulf of fear, illiteracy, and the hatred of children and joy.
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