Saturday, January 05, 2008

The borderline middle-brow designation

Lionel Shriver's criticism is always worth reading: she doesn't mince words.... In the Telegraph this week, she skewers Tom Perrotta--whose fiction I have not read, it is entirely possible that this characterization is quite unfair, but I still rather love what she has to say on a topic that is close to my heart, the middle-brow:
Notwithstanding the rather snappy passage above, Perrotta's writing is predominantly quiet, clean, and low-profile. His pacing is nicely measured.

Schematically illustrative of a real division in contemporary American culture, this is solid, mainstream fiction. Few sentences are likely to send readers lunging for their pencils, eager to underscore profundities or poetic observations. Professional but innocuous, the prose is just shy of middle-brow.

This borderline middle-brow designation is not merely a matter of style. There is a mildness to this novel that belies the gravity of the stakes here, and the scale of mutual enmity between America's Christian Right and those who oppose them.

Concentrating on the budding romance between Tim and Ruth, and Tim's battle with the temptations of his indulgent past, the plot fails to endow the instalment of an abstinence-only curriculum with any consequences.

No teenagers get pregnant because they don't know how to get access to contraception; no one contracts HIV in the absence of instruction about condoms; none of the girls are well on their way to infertility because they've never heard of chlamydia.


  1. She's right about his style, but the rest of it...meh. It's the condescension of the self-styled expat literary novelist against the suburban AMERICAN white guy. I mean, I feel no burning need to defend Tom Perrotta, but the implications of knowing so much better always make me bristle, whoever they're from and whomever they're aimed at (there must be a pronoun error there).

  2. Condescension ... exactly right, and coming from someone whose own fiction I find middlebrow in the worst sense of the word. But I grant you she's a much better writer of reviews than novels. (And I would almost be willing to hazard she knows it too, based on the tone she takes.)

  3. By the way, Becca, if you want to understand much of Shriver's attitude, read Double Fault, a novel whose main fault, aside from pacing and the overwritten if admittedly slick 'literary' style, is that Shriver explains too damned much about her characters!

  4. I haven't read any Perotta, but I saw the DVD of Little Children without realising that it was based on a book written by him. I hated the film and could not identify with any of the characters in it, who seemed a spoilt and pathetic lot to me -- but perhaps that was the point. I find it hard to sympathise with people who don't need or want to go out to work and then drift around at swimming pools and parks feeling bored and sorry for themselves. There is also lots of torrid sex in the film - (maybe to get people to watch it? As it was otherwise monumentally tedious.)
    I haven't read Schriver as the only book of hers that has impinged on my consciousness is one about a schoolboy murderer, or some young person who shoots schoolchildren: either way a topic that holds no interest for me.