Everything that keeps our current literary culture mired in midddlebrow mediocrity is exemplified in Amy Bloom's novel, Away, and its reception by mainstream book reviewers when it was published last fall. The novel itself is not per se a "bad" novel--many worse ones are published and reviewed every season--but it is entirely undistinguished, to the point that my most immediate reaction to it was to wonder why it needed to exist in the first place. Moreover, that book reviewers would so exorbitantly praise such a novel, as in fact most of them did, strongly calls into question the standards being applied by those working in that branch of "literary journalism" represented by newspaper book sections. If Away is considered by "professional" book reviewers to be an exemplary work of serious literary fiction, which my reading of the reviews leads me to think is the case, then as a culture attuned to the possibilities of fiction as literary art, we are in a sad state indeed.
In her Los Angeles Times review of the book, Lionel Shriver writes:
Amy Bloom's new novel, "Away," could be called formulaic. Her protagonist, Lillian Leyb, is on a quest of the most classic variety: to be reunited with her young daughter, lost in a Russian pogrom. Yet. . ."Away" testifies to the truism that execution is all. Bloom isn't fighting traditional forms; in some respects her second novel is one more standard American immigration tale. But her execution is exquisite. . . .
Later she adds:
Bloom breaks no new formal ground, yet not a line is trite nor a character stereotypical. Working comfortably within a conventional form, she renews and redeems it. The ultimate test of any writer may be taking on the most traditional of genres -- the love story, the ghost story, the immigration story -- and pouring new wine into old skins. . . .
Shriver's review reeks of the kind of rationalization book reviewers constantly offer when recommending "formulaic" fiction written "comfortably within a conventional form." Such fiction may otherwise seem "standard" in its use of all of the hand-me-down practices of traditional narrative, but it's still full of "finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details," as Shriver puts it a few paragraph later. It may be utterly predictable, reinforcing safe and complacent reading habits by going no farther than to pour some "new wine into old skins," but if its "execution is exquisite," then no more should be asked of it. Who needs fiction that challenges formal expectations, offers an alternative to our hackneyed notions of "finely wrought prose"? Writers who pursue such challenges and alternatives are just "game-playing," anyway, so why not just settle for another feel-good novel and its "soft-smile, along-the-way humor."
Away is in fact just what Shriver initially judges it to be: a tired piece of formula fiction rehashing familiar themes of immigrant stories that cannot be redeemed by its "colorful" characters" or its "soft-smile" humor. In fact, both the characters and the "humor" with which their stories are larded seem only more cloying for the obvious effort being made to use them to inflate an inherently cliched narrative--a mother treks her way across the continent to be reunited with her child--into something less sentimental and more "vivid." Unfortunately, the vividness of the characters is almost entirely a result of their being enlisted in the attempt to justify retelling a "standard" story that otherwise has no real justification. As the novel's protagonist, Lillian, meets up with these characters--a homosexual actor, a black prostitute, an isolated telegraphist in the Yukon, etc.--the narrative becomes only more labored and the characters themselves only more an obvious effort to compensate for the fact the Lillian is essentially a cipher. It's hard finally to care much about her journey, or about the people she meets along the way, since she is so resolutely a blank slate on which these melodramatic adventures are being written--which is not, I don't think, the role for Lillian the author intended.
In her review of the book, Heather McAlpin observes that "Away is a compact epic, an adventure story, a survival tale and an incredible journey wrapped up in a historical novel cloaked in a love story. It evokes E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime in its playful fusion of fiction and fantasy and its exuberant tone. . . . " I don't know if Doctorow could have foreseen the influence Ragtime (as well as his subsequent historical novels) would have on writers following him, but contemporary fiction has indeed become inundated with novels whose primary purpose, or at least so it seems to me, is to "recreate" the past. If Away has any reason for being at all, this is it, to recreate a period of early 20th century American history (with the requisite allowance made for the "local color" as necessary literary device). Since I have frequently indicated my impatience with this sort of historical fiction--in which no other aesthetic purpose beyond evoking an historical event or period can be discerned--I will not dwell on its shortcomings here exept to note that Away is apparently based on historical fact, gleaned from several historical and autobiographical sources Bloom lists in her acknowledgments page, although "reconfigured. . .when it suited the story" (Author's Note). That reviewers would still be welcoming this sort of thing over thirty years after Ragtime, would even extol its virtues in the hyperbolic language used to praise Away, seems to me to indicate an even more impoverished attitude toward fiction's potential to continue to surprise than that illustrated in Amy Bloom's decision to write such a novel.
In what she apparently considers praise for Bloom's writing, Shriver exclaims that Bloom "conjures the kind of specific details that creative-writing teachers are eternally begging their students to generate." However, it is precisely Bloom's "finely wrought" prose, cut to fit the sort of default narrative realism encouraged by creative writing programs (or any other kind of systematic writing instruction) that makes Away seem so perfunctory, so indistinguishable from all the other manufactured works of narrative realism produced--with a few acceptable variations--according to a preconceived model of what a "well-made" novel should be like. That a novel like Away would be widely reviewed and favorably received is probably not surprising, since book reviewers, may of them "creative-writing teachers" themselves, generally seem to accept this model as well. But American fiction is not well-served when book review pages (the few of them that are left) give over so much of their space, and so little critical judgment, to such backward-looking, unimaginative work. Perhaps it is too much to ask that the editors of these pages more often consider art over commerce, the interests of literature over the interests of the status quo, but must they so consistently valorize the mediocre?