The composer and musicologist Kyle Gann recently mulled over his response to modern fiction, as well as the relationship between fiction and music. Gann apparently reads a lot of fiction but thinks too many postwar writers "put all his or her energy into writing beautiful, interesting, circuitous, surprising sentences, and never bothered to make me give a damn what would happen next."
Gann's primary example is Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (which he says he couldn't finish), which I frankly find a bizarre choice to illustrate the vice of too much writing and too little plot because, first, I've never thought of Pynchon as a writer of "beautiful" sentences (occasionally circuitous, perhaps, but also often demotic, even slang-ridden) and, second, because a lot does "happen" in a Pynchon novel. A lot. We may never quite know why, or how to undertand them, but surely there are more things happening in Pynchon's novels than almost any other in postwar fiction. "Plot" is practically Pynchon's main subject.
It turns out, however, that it's not just the lack of story that Gann objects to. "I wanted to care about the characters, to yearn for what they were yearning for, and Pynchon just wanted me to marvel at his dexterity with a thesaurus." Although I have thumbed through my copy of Vineland and can't at all understand what Gann finds so formidable about its vocabulary, it seems that he really doesn't really care "what would happen next" to these particular characters, with whom he is unable to "identify." It is certainly the case that Pynchon's characters are rather two-dimensional, even cartoonish, but then again Pynchon is essentially a comic writer, and I assume that even readers who want to "bond" with characters understand that some distance is required for comic characters to be. . .comic. Still, what Pynchon's characters most yearn for is that the world they inhabit make sense, and I would think this is a fairly universal sort of yearning, one that a few big words surely do not obscure.
Gann is certainly entitled to dislike the work of Thomas Pynchon, but it does seem that in picking out a writer to use in illustrating what Gann believes is a rather widespread problem he would chose one to whom the criticisms made actually apply. Similarly, he quotes a sentence by David Foster Wallace that is supposed to be an example of a writer attempting "to show off," but as I read the sentence it seems a rather evocative and well-cadenced description that only a reader who tolerates nothing but the plainest of prose would find excessive.
Gann acknowledges that he has "no authority" as a literary critic, but as an admirer of both his music and his music criticism (his book on John Cage is really good), I still have to say I find his borderline philistine observations discouraging. And when he compares the situation in fiction with that in music in terms that uncomfortably echo Salieri's complaint in Amadeus that Mozart's music has "too many notes," discouraging becomes demoralizing. However, since Kyle Gann's authority to speak on music is miles (thousands of miles) beyond mine, I will simply assume that I ultimately just don't understand his point.
However, when he says finally that "one can love listening to music because it continues being fulfilling, not simply because it puts off some implied fulfillment into the future," suggesting that fiction can't do this, I do think he's simply wrong. Why can't I find style or form in fiction as "fulfilling" in the moment as I do pieces of music? “Finding out how it ends” is just as reductive with fiction as it is incoherent with music.