There is an interesting piece in the NYT asking why literary writers have stopped writing about ambition, the desire to move up, get ahead, succeed. It's actually an interesting point, but I think the author's own answer to the question is absurd. Why did we stop writing about Horatio Alger? Is it cynicism that one has little control over one's success? Is it an embarrassment of some kind? And didn't the Goats or the Babies once have a thread about the lack of novels about poor people? Perhaps the issues are related.


dunkeys said...

Cool topic. I don't like the guy's answer, either, but maybe there's something to it -- we're not in the habit of reading about it, so we don't write about it?

Anyway, after reading the piece, I tried to think about all the "ambitious" people I know, and they're few and far between -- ambitions seem small-scale for most of the people I'd call ambitious, and the *very* few people I'd call AMBITIOUS seem like poor fictional characters because they don't interest me. Which maybe is my own short-sightedness.

Anyway, my point is that maybe being upwardly mobile is less possible and so less pursued these days. Or, more likely, MFA programs like Iowa are to blame.

Antoine said...

I was surprised he left out Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler: The Tale of An American Dreamer. Of course, being in large part about ambition, it goes against his thesis.

Also, I have a friend who's writing an ambitious literary novel about ambition right now. So there!

Grendel said...

Yes, I was going to mention Martin Dressler, too. And don't forget Kavalier & Clay. Totally about ambition and the struggle to succeed. My own novel is about ambition, in part. My character is inspired somewhat by my grandpa, who worked his way up from literally nothing (kicked out of the house by his step-mom -- he had to live in the grocery store where he worked during the Depression) to unqualified success. I am fascinated by that generation of bigger than life American go-getters.

But I hadn't considered the fact that as a topic for a novel is on the wane. I don't like the author's answers either, but I don't know that I have better ones. Writers nowadays are maybe not culled form the same stock as the likes of Fitzgerald, who couldn't spell. Today's literary writer is typically alienated from the capitalist ideal, not part of the gung-ho bootstrap school. I did read Kane & Abel, which this guy mentioned. It was on a long road trip as a kid, and I finished the books I brought and picked up that one, which my Mom had just finished. I liked the book. A real page-turner. When I was done, I told my mom I wanted to become a stock investor. Oh, how she beamed! Yeah, that lasted about a day, until I realized, wait a minute, no I don't.

TLB said...

Didn't we stop writing about Horatio Alger because it's been done? As in, done to death?

Vampiro said...

Kav & Clay is a great example that I hadn't thought of, G.

And I don't think this kind of literary story has disappeared because it has been overdone. I say Horatio Alger as a joke. This kind of story has been "done" about as much as the story of a bad relationship has been "done" or the story of a father-son relationship has been "done" or the story of adapting to a new culture has been "done." It's not about the story, but about the telling and the particulars.

I suspect it is, as dunkeys says, about our interests. I just wonder why it became aesthetically uninteresting. Kav & Clay is a superb story about characters very much worth caring about.

The desire to be successful or rich or to move up in "class" has got to be one of the three or four most primal urges of human beings. It's not necessarily a shallow desire or something pursued vigorously by shallow people. Why don't we write about it more? I don't necessarily think we should.

dunkeys said...

I think moving up in class -- like Sorel, or Gatsby -- is a much more interesting fiction topic than trying to get rich. But I'm not sure people can/do move up in class in the US anymore. I separate the two drives: to get wealthy (sort of boring for fiction -- it's a risky thing to write about because it's so shallow) and to get "classy."

I'm not sure there is a modern American equivalent to Balzac's Parisian cultural classes -- the closest thing we have is maybe a class of infamy (Kato Kaelin and all who've followed, from murderers to idiots and etc.) and celebrity (George Clooney?).

That's my guess/fear -- that we don't have that "higher" class. I just watched a PBS reality series called Regency House, which was all about "moving up" -- people like Byron were celebrated and admired. But we lack elitism in this country, I think; it's just wealth and fame now, which are different.

I still think this is fascinating -- if anyone's still reading, can you think of examples of people trying to move up in class in our society?

Grendel said...

Bill Clinton.

Grendel said...

I'm not trying to be flip or to dismiss your point. Just, really, Bill Clinton.