I have very strong opinions about what is good literature and what is not, and while it’s easy to describe what I think goes into good literature, explaining bad literature is more difficult. But, for some unfortunate reason, I have lately read several stories that I think are really quite bad. Even better (worse?) they are bad in the same way. That is, they are dishonest.
Let me make clear that there is a difference between an unreliable narrator and a dishonest narrator. For instance, one of the stories that triggered this post is about a guy whose life is going pretty well and then a bunch of terrible stuff happens (wife leaves him, loses his job, that kind of thing). His reaction to this is… nothing. That is, he keeps moving along as though nothing has happened and everything is a-okay. And this is a total pose. Not believable at all. And. That. Is. All. You. Get.
And that’s dishonest.
It’s dishonest because it doesn’t show us anything beyond the surface. It doesn’t engage with the reader. Quality art must engage. If art refuses to engage, if it insists on standing outside, it can’t enrich us. It can’t make us ask any question besides why we wasted time on that story in the first place.
This kind of thing is triggered, largely, by postmodernism. This story is just playful. postmodernism is playful. We’re just playing. It’s just a game. But, eventually, the game playing becomes dishonest and we tire of it. It’s like that person we all know who always has a joke but can’t get serious for long enough to actually have something to say. Whatever is going on in that person’s head might be really interesting, but as long as the artifice persists, we’ll never know. Instead, we get agitated and try not to make eye-contact. When stories start to do this, they stop being art and start being crap.