Bring Back Irony! or Why I Can’t Read the Fiction in The New Yorker

Literary movements come and go, as any writer knows. But that don’t always make ’em right. Case in point, the apparent dismissal of irony as a legitimate literary device.

I can’t help noticing the dearth of this tool, particularly in literary journals, which writers once used to point out the irrationality of human need versus desire (and other non sequiturs), and thereby point toward the truth of what it means to be human. Naturally, I love irony in fiction, so its absence from a work leaves me feeling I’m reading not a piece of literature, but a polemic, or a screed designed to promote a particular agenda.

I have a friend and student who often recommends stories and books by writers who almost always have a connection to The New Yorker. This person is primarily interested in how the stories work and what makes them successful and popular.

But the fiction, for both of us, is usually a slog to read, filled with incredibly self-centered characters who spend a lot of time fretting over their image. They have lovers and friends, but they exhibit neither love nor friendship toward them[1]. Secondary characters exist only as means or barriers to achieving desires. It’s navel gazing ad absurdum that is almost completely lacking in character sympathy.

The difference between this kind of writing and more traditional, irony/sympathy-based fiction became more apparent when I started reading The Nix by Nathan Hill.

I think what interests me the most about this book (apart from Hill’s masterful sense of story), is the praise lavished on a work that is very much a good old-fashioned postmodern tome, built largely on irony[2], in a literary environment that typically eschews and even denounces irony as a driver of fiction. No wonder critics compare him to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace[3]. It makes me think about the current New Yorker darlings.

In Hill’s book, each character has his/her own truth, and the story is often about how those competing truths intersect. Hill writes in the point of view of many characters in the story, from the abandoned son, to his abandoning mother, to her antiestablishment friend, to the cop that friend is having casual sex with, to Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Humphrey, and many others. To do this requires a profound ability to create sympathy for people across a wide spectrum of lives and lifestyles, to not just understand each character’s motivations, but to want to understand them. In The New Yorker stories, there is only one truth, the POV character’s, which is what gives them their agenda-based quality. There is no attempt by the character (or the author) to delve into the antagonist’s motivation, no attempt or apparent desire to bridge the gaps between characters. Antagonists in TNY stories are often mindless symbols of what the author feels is wrong in society, which further points to the polemical aspects of these pieces.

But any decent writer knows that to make a story work, s/he must love the villains much as the heroes. That is to say a writer must understand a villain’s motivations in order to make those characters realistic. No more, says The New Yorker. Their fiction lately is filled with baddies of the irredeemable type who not only don’t need to be understood, they hardly need be considered human. They can be loathed with an almost parochial attitude. Hey, even Snidley Whiplash got some consideration, but not these guys. The stories are all about the protagonists, and only about the protagonists, even when the characters associate with liberal values and causes in the periphery of the story.[4] In that sense they seem to be wolfish narratives in humanist clothing.

Perhaps the true irony in these works is that the writers and editors don’t recognize how, by mimicking the unilateralism of contemporary discourse, they have become the characters these stories appear to loathe.

[1] Which I suppose is irony, but it seems unintentional.

[2] And yes, I’m aware of the irony inherent in just saying “old-fashioned postmodern.”

[3] For the record, I’ve been compared to those guys too, which may be why I found Hill’s novel so fascinating and inspiring. The wonderful Kelly Davio has called Mr. Neutron “reminiscent of The Broom of the System,” and Grist Journal invoked my Pynchonian tendencies in this review by David A. Southard.

[4] This also helps explain why the Sunday New York Times is filled with articles reporting on people throughout the world dealing with poverty, racism, authoritarianism, elitism, and other ills, and then in the magazine section has page after page of ads for exclusive multi-million dollar condos, where you can live and not be bothered by those actual people. Know your audience, as they say.