Me and my leaky memory. I need to write more things down.
I remember — where, is another story — reading an essay from someone defending the right to create literary experiments, on the grounds that reading "around-the-house-and-in-the-yard" stories bored him. That admission pointed towards a few possibilities:
- He finds other people less interesting than he does ideas, which to me puts him in roughly the same boat (whether or not he knows it) as many readers of hard SF, for whom character and personality are tertiary concerns.
- He has not encountered literature that is more than just "around-the-house-and-in-the-yard" storytelling.
- He has encountered literature that is more than just "around-the-house-and-in-the-yard" storytelling — say, SF at its best — but he doesn't take it seriously, in the way authors like Jonathan Franzen always seem to find such things vaguely childish or silly (which says far more about them than the merits of the material being debated).
But once I got done picking all that apart, I had to confront something: How is my love of a particular kind of (non-gimmicky) storytelling better than his love of a particular kind of (gimmicky) storytelling? Doesn't this come down to nothing more than taste, so let's just leave it at that? To me this would be the most ameliorative answer: you have your House of Leaves and I have my House of Sand and Fog, and we'll both go away happy.
But again, I took up this whole problem not just because of how it affects readers, but how it affects writers. Tell someone often enough that his post-modern polytextual meditation of temporal aesthetics is far better than some boring old crap about a guy and his son, and he's going to believe it — and he's going to write that many more stories that consist of surfaces that are artful to within a tortured inch of their lives but which have less actual story than your average Bobbsey Twins reader did. This seems to be the end result for such work: the biggest failing of something like Infinite Jest was that it took over a thousand pages and prose that all but foamed at the mouth to tell a story that really didn't deserve either that much girth or such overstuffed prosody.
And then there's the reader, who is in theory just as free to choose between one type of story or another, but for the most part sticks with a well-told piece of work about people he cares about. (The fact that detective novels and spy thrillers routinely outsell William Gaddis will attest to this.) He's going to feel that much more left behind by writers who simply have nothing to say to him, aesthetically or otherwise, and will then stick with the next urban fantasy thriller installment over anything "serious".
It's good to want an audience that rises to the challenge you set them, but not to the exclusion of the very things that might have brought them to your doorstep in the first place.
John Cheever once said "Fiction is experimentation. When it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction." But being locked into a narrow idea of what "experimentation" is, is just as sterile as never "experimenting" in the first place.