Frank [the protagonist of Ford's novel] almost seems like a parody of a professorial liberal, who talks about buying Aaron Copland’s “whole oeuvre” online. Which brings us to another problem with Mr. Ford’s depiction of Frank in these pages, a problem Updike also had, at times, in depicting Rabbit: that is, a tendency to ascribe dialogue or thoughts to their middle-class, Everyman characters that are hard to imagine being evinced by anyone but the most literary minded of individuals. Would Frank — retired real estate agent and former sportswriter — really describe a remark he’s just made as his “best go-to Roethke line”? Or think: “The suburbs are supposedly where nothing happens, like Auden said about what poetry doesn’t do; an over-inhabited faux terrain dozing in inertia, occasionally disrupted by ‘a Columbine’ or ‘an Oklahoma City’ or a hurricane to remind us what’s really real”?
Before I go an iota further, let me install my foot in my mouth good and proper and declare that I find the works of Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, and the rest of that post-Updike, post-Roth crew to be some of the most gawdawful boring "Lit'rary" old-white-dude navel-gaze since they started giving out the National Book Award.
I mean, at least back when it was the like of Budd (What Makes Sammy Run?) Schulberg and Saul (Seize the Day) Bellow, the book scene had a tot less of the wagon-circled self-reinforcement that makes it all too easy today for such sodden MFA product to get a toehold, let alone prime placement on the table at the front of Barnes & Noble. At least then you could get torn up the middle good and proper — and not by a critic whose path you would never have to cross, but by your fellow novelists. I miss the days when William Burroughs could rip the skin off Truman Capote's back, feed it into his typewriter, and inscribe on it the nature of the latter man's selling-out.
But anyway (he said, blotting up the froth slipping from the corner of his mouth), the problem outlined in that excerpt above isn't something limited to literary types. Bad writers of most any stripe will break voice, whether in first or third person. I suspect that with self-consciously literary authors, though, this sort of thing becomes all the easier to slide into because the work is less about its (increasingly rarefied) ingredients and more about its (increasingly self-important) presentation.
Don't assume, though, that the answer lies solely in a "literature of ideas", because that way lies yet another kind of madness — the kind where all the characters talk either like theoretical physicists, auto mechanics, or Noam Chomsky. And, worst of all, where the author tries to sound like all of them at once. I don't think there's any tone-deafness nearly as insufferable as that exhibited by the author's own voice.
And the first person to try the "well, maybe people should talk like that" line gets a fat sock in the nose from the spring-loaded boxing glove Fujiko uses to punch out Lupin. If people did talk like that, I think I'd pull a double van Gogh to keep from having to hear 'em.