Aggressive Fictions

Aggressive Fictions: Reading the Contemporary American Novel

Kathryn Hume
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7v8kr
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  • Book Info
    Aggressive Fictions
    Book Description:

    A frequent complaint against contemporary American fiction is that too often it puts off readers in ways they find difficult to fathom. Books such as Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and Don DeLillo's Underworld seem determined to upset, disgust, or annoy their readers-or to disorient them by shunning traditional plot patterns and character development. Kathryn Hume calls such works "aggressive fiction." Why would authors risk alienating their readers-and why should readers persevere? Looking beyond the theory-based justifications that critics often provide for such fiction, Hume offers a commonsense guide for the average reader who wants to better understand and appreciate books that might otherwise seem difficult to enjoy.

    In her reliable and sympathetic guide, Hume considers roughly forty works of recent American fiction, including books by William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Chuck Palahniuk, and Cormac McCarthy. Hume gathers "attacks" on the reader into categories based on narrative structure and content. Writers of some aggressive fictions may wish to frustrate easy interpretation or criticism. Others may try to induce certain responses in readers. Extreme content deployed as a tactic for distancing and alienating can actually produce a contradictory effect: for readers who learn to relax and go with the flow, the result may well be exhilaration rather than revulsion.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6287-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction: The Author-Reader Contract
    (pp. 1-13)

    Wordsworth could startle his readers by writing about a leech-gatherer; how could such a person or activity qualify for aesthetic appreciation? Faulkner trampled even more forcefully on reader expectations when The Sound and the Fury commenced with an idiot’s version of events. Both works are now canonical. The same conversion will happen for many of the novels discussed in this book, but they resist being naturalized into tradition. They not only attack the literary expectations specific to their time but also break a very old contract between reader and author, and do so in ways that demand new motives for...

  6. 1 Narrative Speed in Contemporary Fiction
    (pp. 14-39)

    Many contemporary novels subject their readers to a breathless sense that the events are hurtling by too fast for real understanding. Scenes and focal figures change quickly, and helpful transitions are missing. The resultant feeling of excessive rapidity is what I mean by narrative speed, and for many readers, this speed produces frustration and serious discomfiture. This effect occurs so frequently in contemporary fiction, and its mechanics are so readily grasped, that it seems a good place to start investigating fiction that denies readers their expected comforts. The immediate lesson to be learned? Relax. Give up the assumption that you...

  7. 2 Modalities of Complaint
    (pp. 40-76)

    As we try to come closer to being ideal readers of novels characterized by narrative speed, we learn to relax, to stop wanting to be in control. We attempt to open ourselves to the exhilaration of the rush. When we read complaints, that tactic will not work, because complaint does not produce exhilaration. We need other reasons to open ourselves to these irritating narratives. Understanding why a complaint makes us so uncomfortable can reduce our negative response. Other reasons for trying to accept these novels include the self-interest that would help us learn from warnings and the practice of our...

  8. 3 Conjugations of the Grotesque
    (pp. 77-114)

    In The Place of Dead Roads, William S. Burroughs describes the sex life of the lophiform angler fish: “During intercourse the male gets attached to the body of the female and is slowly absorbed until only the testicles remain protruding from the female body.”¹ Simply as natural history, this is not grotesque, merely unusual and non-mammalian; I note with amusement that scientific descriptions of this intimacy refer to the male being parasitic on the female and physically incapable of surviving on his own, which puts a rather different spin on a relationship that horrified and fascinated Burroughs.² Only when we...

  9. 4 Violence
    (pp. 115-140)

    In the context of fiction that repels readers, a chapter titled “Violence” might concern horror fiction. Genre horror in fiction and film does indeed exploit physical and sexual violence, and some readers or viewers are horrified and even terrified. Overall, though, genre horror is extremely popular: in four years, the first five films of the Saw franchise grossed over $668 million, though they cost only $36 million to produce.¹ Audience responses to violent acts in the films include cheers as well as fainting. The Saw and Hostel franchises permit people to watch acts roughly comparable to those in American Psycho,...

  10. 5 Attacking the Reader’s Ontological Assumptions
    (pp. 141-163)

    Having seen in the last three chapters tactics designed to arouse unpleasant emotions, we turn now to attacks aimed at our intellect, our sense of what is real. To function efficiently, we rely on a set of beliefs about the nature of reality. These ontological assumptions provide stability as we deal with day-to-day living. They govern our responses to sights, sounds, and events; they keep us from expending all of our energy on permanent fight-or-flight readiness. Authors who challenge our ontological assumptions with the aim of destroying our faith in them are trying to undermine the foundations of daily comfort...

  11. Conclusion: Why Read Aggressive Fictions?
    (pp. 164-172)

    This book explores an aspect of recent fiction that criticism has ignored. Many of these novels were not designed to please readers, and the questions raised by that practice have not been recognized, let alone answered. Without claiming a unified field theory to explain fiction that attacks readers, I have sought answers to a number of these questions. How do in-your-face novels relate to pleasure and instruction, the traditional rewards of the reader-author contract? Or if authors abrogate that contract, what is taking its place? What means do some authors employ to compensate for their unpalatable material in the hope...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 173-184)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-194)
  14. Index
    (pp. 195-200)