Why Is Literature Always So Serious In Order to Be Taken Seriously?: On Andrew Sean Greer’s Less Winning the Pulitzer

The most polarizing occurrences tend to happen when stodgy institutions start to get on board–generally well after the zeitgeist has already happened–with a certain “trend” that will make them more palatable to the mainstream, leading those who still “uphold their medium to a certain standard” scratching their heads violently with skepticism. This happened in an egregious fashion with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize, but for this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in literature, Andrew Sean Greer and his novel, Less, we’re looking at a sea change unlike any other that has been seen in the literary world of late. That’s right we’re talking about something just as momentous as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. winning the prize in the category of musical composition (which, perhaps the Nobel Committee would do well to create for themselves). That momentous thing? A comedic novel being taken seriously.

While, in the past, this reverence has only really fallen to A Confederacy of Dunces (lord knows David Sedaris ain’t gettin’ no respect), Less has carved out a new opportunity to show writers so often fearful of an even slimmer chance of ever getting their book published–let alone deemed “worthy” by those old guard institutions–that there is hope. You don’t have to sound like a pompous dickhead that no one understands in order for your novel to be considered “literary.” And isn’t that a relief? The thought that maybe this shift is going to recalibrate the way so many writers–especially of the white male variety–force a style upon themselves, the one they think will get them the coveted life goal we all want: immortality through art (though, if we’re being truly honest, that’s another false myth, because I can guarantee no one from Generation Z will ever care about Le Père Goriot as it ought to be).

What’s even better is that Less tells the tale that so many of us Italian refugees are all too familiar with: finding out that an ex-love is getting married. That ex-love being Freddy, a man who was really just a boy when Arthur first met him, and assumed that he could hardly pose a threat to his heart: “Some kid who couldn’t even name The Beatles? A diversion; a pastime; a hobby.” Ah yes, for those of you who were looking for a clincher on why Less, a comedic novel was selected by the committee, it surely had something to do with its author and protagonist being gay. For to select a strictly white male in the current landscape is not easily accepted. Everything is politically motivated, after all. Most particularly in literature. That being said, a somewhat prescient interview given by Greer in 2013 found him saying of the “nicheness” of “gay writing” at the time, “I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. It is still wide open for some great young writer, straight or gay. But it cannot be written from pity. Or to prove something. The book I’m longing for can only be written—as is true of Bellow, and Morison, and Tan, and Roth, and all subculture writing that has come before—with an authentic eye, with affectionate honesty, and with the purpose to connect.” Turns out, it would be Greer to fulfill his own prophecy, for who among us can’t relate to the need to stay on the move in order to avoid truths we can’t stand?: that we’re aging, that those we thought were closest to us in the past have moved on. Greer initially tried to write the subject from a serious standpoint, but “what I was writing about was so sad to me that I thought the only way to write about this is to make it a funny story. And I found that by making fun of myself, I could actually get closer to real emotion—closer to what I wanted in my more serious books.” For there is no line finer than the one between comedy and tragedy (an ism brought poorly to life in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda).

Such is the premise of Arthur Less striving to avoid being a guest at his great love’s wedding that he goes so far as to humiliate his writing career further by participating in any lecture or reading that will have him. The wheels of this go into motion as Arthur is summoned to New York to interview H.H.H. Mandern (a sendup of the typically douchey author name) about the latest in his Sherlock Holmes-esque series. There is a point when the narrator, in a meta fashion, perhaps predicts the fanfare that now surrounds Less itself by remarking, “In a world where most people read one book a year, there is a lot of money hoping that this is the book and that this night will be the glorious kickoff.”

For Less himself, none of his books would be the kind that anyone could name to you if you were sitting next to them on a plane. But that doesn’t mean he still can’t use his authorial “clout” for something. Escapism. To put it more succinctly, “How can so many things become a bore by middle age–philosophy, radicalism, and other fast foods–but heartbreak keeps its sting? …heartbreak–how can you avoid it except to renounce love entirely?”

That’s what Less must, in his own way, do. Tragically and comically. Greer, who currently lives in Italy, noted the disbelief even of his own temporary countrymen as he commented, “Everyone was surprised! Even the Italians told me, ‘We can’t imagine a comedic novel winning a prize like that.’” But lo and behold, sometimes a good laugh just has to win out over the requisite straightforward doom and gloom of the “Great American Novel.” Maybe other writers would do well to remember that when they’re painstakingly writing such sentences as, “It now lately sometimes seemed a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.”

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