Daniel Green is -- quite correctly it seems to me -- cross about the Middlebrow Mediocrity of many contemporary novels:
Everything that keeps our current literary culture mired in midddlebrow mediocrity is exemplified in Amy Bloom's novel, Away, and its reception by mainstream book reviewers when it was published last fall. The novel itself is not per se a "bad" novel -- many worse ones are published and reviewed every season -- but it is entirely undistinguished, to the point that my most immediate reaction to it was to wonder why it needed to exist in the first place. Moreover, that book reviewers would so exorbitantly praise such a novel, as in fact most of them did, strongly calls into question the standards being applied by those working in that branch of "literary journalism" represented by newspaper book sections. If Away is considered by "professional" book reviewers to be an exemplary work of serious literary fiction, which my reading of the reviews leads me to think is the case, then as a culture attuned to the possibilities of fiction as literary art, we in a sad state indeed (my italics).
Dan then takes Lionel Shriver to task:
Shriver's review [of Away in the LA Times] reeks of the kind of rationalization book reviewers constantly offer when recommending "formulaic" fiction written "comfortably within a conventional form." Such fiction may otherwise seem "standard" in its use of all of the hand-me-down practices of traditional narrative, but it's still full of "finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details," as Shriver puts it a few paragraph later. It may be utterly predictable, reinforcing safe and complacent reading habits by going no farther than to pour some "new wine into old skins," but if its "execution is exquisite," then no more should be asked of it. Who needs fiction that challenges formal expectations, offers an alternative to our hackneyed notions of "finely wrought prose"? Writers who pursue such challenges and alternatives are just "game-playing," anyway, so why not just settle for another feel-good novel and its "soft-smile, along-the-way humor."