"Salt Water" is a 1998 novel by Charles Simmons, who was a long time editor of The New York Times Book Review. Much of my interest in this book comes from the author's position as an editor of that journal, which was (and still is) perhaps the single largest arbiter of "literary fiction" in the nation. Somewhat unfairly, I read this book not as a simple coming of age novel, but as a perfect example of what literary fiction is. To discuss the novel and how it exemplifies some of the problems with literary fiction, I will discuss much more of its plot than I usually do in reviews. Thus, there will be spoilers ahead.
Michael is fifteen years old, and is on vacation off the New England coast. He is an only child, with a philandering father and a long-suffering mother. His father, despite his many affairs, cares for his son and they spend much time out on a boat together. On vacation with them are a pair of Europeans: a Mrs. Mertz and her daughter Zina. Zina is twenty years old, but forms a flirtatious friendship with Michael. She tells Michael that she has a secret, a secret which turns out to be that she is in luv with his father, something that provokes a number of pointed hidden comments at the type of dinner party that rich vacationing people in New England have. Later, while in an argument out on the boat, Michael accidentally knocks his father into the water, and despite attempting to rescue him, his father drowns.
My problem with this book, and by extension my problem with literary fiction as a whole, is that despite the realistic nature of the events on the surface, the book's emotional tone and dialog are utterly false to me. Realism isn't just a matter of eschewing aliens and/or dragons, but of having people act naturally. Some of this problem with "acting naturally" might come from a cultural difference between my experiences and the characters in the book, but even that answer proves problematic.
Imagine you are fifteen. A fifteen year old boy, for that matter. Perhaps my own experience as a teenager in matters of romance and sexuality were a bit more awkward than most people, but given the general consensus I've heard on such things, these are years of uncertainty and awkwardness, punctuated by giddiness and sudden hope. When I was 15, the idea of, say, going to a Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone with a girl in a purely platonic context would have still been a matter of euphoria and anxiety. In this book, we are given a story about a 15 year old who is casually approached by a 20 year old woman, a worldly, sophisticated woman. Who also is in love with his father. How likely does this situation seem? Despite the fact that this causes some awkwardness for the characters (although, I think, much less than it would cause in real life), they manage to handle it with great aplomb. How many fifteen year olds, when facing a romantic rivalry with their father over a woman five years their senior, would have the presence of mind to communicate their displeasure with subtle references at a dinner party? Even in New England, I don't think it very likely.
It could indeed be a matter of cultural difference, how matter-of-fact the characters in this book are about sexuality. There is another character, Melissa, who is the character's age and has a crush on him. Out of revenge for Zina toying with him, he has sex with Melissa. Again, it is treated as an almost technical phenomena: the rules and processes of sexuality are no different than learning to pilot a boat, and since the narrator has mastered them, it is a matter of simple desire, without moral compunctions or personal insecurity, to exercise these skills. This attitude is not confined to sexuality: the characters in the book are all very upper-middle class, and the idea of not having money for something, or not having a role in society, is never considered. The characters, then, live in a world of rather static social concepts and roles, that even when they are subverted by such things as illicit sexual behavior, are never truly questioned.
And this is where the entire concept of literary fiction can enter a paradox. Literary fiction attempts to work with concepts that are realistic, with roles and interactions that are familiar to "everybody". However, in my experience, these roles and interactions are themselves usually encountered and learned about in a way that provokes anxiety, uncertainty, and in some cases, a sense of the surreal. There is nothing less realistic than presenting a situation where the main character is familiar and even jaded with social situations. Especially when that protagonist is a fifteen year old boy encountering sex for the first time. And that is why, to me, this realistic piece of literary fiction is one of the least realistic books I've read in a long time.
This is only one book, released over 15 years ago, so it might be both unfair and inaccurate to rest an entire criticism of "literary fiction" on this one book, and it could be that perhaps I missed the point of the book. But for whatever reason, reading this book crystallized much of what I find pretentious and unilluminating about the genre of literary fiction.