1. Precocious kids/teens.
I understand why Harry Potter has to be a cut above the other kids. The novel might not have been so successful if he possessed only a workaday talent for magic. Rather, it’s Eliot-quoting 12-year-olds in literary fiction that does my nut in. I wrote an unsuccessful Millions submission about this once, using the following examples (which had all been recently published) to illustrate my gripe:
Swamplandia — teenage, home-schooled boy dreams of Harvard and quotes Keats to his co-workers.
The Marriage Plot — main character, Madeleine, is introduced by means of her personal library. She attends Brown University and is writing her senior thesis on, unsurprisingly, the marriage plot.
Sense of an Ending — main character attends Bristol University, a friend and girlfriend go to Cambridge.
The Art of Fielding — all main characters possess exceptional ability of some form. Henry is, initially, red-hot pitcher. Owen is as likely to drop a line from the canon as he is unlikely to drop a baseball. Pella attends their college after dropping out of Harvard.
2. (Linked to this) Writers writing to illustrate their talent at writing.
Joyce nails my preferred mode of writer in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man:
“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
This form of artist, though, is too often absent from modern literature, as if the modern writer is keen to show his parents that the college tuition fees were totally worth it after all: ‘Dad said that studying French Symbolists was a waste of time and why couldn’t I just study business management like my brother but when he reads this novel, given a great review by the New Yorker (blog), he’ll recognise the double yolker on his face.’
If this writer isn’t investing their characters’ voices with both delicate insight and remarkable poetry, they’re ensuring that the protagonist’s sister is an Oxbridge graduate and, therefore, provides an excuse to quote from obscure 18th century drama, the subject of their own dissertation.
Maybe it’s a British thing, but I can’t remember the last time I read literary fiction in which exceptional events happened to unexceptional characters, rather than the other way around.