I try to read a lot of contemporary literary fiction. Students in my creative writing classes know why. How, I often ask them, do you plan to enter a literary conversation if you haven’t been paying attention to that conversation? Do you really think you can jump into publishing in 2012 if you only read books published before 1970?
My students know that I’m a stickler about this. A zealot. I follow the National Book Awards and tell my students that they should too. I’ve got the website for the National Books Critics Circle bookmarked on my internet browser. I read most of the fiction in The New Yorker. As a professor and a writer, I believe that being able to discuss the last five Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels is both a professional responsibility and a creative necessity.
But lately, something strange has been happening to me—something uncomfortable.
When I sit down at my desk, crack open The New Yorker, and scan the table of contents, I’m not always getting that old thrill in the back of my throat, that golden anticipation a new story should hold. Instead, I’m feeling something else—something that comes with a heavy sigh and a sense of dread. Something like boredom.
Just last week, two paragraphs into a New Yorker story, I couldn’t help but think this:
Here we go again. Another plotless story. Another story in which some broken, pathetic character discovers just how broken and pathetic she truly is. Here’s another protagonist who won’t fight for anything because she simply doesn’t know how to fight. Here’s another helpless soul, trapped within modernism’s confines. Here’s yet another carrier of the secret nihilistic knowledge that nothing we do matters, and so of course, this character will spend her story doing nothing. She’ll sigh and condemn the uninitiated rabble around her, and she’ll feel superior.
Quite frankly, I’m sick of this character. I’m sick of her thousand counterparts that populate the pages of too much of today’s literary fiction. And I’m sick of these stories about self-absorption and humanity’s vast vacuums of emotional drought.
Of course, reading over what I’ve just written, I recognize that I’m overstating things. There’s still plenty of great literary fiction out there. I love Michael Chabon (more from him later). I still get excited when I see a new story by Jonathan Lethem. I have a huge author-crush on Steven Millhauser.
But what of the other stuff? The stories that make up the bulk of today’s literary fiction? The stories of men and women standing in their backyards and feeling small against the vastness of the stars?
Are we really enjoying all of these stories? Or are we just pretending to enjoy them because doing so makes us feel smart?
Can you remember when reading was fun? Over the past few years, I’ve been going back to the stories I first fell in love with as a boy. I’ve re-read Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Island of Doctor Moreau and Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Reading these classic boy books has offered me a sort of re-birth. I’ve been transported back to my little bedroom in Riverton, Utah, and there, amidst the blue carpet and pirate ship wallpaper, I’ve been reminded why I wanted to be a writer and a professor in the first place.
Because stories were just so much fun.
I’m not sure I’ve had much fun reading The New Yorker in a long, long time. Perhaps that reveals a personal failing. Or perhaps serious people associate fun with Disneyland, Otter-Pops, and fruit-flavored marshmallows and shun fun altogether.
Of course, I’m ranting now. So I’ll end this rant soon and with the words of two serious writers who I think get it. These are words for future writers of literary fiction to consider:
First, Michael Chabon, again: “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period” (from an essay titled “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”).
And second, Geraldine Brooks: We should write “actual stories with plot, where x leads inexorably to y, with x being interesting and y being more interesting” (from her introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2011).
For weeks, I’ve been lamenting the state of contemporary literary fiction. So much of it, while elegant and lovely, seems plotless, hopeless, and bland. I’m not convinced it can be saved. But if it can, Chabon and Brooks have expressed the sentiments I think can save it.