Is Contemporary Literary Fiction any Fun?

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.

Enough.

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.

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13 Responses to Is Contemporary Literary Fiction any Fun?

  1. Mark Brown says:

    You know, I was thinking about this very thing last night. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read The Shipping News (big deal Pulitzer Prize winner) and 11/22/63 (alt-history time travel lark by Stephen King) and I was struck by the difference. The Shipping News was like eating granola – healthy but generally unpleasant. The King book was like a really fatty, carb-laden steak dinner. It was delicious.

    So much contemporary Literature (and I would include 21st century poetry right along with the fiction you describe) is just glum, meandering, and pretentious. Shouldn’t there be pleasure in our lit?

    • Mark Penny says:

      I love eating granola, but I agree with the complaints about much literary fiction. Let’s face it, any community that survives for long eventually becomes a pack of pub crawlers sitting around telling each other comfortable truths that justify the community’s existence.

  2. Wm says:

    I had the same New Yorker experience seven or eight years ago, Josh.

    I don’t read much contemporary literary fiction. Instead, I seek out genre novels that have literary elements to them (or vice versa). I really liked Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. And I too enjoy Michael Chabon’s work. I’m reading Finch by Jeff Vandermeer right now — amazing.

  3. I quit reading the New Yorker a very long time ago for the precise reasons you cite. I don’t find truth in nihilism. Its hollow. The New Yorker stories speak to a pack of depressing people.

    Of course, Mo Lit fic can sometimes be guilty of offering the same sorts of thematic boredom. Last week I took a swipe on my own blog about Mormon feminist stories because I’ve grown weary of them. And I’ve written the precise stuff that I complain is boring me. Go figure. Ruts are everywhere.

    The talent is obviously there in New Yorker stories. Maybe the problem is with the acquisition editors. Maybe they either need to die off or move on or have some form of a “come-to-Jesus-moment” and realize their lives are not meaningless.

  4. Jonathon says:

    David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel, Ann Carson.

    I’ve also been reading a lot of late juvey/adolescent stuff for Pennywhistle: plot and character aplenty, if you can avoid the clone lit.

    Anyway, thanks, Josh, for sharing. Agreed.

  5. Julie Nichols says:

    It has stunned me to realize I turn to cnf and reviews before I turn to fiction in many of the litmags I read…but I also write reviews of litmags for NrePages.com, and I find some stunning stories in lesser-known mags like Phantom Drift, Witness, West Marin Review, AlaskaQuarterly Review… Recently my UVU students got to interview Marilynne Robinson for their student-run literary journal. They asked her, “What can novice writers do to counter the nihilism in contemporary American fiction?” (Smart kids!) Ms R said something like, “You absolutely do not have to join that chorus. Locate your own voice and speak from it. If you see the world from a space that’s different from what you perceive to be contemporary nihilism, by all means, bring in some light and write your vision.” They, and I, found that advice to be marvelously sane and liberating.

  6. Julie Nichols says:

    That’s NewPages.com. :)

  7. Mark Penny says:

    I’m digging the topics on here. Thanks for the site and posts, guys.

  8. Colin Douglas says:

    In about 1970, I read an interview in Look Magazine with my favorite psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who observed that a small group of people, located mostly in New York City, have a stranglehold on the cultural windpipe of America, deciding what will be published, reviewed, etc., and most of them are highly pathological. He asked rhetorically, who has heard of Chaim Potok or Edward Lewis Wallant? I went immediately to the post library (I was in the army at the time) and found The Chosen, The Promise, The Children at the Gate, and the Pawnbroker. What discoveries! And what can have changed in New York City since 1970? Of course the Mormon literati must be aware of what is happening “out there,” but the world is what it is, and I don’t know how we can participate more than superficially in its literary conversation.

  9. Kenneth Pike says:

    So-called “literary” fiction hasn’t been a “conversation” in a long, long time. Frankly I’d characterize at least the last twenty years as more akin to “exhibition,” or perhaps merely “exhibitionism.”

    Yes, yes, of course there are always bright spots, but on the whole you’d probably do better to steer your students toward quality genre fiction. The bulk of the conversation moved there long ago. I’d especially hold the early work of near-futurist writers like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson up to any contemporary “literary” writer in terms of lyricism, character development, the exploration of universal themes, you name it–with the added benefit that such writers are often dramatically (and dramatically!) more engaging. I wouldn’t even characterize it as a fattening steak versus granola; I would characterize it as two equally healthy, equally filling meals–one, with flavor.

    I can acknowledge the possibility that the opportunities I’ve taken to engage contemporary literary texts may have developed in me the ability to draw similar sustenance from genre trash–an ability that might be more difficult to acquire through other means. Nevertheless, even for those who do not wish to write genre fiction, who genuinely aspire to contemporary literary achievement, I suspect there is more to be gained by reading widely outside, rather than inside, the academic echo chamber.

  10. You mean that I have trouble reading a lot of contemporary literary fiction because it really is bad, and not because I haven’t had any formal education in reading contemporary literary fiction?

    Thank you for giving me a little hope.

    Now, if I can just figure out what happened in THE FINAL SOLUTION, A STORY OF DETECTION or make myself care enough about THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION to actually manage to read it. (Any help on either of those would be greatly appreciated–otherwise, I fear I’m missing out on something good.)

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