More on the Future of Fiction

Continuing a conversation some of us began earlier in the week, on the state of storytelling in America in the 21st century, I refer you to a blog entry by the literary novelist Alexander Chee, entitled "Why Must the Novel Be Boring?" In it, Chee (prompted by one of his own creative writing students) gamely explores the limitations of the 20th-century novel of angst, and quotes writer Lev Grossman on why adult hardcover fiction is having such a tough time holding its own against the YA vampire novel these days:

"There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it's still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged."

Chee then adds his two cents:

"The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they're talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they've lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story" . . . Too many writing students are trying to become masters of style and not masters of story, and they do so to their detriment. They have all these beautiful beautiful sentences and we don't really know what they're doing with them. Be sure to tell a story."

Please note: neither of these writers blame faulty taste or lapses in our educational system for why some readers these days are finding more satisfaction in genre fiction. And while we're at it, let's think about some of the great novels of the past--those that midwived the very form of the novel itself--and recall that these, while not avoiding pain, evil, or any of the ills attendant on the human narrative, nevertheless manage to be rollicking good reads: Tristram Shandy, David Cooperfield, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I became and stay a writer not to win awards, make money (god knows) or curry favor with the devil. I became a writer to imitate, learn, and then master, and then celebrate and finally to become part of and advance the human art of story, and play some role in its survival as a moving way for experience to connect to experience, imagination to imagination, mind to mind and heart to heart. I do love a good sentence; but if you're in this for the sentence rather than the story, it's like going to Vancouver to admire the skis rather than the skier.

Story is just another word for movement. Exhilarating movement.

Get moving.



I'm loving this discussion. IMO, forward motion is everything in the story, and when it's coupled with the development of fascinating, unique, and relatable (dare I say heroic) characters, a sort of alchemy takes place that draws the reader into the magic of the experience.

If you're being overly clever or deliberately obscure (i.e. The Emperor's New Prose) in an attempt to appeal only to the most sophisticated, discerning, and motivated readers, you're missing the real point of writing for publication - to communicate your vision on a grand scale.

I'm not advocating that anybody dumb down their ideas. Just give the reader credit, and carefully weed out examples of "beautiful writing to absolutely no effect." In other words, work on getting out of your story's way and making the prose so fluent, it's invisible.
Oh God, I so very much agree. The thing is WHY, WHY, WHY won't people in cw programs listen???? I've been saying all this for at least TEN years, and nobody in my program listened. In my dissertation defense, I talked about why I chose the form of the Gothic novel to convey my vision, partly because it's the form I feel most comfortable with, but also because the Gothic expresses anxiety, and my stuff is all about anxiety and psychological action.

"But isn't that melodramatic?" was the comment I got over and over again. "Why do there need to be ghosts? I don't think the ghosts are at the heart of this novel." And so on and so on, until I finally admitted that I wanted the book to go "mainstream" and not be "literary." When I said that, I could actually feel the bad vibes hit me from my first and second readers from across the room. How DARE I? How DARE I take what I learned in supposedly the best PhD program in the country and go (shudder) mainstream? And how dare I address (double shudder) anything that wasn't strictly REALISTIC? Or (gasp) anything that crossed over into the (double gasp)spiritual realm?

In the two months following the defense, I almost believed them. But now, after this and other recent discussions, I'm pretty much convinced I'm the one who was right. And it's 2010 and the Year of the Tiger is coming, and I've got energy to burn!
Gothics are making a comeback in the publishing arena. Have you read Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Loved that one.

What's that old chestnut? Success is the best revenge...
Joni Rodgers said…
That's so right on. Several years ago, my ed at Harper Collins told me to post a sign on my office wall:


It's still there. And it applies to nonfiction as well.
Mylène said…
For the record: in a ghost story, there need to be ghosts. And the ghosts need to do stuff. Also the people who are not ghosts. They need to do stuff. Also the weather, whenever possible, ought to act up. Also the ghosts should never be aware of any discursive framework (including their own), and the people who are not ghosts should not use the word "discourse" at all, if they can help it (or, okay, unless it is really, really scary, or maybe, okay, they can use it if they mean it in the nineteenth-century sense, as in "to talk at length"). Readers of Gothic novels are of course free to note any discursive frameworks or anything else they find lying scattered among the cobwebs--readers are always in charge--but preferably only after they have been alarmed by their own imaginations, thoroughly, properly scared, and made to feel terribly, wonderfully alive.

Well, the one comment I have sort of agreed with is the one about the ghosts not being at the heart of the novel, which is why I did end up cutting down on their "role." My book is Gothic, but less ghostly and more Stoker/Bronte/Poe. Particularly Poe. It deals with mental illness in a particularly creepy and unsettling way. BUT! I hope that there is transcendence too--in that way I admire Alice Sebold, who manages to make the Gothic both singe and sing. And Alice Munro. ALWAYS Alice Munro.

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