Opinion: To Hell and Back… the Direction of U.S. Literary Fiction

Courtesy of Worthy of EleganceOriginally I planned to start the article talking about ebooks.  Talking about the Internet.  I was going to quote Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  I was going to say that more people are reading on screens than ever before, and that bloated, antiquated conceptions about “the novel” would have to change to meet the new ways in which we read.  This isn’t that article.  That one is still rattling around in my head somewhere, and I think it would’ve turned out pretty alright in the end.  But that’s not the article I’m writing right now.

This is going to be something else entirely, because, as of this writing, Donald Trump has been President Elect of the United States of America for five days.  In the first 72 hours alone there have been an alarming spike in incidents of hate across the U.S.  Protesters pour into the streets.  The tension is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’m watching at a distance, seeing it all unfold from an ocean away.  It’s got me scared.  It’s got me angry.  And it’s got me—once I finally managed to shut the news and close Facebook and sat down to write this article—thinking about how truly irrelevant literary fiction has become in American culture at large.

You could blame it on all kinds of things.  Technology’s a fun scapegoat.  Our world moves fast.  There are a million distractions.  Sitting with a book takes time, and a great deal of attention must be paid.  Reading is a rewarding experience, no doubt, but the skills required to engage with it fully are starting to degrade in the culture at large.  Or maybe it’s just me.  I know I can’t concentrate like I used to, and I consider myself a fairly quick and capable thinker.

We’ve heard these arguments before.  Then you look at what’s happening now.  You look at a map of the election.  You see the great sea of red that stretches across the country.  You think about all those people, living their lives, working in small communities that are overwhelmingly white and impoverished—a generalization, yes, but not an unfair one—and then, because you’ve been asked to write an article on the subject, you ask yourself how many of these people are actively reading literary fiction?

Not many, I feel safe to say.

If they’re reading anything, they’re reading genre.  Or maybe comics.  More power to them.  Both are great.

More likely still, they’re watching TV and playing video games.  And once again I can’t fault them for making that choice.  TV and games happen to be where all the real innovation in narrative storytelling is going on at the moment.  We’re in the midst of a veritable renaissance of storytelling on the screen—again, another article for a less insane time.

It might sound like I’m saying these people are stupid, plopped down in front of their games and their Netflix and their fantasy trilogies, unwilling to pick up a “proper” book.  I’m not.  They’re absolutely not.  What I’m doing is asking a question.

I’m earnestly wondering why these people should bother taking time out of busy, tiring days to read works of literary fiction, when literary fiction is so overtly not speaking to them in return?

In my opinion the literary world—at least the big business, NY Times Bestseller List, National Book Award, MFA-factory farm side of things—is as closed off to anything outside itself as those rust belt communities I just described.  It’s an echo chamber, only liberal in its politics.  It differs from its conservative counterpart mainly in that it lacks the size, relevance, or any degree of violent intent—that last one being a good thing by the way.  But let’s be clear, it’s an echo chamber head-to-tail.

The great tragedy of literary fiction slowly concretizing into just such an echo chamber is that it robs people outside it of one of literature’s most glorious side effects: a chance to engage directly with their imaginations.  And it’s only through radical acts of imagination that we’re going to stitch this world back together.

Do I sound silly, talking in hushed tones about “imagination”?

Do you see me as Gene Wilder, walking amidst candy mushrooms in a big purple hat?

Maybe you do, or maybe you’re picking up what I’m putting down.  Whatever the case, I firmly believe that empathy, compassion, all the best traits our species has to offer, are fed directly by the human imagination.  The ability to visualize someone else’s pain, to put yourself momentarily into someone else’s suffering, is at its core an act of imagination.  As a human, you can’t know anything outside yourself.  But you can pretend.  And the more you do it, the more you feel, both about the world and the people living in it.  Your mental picture becomes more accurate.  It informs your actions.  They are kinder, more decent.  Premised on a foundation of respect, because you have begun to see that people are more or less like you.  From there we get progress.  We get social and technological innovation.  Books help with this.  Stories help with this.  People read and they imagine, and they begin to see things outside themselves.  Begin, hopefully, to respect “the other” that had once seemed so alien.  The world becomes—ever so slowly, and with a great deal of relentless effort—a slightly less shit place to be.

In practice it won’t work anywhere near as smoothly as I’ve outlined, but I firmly believe that the principle is sound.  At the same time, there is no greater threat to such a potential blossoming of imagination than our own laziness, our tendency to moral entropy, an inability to maintain the vigil.  Imagination dries up in such cultural environs, and the variety of stories we tell dwindles to a trickle.

I recently had this exchange on social media, in response to something I reblogged about “non racist” Trump supporters being held accountable for the hateful views of their candidate.

When I say I’m tired of understanding white male pain, I don’t just mean in terms of this election.  I mean in every respect.  It feels like it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  In school, in reading the literary canon, in perusing the bestseller list, in engaging with basically any and all fields of entertainment, the oh-so complex pain of the white man is enshrined above all else.  And I’m sick of it.  Sick of hearing about it.  Sick of imagining it.  Sick of putting myself—a brown man, for what it’s worth—in the shoes of a person who most likely wouldn’t give two shits about doing the same for me.  In life or in print.  I’m not saying there aren’t other voices out there.  I’m not saying black American writers aren’t doing amazing things.  I’m not saying women aren’t absolutely killing it on the page day in day out.  It’s just that if you don’t already know where they are, you have to hunt like a dog to find them.  And there is no guarantee you will.  The culture at large would be perfectly happy to keep you cycling through the pain of white men.  Putting it in print.  Throwing it up on the screen in a thousand different versions of the same movie about some sad white dude in a cape.  They’ll say it’s about money, about maintaining the necessary profit margin in uncertain economic times.  It’s just their fear.  Their inability to imagine that the pain or joy or laughter or just plain being of someone that doesn’t look like them might be equally as valid and engaging as their own.  Might just as easily connect with a readership at large.

And people are so hungry for stories.

That momentary escape, that rush of connection.

Sometimes it’s all that gets you through the day.

So I can’t tell you where American literary fiction is headed.  I can’t tell you where America is headed.  It’s too early to tell, and if I’m being honest, all I see ahead is fire.  I’m scared, more than ever before.  But what I can say is that if there’s to be any hope at all, for America as a nation or for literary fiction as a force within the cultural fabric of that nation, something has to change.  White America, specifically white male America, needs to loosen their vice grip on narratives of pain and “importance”, at the exclusion of others.  It’s so important we hear these untold stories.  That the ocean of imaginative possibility afforded by the vast, pluralistic population of our world be allowed to burst the banks that have held it in check for so long.  We have heard the old stories, and now it’s time for those who cling so tightly to them to sit, listen, and imagine.

And make the necessary room for new ones to be told.


Photo_Bob SchofieldBob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable JuneMan Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.