Why Do People Still Write Literary Fiction?


I’m sorry. You stumbled here somehow (there is no other way to get to my posts) and now you hope to read a fusty diatribe about the death of the novel. But I’m sorry, you’ve accidentally come to the wrong place.

The novel is fine. It will exist as long as people can read and write. Maybe we’ll have fewer of them – and even fewer still in print – but we’ll always them.

Also, I’m sorry again. I use the word “novel” too broadly. I should distinguish the terms. “Genre fiction” isn’t going anywhere, just as it hasn’t been going anywhere. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is bloated and dying. But why?

I could guess, or I could ask a million questions all starting with the same word a three-year-old child loves most, why? Why do people still write literary fiction? Why, when there are so many other forms of entertainment, forms which will grow more varied and rich as technology improves? Why do people keep writing made-up stories about their personal lives?

Imagining years gone by, I can understand. The feeling types who knew a couple words also knew their best shot at being considered sexy was to write fancy novels, but why now? Even in 1980, the year I was born, it was archaic to write in detail about, for example, the tablecloth being used for a fictitious dinner when one could have watched something like Mork and Mindy, a show that looks primordial now, and simply seen the tablecloth being used for a certain fictitious dinner.

So why do it? Why do people still write long, flowery stories about the first time they fell in love? Why, when only a few lit novels, out of the hundreds of thousands, resonant with most readers? Why write one when someone go could online and watch a video clip that took less time to make but has a higher incidence of entertaining – or even moving – someone?  Why?

Why, when it is so difficult and lonely to write these things? Like Zadie Smith said, a book of fiction now must be “necessary.” It must be written so artfully that if it was converted to any other medium, its beauty would be lost.

This precept applies to a novel’s value as a diversion as well. It may be a movie, or a web series, or a video game, or just hate-reading Thought Catalog, but there are better ways to escape your own head. Most “serious” readers and writers and all poets are not going to admit to that, but it’s true. Mostly because reading those things are hinged to their livelihood. Still, it seems purposefully stubborn that so many force themselves to read literary fiction when it is often inferior to collaborate creative art in film or video games or television.

Of course, being entertained does not necessarily equate with being moved. One reads for different reasons. A good novel can take you to a place a YouTube clip could never take you, a reserved place in your heart/mind for the written word. The Easter Parade, Stoner, A Personal Matter, They Came Like Swallows, Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby, Fools of Fortune, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, O Pioneers, Middlemarch, they all do that, though why don’t more? Why is there so much dreck within literary fiction?

There is nothing worse than a fiction book that reads like it was written so as to capture some imaginary time when people considered being a Fiction Writer as the most “honorable” and “interesting” profession in the history of man. True, there was a time when families sat around a radio to hear stories. And back then, if you found a book that wasn’t the Bible and it was, at least, mildly interesting and comparable to your experience, it must’ve had the power to hold a very singular place in your consciousness.

But that time is long gone and now, in 2014, I feel bad for anyone trying to write a novel of literary fiction. Though saying that assumes I think literary fiction writers aren’t entire full of it, which they are. One of the most “vital” of them today (Colum McCann) is wearing a scarf, A SCARF, in his author photo of his latest novel, compared to fifty years ago when they wore Brooks Brothers suits and had sad eyes and beautiful gray beards (Richard Yates). Writers are now either Ivy League Iowa Workshop heels or self-promoting mushroom-taking, internet addicts who write about a pretend drug problem so they can write about something other than using their parent’s money to live.

Too stereotypical, okay, fine, but if any work of literary fiction is bad today, is it worth less than one video game’s side mission. In fact, it is the inverse of value. It is a black hole. Because not only does it not entertain, it adds static, making it more difficult for the next writer to prove to a reader that their book is worth his or her time.

People are going to keep writing and reading novels, that much is true. Mainly because everyone has a story, one which, if never recorded, goes unshared. But if the writer of the story does not go through the trouble of explaining what it is like to live in their world artfully, using a process that took real work – maybe years – in the end crafting something other people are able to empathize with and feel less alone after reading, then I don’t mind so much if all these stories go unheard.

If they’re never written, they die in the grave. And if that happens, the worms will dine on more respectable bones.  TC Mark

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