Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What's Happened to Fiction?

I grew up among books and writers. The word, and the next one and all the pages full have been elements of my life as long as I can remember. I don't want to say I took this for granted, but I have. In doing so, it seems that I missed something. Or a few somethings. Among them, the following:

  • Men don't read good fiction.
  • Novels are dead.

These assertions aren't mine, they're things I've come across recently in different places recently.

The first is an issue raised by BULL: Mens Fiction, via Fictionaut. Men buy around 30% of the fiction sold, primarily thrillers and crime fiction. Which leaves literary fiction to the women. I hadn't given this any thought prior to hearing about it, but find it very disquieting.
I don't really mean to say that there is no “good” fiction in the thriller and crime fiction fields. I read a lot of drek, almost anything not religious or romantic, and actually enjoy plenty of that type of fiction. However, on those shelves remain the Dan Brown's and David Morrel's and countless other fairly bad writers. Writers who use one crutch and cliché after another, and who will never be a Steven King, much less a Maclean or a Hemingway.
If men aren't reading good fiction, then it stands to reason that men's fiction isn't getting published. We end up with a chicken, or egg, sort of question. Is it not being published because it won't be read, or is it not being read because it's not being published?
My view of writing and authors is very male centric. I like plenty of female writers, and their work, but the influences on my enjoyment of writing, and being a writer, are primarily male. My father who taught me about poetry. My fifth grade teacher who showed me that poetry was written by real people having real experiences, not recounting mad charges and death in far off lands. Writers I met as a kid, like Steve Bodio, and Joel Bernstein. Writers whose work motivated, changed, or challenged me in my audacious youth when I read far outside my age group, McCarthy, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, and even the baser Heinlein. And whose work does that today, Palahniuk, Frederick Busch, and the above as well. Writers whose work and experiences resonate with my own life, McMurtry in particular at this point. All these influences are masculine. It's something of a shocking wake-up to see that masculinity in good fiction may have suffered a downturn.
It raises a lot of questions. Primarily about the nature of male reading. Why do men read, or perhaps better, why don't men read anything worth a damn? In wondering at the why of this, I have to ask myself why I read. Am I a reader because I write? I've always thought I was a writer because I read, but maybe that's not correct. My own perspective is suspect here, as I'm not just part of the audience.
Part of it is entertainment. I read to be entertained, like I imagine most people do. Some will argue that reading for entertainment alone precludes reading for intellectual stimulation, but I disagree. I am entertained by mental calisthenics and deep thoughts and discoveries and seek it out in music, movies, television and writing of all types. I'm also pretty confident that I'm not unique in this, even among men. Women are not the only people on the planet who want to think deep thoughts and engage in mental stretching. On the opposite side of the coin, I also read as a form of mental escapism – I want to be involved in something very not my immediate life, and let my mind relax. This is where, for me, reading “garbage” comes in. But one type of writing is not exclusive to the other – I do both, and again am pretty sure I'm not alone in at least the right motivations and interests
So, why do men still primarily read non-challenging, unintellectual, formulaic and cliched garbage? The place I feel left to turn to in answer, is society at large. Somewhere the American culture has told men that its not okay to be literary. It's knitting and tatting, not logging and grilling, and just not something that men do. But why?
It's a damn shame. It convicts me even more of the importance of masculine voices in writing. I'd realized it was a needed element when I first found BULL, before I ever planned to submit anything even. There exists western, eastern, southern, GBLT, and woman's writing and writers, but who identifies as a “male writer” or a writer of “mens fiction”? No one who's selling, apparently. And even the distinctly masculine voices in contemporary literature are being co-opted by feminine movements.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, one of the most distinctly masculine novels I think I've read, was brought to the attention of America at large by being placed on Oprah's book list.
There's nothing wrong with women, southerners or GBLT folks, but there is something goddamned wrong with this.

The second among literary issues I missed is the supposed death of the novel. I read this on Tom Russell's blog, and actually called bullshit in the comments. I don't think the novel is dead. I'm seriously out of touch with current novels though, particularly anything highbrow. The most recent literature I've read has been
The Road and a Palahniuk or two. I've been rather caught up in the literary past. But, I see a lot of novels that look good being published, and quite a few that I hear are good to read too. I can't really swallow the idea of the novel being dead.
However, the thought nags. Maybe it actually is. If I, as a reader, have been visiting the literary past of ghosts like Maclean, Cheever, Hemingway, and grand old men like McCarthy, for my diet of novels then what does that say about the current state of the things? Without a doubt, 80% of my literary fiction diet comes from short fiction journals, both online and in print. Perhaps a result of this, most of my writing is not on my novel, but on flash, short fiction and poetry. And I don't seem to be alone. I see a lot of good, fundamentally good, fiction being written in the form of flash and short stories. I am even seeing powerfully good poetry out there. It's accessible, it's at the tip of the finger, at the end of the hand placed on the mouse or touchpad.
I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with the shape and form of popular internet media and communications. The majority of America is online, and our creative engagement with words and communication in this medium is short. Blog posts are short. Facebook status updates are short. Tweets are short.
Twitter is the perfect example. One hundred and forty characters, to communicate effectively. And, really, we've gotten good at it. It's become entertaining, effective and, finally, important. Friends bitch and share and plan inside the limits of a Tweet. Businesses advertise, share updates and network. Revolutions, or the attempts there-of, are documented - The best information coming from Iran in recent troubles has been in one hundred and forty character bursts. That is what finally convinced me that Twitter had some actual value. And now, there are literary efforts, such as Nanoism, focused on extremely short fiction that will fit into a Tweet.
The modern face of textual communication is short. Why should anyone be surprised that written art would follow that? Even some of the more successful novels and memoirs of recent years have begun as blogs.
So, maybe I am wrong and the novel is dead. Or I'm half wrong, and the novel is elderly and graying. If that's the case though, it's not because culture is dead. It's not because we've lost something. Exactly the opposite in fact. We've found a way to retain our literary culture, our artistic use of language, in the modern era. There's been no death – Merely a refinement. If anything, it forces writers to be better.
Narrative Magazine recently had a small contest asking for people to contribute six word stories, in the tradition of the supposed original flash fiction piece by Hemingway. Hemingway's six word story, the product of a ten dollar bar bet, was the essence of succinct and powerful fiction: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
If the internet influenced literary culture is cultivating a standard of writers who can do as much with as little as Hemingway, then we'll be just fine. The novels will happen, and when they do, they'll be magnificent.

Now, if we can just make it okay for men to read them. Maybe the internet will help that as well. If the publishers, and their often female staff focusing on the female 70% of the market, aren't delivering then the internet will.
Let's not lament what's happened to fiction, its still here – Rather lets ask “What's Happening to Fiction”, and what can we as readers and writers contribute.


Ian Wendt said...

I guess we're the odd ones out. I rarely read thrillers and even rarer read crime fiction. The vast, vast majority of my reading is science fiction. And there are some outstanding writers in that field. Writers that can even compete with the likes of Frank Herbert when it comes to making intellectually and emotionally challenging stories.
I think I'm pretty ok with being one of the odd ones out. As long as there are still good writers out there.

I don't personally believe the novel will ever go away. I do think it's entirely possible that the way we access the novel will change. IE, sometime in the nearish future, paper will probably go by the wayside entirely. A shame, but I would not be surprised.

Nagrom said...

There are some truly outstanding science fiction writers currently. The division between science fiction and literary fiction is one of the most artificial there is, I think.
There are obvious differences between much of genre fiction, and the quality of that writing, and lit. fic. and the quality of that writing - This is particularly evident in crime and thriller fiction.
However, I see more authors who meet the standards of the literary field, writing science fiction than just about anywhere else short of literary fiction. And often the higher spectrum sci-fi is more interesting to read, and more relevant.
And there are authors who play both fields, i.e. Iain (M) Banks. That doesn't really happen in other "genre" fiction.
The closest cross-overs I can think of are the really exceptional mystery and thriller writers, such as Thomas Harris and Stephen Hunter, who have moments of sheer brilliance and can really write. And the occasional literary author who writes a novel with the acts and motivations of a mystery/thriller, i.e. Frederick Busch.
Those remain the rarities and the home of truly good writing is not among crime and thriller novels.
Accessible writing, sure. And there is merit to that. But good writing? It's a crap shoot.
For better odds, I turn to lit and science fiction (And there are some horrible writers in those fields as well).
So yeah, odd one's out indeed.

I think paper will remain current in a lot of ways, for a long time. The tactile engagement with books is too valuable to too many for paper to disappear quickly. But, the decline is already being noted, particularly with periodicals. Even for me, who likes magazines, I do most of that kind of reading online now.
I still read comparatively few e-books, and would prefer a paper book to an electronic reader most times (though the usefulness of that technology is only going to expand). I think that remains true for most readers, but there are exceptions. Among writers as well, I think many of us still want to see our work printed. It's more real on paper, with weight to it. But there are the writers now who want to move entirely electronically too.
The eventual balance that I think will happen, is going to be something like you see currently with a lot of the smaller self publishing print-on-demand presses like LuLu and AuthorHouse- The customer can order a printed and bound copy of the work, or they can purchase a download of the eBook.
I'm not up enough on current literary presses, but I'd imagine if there aren't those small presses who offer this sort of option currently, there will be soon.
For periodicals, I think we already see a move to more and more online publication, with limited release print editions. There are journals who already have made the move to entirely online, or who started that way, and then produce one or two print volumes a year.
I think that printed material will become sort of like Vinyl records - Everyone will offer it, at least occasionally, but it'll be for a small niche of the market. Purists, eccentrics, oddballs: Papyrophiles.
It won't be entirely elitist, though I'd expect there will be works where the only print edition will be made almost prohibitively expensive. Supporting this notion is the existence of extremely fine custom presses and binders. The book nut with money to waste can get custom bound editions, done by small hand-crafters in traditional methods. As the electronic methods become more common, I expect there will crop up a few more of these outfits, and you'll see more work where the only paper edition is traditionally printed and leather bound, and fairly expensive.

Ian Wendt said...

I think I can largely agree with that scenario. I can actually think of a few titles that I would pay a pretty penny to have in a very special binding.