“Most contemporary literary fiction is terrible”

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In a recent article on Review Review, Dan Chaon writes about the need for young writers of literary fiction to emulate their musical counterparts and develop an obsessive interest in the products of the culture they hope to join. He laments his students’ lack of familiarity with the litmags in which they hope to be published and encourages them to explore the literary world. He recommends the best annual anthologies of short films and checks the name of a few good magazines. “Young writers,” he says in conclusion, “if you want to be rock stars, you have to read.”

At first sight, this thesis seems impossible to refute. But I will try.

It goes without saying that fiction writers should read, and most of us do, naturally. But I feel like the particular course of action Chaon suggests — immersing oneself in the world of contemporary literary fiction — is, potentially, a recipe for hackneyed, insular, boring writing.

Chaon’s argument is perhaps stronger when applied to the world of poetry, which is smaller than that of fiction, and more dependent on a solid dialogue with itself. The world of poetry is also less cautious than that of fiction; poets are more naturally experimental, less hampered by strong and unpleasant emotions. Poets aren’t bothered by the same career worries as fiction writers—they don’t assume there’s money to be made doing what they do. And poetry is less concerned — not indifferently, certainly, but less concerned — than fiction by the current idioms of narration. Poets constantly reinvent language. A poet ignores new writing at his peril.

But I don’t think Chaon’s advice is necessarily beneficial to writers of literary fiction. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative, and obvious. Most of the stories in the best annual anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It is inevitable that it should be so; Fiction writing is ridiculously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while very beneficial to talented writers, have had the effect of making many mediocre writers borderline proficient, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published. (This is not an anti-MFA rant: I loved the program I studied in, and I love the one I teach in, and I love helping students do their best, even when it doesn’t end up being very good.)

Therefore, the dialogue that literary fiction writers have with themselves is, on the whole, uninteresting. It’s not that there aren’t smart people writing and conversing, it’s just that the lit-fic world is so huge that the noise tends to overwhelm the signal.

Chaon chides his students for their poor knowledge of contemporary fiction: “When I ask them what they’ve read recently, they often only manage to spit out the most obvious and high-profile examples.” But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There’s already more great fiction in the world than any of us will be able to read in our lifetime. Why develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the current cultural moment when so much of it, inevitably, is crap?

In my opinion, a good writer can learn something from everything he reads. And so I certainly don’t blame a student for reading a work of contemporary fiction. In fact, I assign the best annual anthologies as textbooks in my workshops, and more often than not our discussions of assigned readings — student-initiated, not me — focus on what makes the stories so horrific. It is useful and good.

But a fiction writer must also engage with other parts of the culture. This includes reading outside of its genre – I happen to prefer sci-fi and mystery, but I think it’s fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy, or whatever takes their fancy. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being allowed to plunder any genre for tools to subvert and reuse. We should also read poetry, of course, and non-fiction. We should read instruction manuals, legal documents, restaurant reviews and company newsletters. We should follow weird people on Twitter and go to a lot of parties and have a lot of intense, ridiculous conversations with drunk people. We should go home for the holidays and argue with our families, and we should listen to a lot of music and we should watch a lot of television, because television is, at present, the most important narrative medium in terms of artistic. We should listen, and we should talk. We should probably be in therapy. We should probably drink more coffee.

Let’s face it: literary fiction is boring. It really is. It’s a genre as full of clichés as any other. And when you’re as deeply immersed in it as many of us are, it’s all too easy to stop noticing the cliches. They no longer stand out. It’s just what people do. And so, we do them. If a writer of literary fiction wants to be great, he must occasionally stick his head out of the echo chamber and absorb the true particularity of human effort. And that means reading things that aren’t literary fiction and, sometimes, not reading at all.

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