Every time I write anything about the world of academic creative writing, people will post comments that are all like, “Yeah, right on, Rahul! Those guys only write awful books about old white male professors who want to fuck their students!* You need to stick it to all that boringness!”
Whereas, I’m like…ehh…that’s not really what I was talking about. What I object to with regards to the world of literary fiction is the careerism of it all. Being a literary writer is a profession: it has education requirements and career rungs and entry-level positions and all those other professional accouterments. And none of that really feels like it has anything to do with writing good fiction.
However, I do think that plenty of literary fiction is pretty good. For instance, I’ve enjoyed books by Aimee Bender, David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Claire Messud, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, T.C. Boyle, Adelle Waldman, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and plenty of other products of the MFA system. If you write a certain kind of fiction in the United States, then you’re probably going to end up getting an MFA. Most literary fiction is bad, of course, but I just don’t read the bad stuff.
And, on the other hand, it’s not like the genre shelves are chock-a-block with original and exciting work. If you went to Barnes and Noble and pulled a random volume off the shelf, it’d be pretty depressing. Most genre novels consist of an extremely tiny variation on some other successful novel: “Instead of making kids fight to the death in an arena, my book makes them have spellcasting duels to the death” or “Instead of being torn between a vampire boyfriend and a werewolf boyfriend, my protagonist is torn between a mermaid boyfriend and a wereshark boyfriend” or “Instead of having to fight against an evil, tyrannical empire of space-Communists, my heroic space-captain has to fight off a caliphate of space-Islamicists!”**
I mean, this stuff is hardly the promised land.
Also, if you don’t like literary fiction, then what are you saying? That you don’t like realist narratives that are about peoples’ ordinary lives? That seems odd. I feel like I shouldn’t even need to say this, but…there are things that realism can do that non-realism cannot do. And if you never read any realism, then you will never encounter those very awesome things. (For instance, no secondary-world setting is ever going to be as detailed or evocative as the Burma in Orwell’s Burmese Days, because secondary world settings always feel so…constructed. There’s nothing in a secondary world setting that doesn’t mean something.)
Actually, I’ve recently had a revelation with regards to genre fiction. About five years ago, I made a purposeful decision to mostly read non-SFF work. I reasoned that I was already very well-versed in the genre and that I needed to catch up with everything else. But I’ve always sort of wondered if I was maybe forcing myself to like literary fiction. I mean, I liked Proust, but isn’t it possible that I’d like the newest Neal Stephenson even more? In that case, my whole reading life would be a lie!
But then I read ten highly-acclaimed recently-published genre novels over the break over the Christmas break. And half of them were pretty mediocre. Of the ones that were good, only three (The Magicians, Drowning Girl, and Redemption In Indigo) really hit what I’d call my quality threshold: the minimum level of awesomeness that I am looking for in fiction.
Immediately after finishing this project, I started reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which is super ‘literary’***: it’s a family epic about four sisters in 1930s Japan. And I’m liking it at least as much as I enjoyed any of the genre novels (well, okay, not as much as I liked The Magicians).
So there, my preferences are at least somewhat real.
*One of my favorite novels of all time, Stoner, is a sad-professor-sleeps-with-student story.
**Actually, if “Horatio Hornblower fights Islamic fundamentalists in space” has not been written yet, then someone needs to write it and pitch it to Baen immediately!
***I will say one thing. I do feel bad about saying that classic or foreign work is part of “literary fiction.” It’s extremely unfair how modern writers of “literary fiction” have positioned themselves as the inheritors of Chekhov and Tolstoy and Hemingway and Cervantes and everybody else who wrote fiction that we still read. Because those authors didn’t really have anything to do with modern academic creative writing. Tolstoy did not go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And it’s also a bit insulting to assume that genre writers haven’t read Tolstoy. Still, I sometimes think that critics of literary fiction do also mean to criticize Tolstoy, because a lot of the criticisms that they make of literary fiction (it is self-indulgent, overwritten, meandering) are criticisms that unsophisticated readers might make of Tolstoy. If, however, you are only criticizing the modern genre of literary fiction and not the entire canon of classic fiction, then you have my apologies. Because I do think that literary fiction (the modern genre) is no more likely to be good than genre fiction.