First the good news: In spite of every dour pronouncement I’ve heard over the four decades I’ve called myself a writer, and probably going even farther back, literature as we know it is not in crisis. Reading is not obsolete. Books are not doomed. Print is not archaic, nor is it likely to become so. Poetry is not dead. Short stories are not dead. Novels are not dead. They are not even sick.
Alarming claims always get more attention, though there have been some legitimate alarms in recent years. The diminishment of paying markets for quality poetry and fiction is one. The economics of publishing haven’t become any less brutal, and the trend toward consolidation among the major publishing houses is not particularly author-friendly. Too many books chase too few readers. The digital revolution is here, and for every opportunity it brings, there is also anxiety. All true, all concerning. But I do take it badly when these are seen as signs of the end of days, and when writing of the sort I love (and practice) is dismissed as no longer viable or even possible.
Some perspective: in 1961, Philip Roth wrote, “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.”
Many writers seemed to agree; the old realistic forms simply would not do now. These writers disassembled conventional structures and put them back together in unexpected ways, the same as you might take the wheels off a car and mount them on the roof or hood. There were a great many stories told in fragments, or with self-conscious narrators who called our attention to the artifice of the whole proceeding. There were books where the lyricism of voice substituted for any real narrative momentum, there were some wildly wonderful creations. That is, sometimes the car went forward, and sometimes it rolled over in a ditch. (I leave the history of language poetry for others to tell.) It was a difficult time to be a writer of fiction in which recognizable events happened to recognizable someones. “You simply can’t write stories like that anymore,” I was told, and I didn’t have any real comeback, because it had never occurred to me that I was doing it all wrong.
What happened? Raymond Carver, for one thing, and his plain-spoken authenticity, his no-fuss minimalism. He was immediately and hugely influential. His mannerisms were easily imitated, if not his artistry. Suddenly, everyone wanted to write like Carver, where before they had wanted to write like French post-structuralists. Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie, and many other fine writers claimed our attention. The pendulum lurched. The car found another gear and zoomed away. Ever since, at intervals, new gears have propelled us as the old ones lost their zip.
Art is restless, art is charged with reinventing and reimagining itself at every moment. So I understand the necessity of movement and antimovement. But this history makes me disinclined to believe the worst, most apocalyptic pronouncements about literary culture. For instance, once writing programs established themselves in every nook and cranny of university life, there was a lot of fretting that “the workshop story” (imposed by groupthink, small-scale, safe, ironic, offering up its tiny epiphanies) would crowd out more original efforts. If there ever was a vogue for such stories, it seems to have passed, or evolved, and the creatures no longer roam the veldts and savannas as they once did. Originals, meanwhile, have gone right on being original.
Recently, I saw a notice for a scholarly lecture about “the new intermodal book.” I was not able to determine the precise meaning of intermodal. (I confess I did not attend the lecture.) Google thinks it has something to do with transportation systems. But there were clues in the notice, once you got past the lingo—epistemological currents and premises of post-postmodernism and such—that the scholar was focusing on “word-image interactions,” that is, books with pictures, as an important “morphing” of contemporary fiction. Ever since scholars reinvented themselves, no longer the fusty guardians and interpreters of tradition, but discoverers and even entrepreneurs of the up-to-the-minute, we have had many such proclamations. If you can wrap your mind around the concept of post-postmodernism, a term that seems ready to burst into spores like a wet mushroom, then I suppose you can understand the need to push and prod and coax the culture into new, exciting trends that have not really happened yet. I have nothing against books with pictures. Like most people, I grew up with them. Everything new is old again.
Two things seem at odds, one being some bedrock of expectations we have from literature, the other being the innovative and revolutionary impulse which disowns all that has gone before. To me, the absolute bedrock of fiction is to make the reader want to know what happens next. And if you want to assemble a pastiche of lists and quotes and lonely paragraphs and call it a novel, well, it’s a free country, as we used to say in the days before the Patriot Act. About poetry I am less schooled, but I imagine as a basic that it ought to operate rather like an old-fashioned pinball machine, sending language zipping through the brain and lighting it up, ding ding ding, and finally, Jackpot! Nonfiction: facts matter when it comes to landing airplanes, cancer diagnoses, and court proceedings, and if you persist, even given allowance for memory, subjectivity, artistry, etc., in playing peek-a-boo with your reader as to whether you are being factual, then perhaps what you are writing about does not matter very much.
Ah well. To each their own path. In fact, the thing that gives me hope for the enterprise of writing is the incredible variety and vigor of the terrain. There is more than enough room for vampires in love, for futuristic visions, for collisions between high and low culture, for passionate arguments and counterarguments. Online reading and online publishing have only expanded the reach of words on a page, or the facsimile of a page, and those who want to build their own books now have access to the digital garage. Readers in plenty are still out there, regardless of the fascinations of video games and other entertainments. Reality has hardly eased up in the more than fifty years since Roth’s lament; it still generates the kind of headlines that you’re sorry you had to see. And writers still grapple or dance with the world we live in, reflect or distort it, embrace or escape it. The short story is still with us, as difficult to kill off as Rasputin. Poetry, that most enduring and subversive of forms, isn’t going away any time soon, and novels continue to be part of the national conversation. The human impulse and need to shape words remains.
Nor have the writers included in this issue gotten the message that they are engaged in some quaint or dying craft. Their work has delighted and, even better, surprised me. They come to you from zip codes around the country and from across at least one ocean. They have no mode or method in common, only excellence. I invite you to spend some time with them now.
There is no bad news.