Issue 80 |
Winter 1999-00

Introduction to the Fiction

The old year's over. So, too, the old century, the old millennium. Two thousand years of Western Civ! . . . Finished, achieved, collapsed.

Silly, of course, but it's how people think. Some people (oh, definitely a smaller set) are wondering whether the shiny new millennium which has just begun will have much literary fiction in it.

What does the future hold for us, producers and consumers of literary fiction? It's beginning to look like there will be more of the former than of the latter. Maybe there already are. The last ten years have witnessed drastic diminishment of the incredible shrinking trade publishing industry, which seems to have less and less room for variety in fiction, less room for any fiction at all. Meanwhile the embattled predicament of independent bookstores bodes very ill for "midlist" writers and whatever readers they have. The homogenization of all culture, driven as always by the dull and dreary demon of television, but reinforced on many other fronts, is a threat which continues to grow. That stale wind sweeps everything before it, and so a good many old-fashioned literary types (writers or readers) have come to identify themselves with the last withered leaf clinging (tenaciously, desperately, hopelessly . . .) to the windswept tree.

On the other hand, some unexpectedly positive things have happened, too. Hypertext fiction, enthusiastically predicted to supersede, in the Darwinian manner, its page-bound predecessor, has not done so. Hypertext has instead turned out to be a mostly different art form, interesting in its own right but with little at all to do with the literary fiction from which it sprang. The Internet, which certainly remains the world's largest vanity press, has also evolved into a surprisingly efficient and successful way of selling books in less than blockbusting quantities, and so looks likely to become a reasonable refuge for midlist writers and eclectic readers, too. Best of all, the book itself, this package of bound pages you now hold in your hand, maintains itself as superior technology for reading -- superior to any computerized gadget likely to be invented.

But still, more producers than consumers, more writers than readers . . . to the point that a typical literary quarterly is apt to have more submissions than subscriptions. How did we wind up in such a fix? The short-term answer is obvious enough. In the 1950's, the idea of the writing workshop had barely cracked its eggshell, but now there are over two hundred such programs in the United States, and if we suppose that each of them annually turns out ten highly trained, highly qualified, degree-certified fiction writers, that's two thousand a year, and in ten years, twenty thousand . . . If all those people bought my book, I'd be set! . . . But they don't. They are busy trying to publish and sell their own books.

Talk about preaching to the choir. Even the choir won't listen. The singers are unruly, jostling each other, each of them eager for the rest to shut up, already, so that he or she can solo.

But there is a deeper cause, rooted in the American character, such as it is. In its laws, its culture, its ideology, and its "values," the United States has from its beginnings been inclined to set the individual above all. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights. Self-actualization and self-expression are rights.

Now, because the American ego is very strong, the individual American writer almost always intends, at the beginning of whatever text, to write a masterpiece. English and European writers (at least some of them) are apt to take a more modest journeyman's approach to the making of literary objects, but the American writer will always be trying for large importance, the Big Book, the Big Story. This consistently high level of ambition leads to ruin often enough, particularly when unaccompanied by talent or anything of interest to say, but it is a large and powerful engine for a national literature all the same. That engine has in fact made American literature the most vital and dynamic in the world, for the duration of the American Century . . . you know, the one that just ended.

Where that takes us is where we are now: a cacophony of everyone talking and nobody listening, everyone writing and nobody reading. Anarchy. It can't go on forever that way. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse on itself, a big, dark, bottomless sinkhole.

Meanwhile, I rather like being an anarchist. It makes life less tiresomely predictable. There will be surprises, agreeable or not.

George Garrett, the old fox, once told me, re the literary scene, "The more pluralism there is, the better it is for everybody." It's true. And in spite of all those homogenizing forces there is a lot of pluralism, a lot of variety now.

For this issue of
Ploughshares, I read my ration of dully competent short stories, degree-certified fiction, weary old workshop work. I also read more vital, arresting, unusual stories than the issue has room to print. Enough to suspect that there is a lot of germination going on down there where print hasn't seen it yet.

The shape of fiction to come has become a popular magazine agenda toward the close of the century -- as presented in
Granta a few years back, and more recently in
The New Yorker. The collection of stories in this issue isn't meant to be anything like that. It is a cross-section of the best material that happened to come my way, but maybe as good a sample and indicator as any other such aggregate.

There are signs and signals of a culture in a period of anarchic upheaval. Men are writing in the voices of women; whites in voices of blacks -- that sort of thing was quite recently against all the rules, but the rules are dissolving, and so much the better. We have in one story an episode of prescience and mental telepathy still more startling than the tornado of speed and violence in which it is set. We have the antique goddess Diana, manifested in the person of a crack addict. A couple of stories are downright surreal, while others catch and hold you just as hard by the insistent urgency of their voices. For my own part, I was captured by voice more than anything else, and especially by certain narrators who turn outward, bend the bars of the cage of rules which holds them in the text, peer out at us, demand that we look at them and listen to their tales.

That is the American way, that commanding egoism of the individual voice: Listen! Listen! Listen to me! For literary artists it is both strength and self-destructive weakness. But there is still enough strength in it to carry us into the third millennium, though exactly how far, or where, we cannot say.

The century's close is not, particularly, the end of anything. It would be silly to think so. Better to think that the year 2000 is just one more in the round of years. The last leaf has to let go in the end, but when it has, you can look for a greening. There'll always be one more way to tell a story.