I had a crisis concerning today's book section. Why are the stories so small? Life in a small New England town? Life in a rural post office? Life on an apple farm? Don't get me wrong, writers like Marilynne Robinson are among my favorites, and she delivers quiet, invisible-from-the-sidewalk rural domestic drama like Brett Favre delivers touchdowns. And if further developments from Yoknapatawpha County became available, I will stand in line.
But why is it all like this? What happened to the big subject? I realize I'm mostly talking about great war books: Andersonville and The Naked and the Dead, big political subjects: All the King's Men, and what today you would call pseudo-celebrity books: The Great Gatsby.
Now we have the small subject. I think the issue is genre. As in, we have so freaking many now. Perhaps it's the mega-bookstores. They have to divide their shelves somehow. Perhaps it's that no bookstore that wants to stay in business will put up a section saying "hey, this is good, read this instead of the one you came in to buy!" in case the majority of their customers want the biblical conspiracy bestseller instead. About all you will encounter along that line is the dog-eared shelf notes in independent book stores announcing "Pete Recommends!" And then you just hope that Pete isn't the kid snapping his gum at the front register.
It's marketing and sales. Bookselling for a big outfit is not about serving frequent readers so much as it is about making it easy for infrequent readers to participate in whatever the current cultural phenomena might be. We can be lucky that books still play any part in that dynamic. If "everybody" is reading a certain book, it has to be on the front table, ready for easy consumption. And then the writing has to allow it to be easily consumed.
So the writers of genre novels have been packaged out of literary fiction. I adore genre writers who write well. Heck, some of them are great. I mentioned Anne Rice yesterday, who has written some passages I still remember and revisit. But my concern is that fiction is being Balkanized. Face it, if you have a string of genre bestsellers under your belt, how hard do you have to work at your writing? At what point is that a waste of time, when your next deadline is in six months? We all know stories of writers who hire "coauthors," credited or uncredited, who do the not-so-heavy lifting in the books they churn out two or three or more times a year.
I suppose I've come around to my earlier post about celebrating the bad books that earn money to support the rest, but I've also drifted from my opening question: why is literary fiction, particularly contemporary American literary fiction, all set in Lake Woebegone?
One interesting aside: this limitation seems to be avoided in Europe by writers like Umberto Eco, Ali Shaw, and Susanna Clarke, who are exploring fantastic and supernatural storylines and remaining on the literary fiction shelves. A trend worthy of watching, reading, and celebrating. They are shockingly high-concept...
So what about America, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average? A couple of things. There's the cultural egalitarianism (I don't want to finger the rabid and malignant self-esteem movement that makes all books equal, except I just did). Go in the bookstore once a year, pick up whatever is on the front table in the tallest pile, buy it, and you're a reader, and if you say it's the best book you read this year the store buyers are listening.
I will also blame short story prejudice. There's a small population of writers who can get short stories published in the important magazines and journals. If your name isn't Annie Proulx or Tobias Woolf or whoever, don't bother sending your short story to The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. No soup for you. And what do editors say about publishing short story collections? Get them published in the big magazines first. You see the problem.
So what if you're a great writer and you have a bunch of ideas for short stories that will never see the light of day? Well, you are going to be told one thing: Write a Novel. So those ideas that could find full flesh in ten or twenty pages are now going to press in 250. You're good, so you can pull it off, and I will buy it, read it, and love it. You didn't want to turn your excellent idea for a war story into a novel and end up in the military fiction section. So it's the post office story.
Yes, there are exceptions. I loved Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, about the Vietnam War. The qualifiers here? Iowa Writers' workshop, published short stories, short story collection, film adaptation, then Tree. Heck, he was even born in Germany, although I believe he now lives in Lake Woebegon.
At the end of this tome, the conclusion is that we are looking at the return of the short story, but in long form. Ladies and gents, I give you the revenge of the itty bitty.