I see many indie authors, and even traditionally published genre authors, disparage the concept of literary fiction or classics. SF novelist Larry Correia has a blog post discussing classic novels. His argument is that classics are merely classics because English professors decide they are. Clearly, Mr. Correia is a successful author and Ezra Pound and James Joycehas many fans. I even agree with some of his premise; high school English instruction is often terrible and the books are often boring, as I touched on at the beginning of my reading list. I had a terrible experience my senior year of high school with my AP Literature teacher. I might write about it one day, but the short version is similar to what Correia addresses: contrived themes and awful book selection. However, the way fiction is taught in schools should not invalidate the concept of Great Books. The fact that Ovid and Virgil‘s writings still exist from the Roman Empire is a testament to lasting works, or much more famously Homer’s Odyssey.
The problem I see with this line of thought is the idea that there is no such thing as insightful, meaningful fiction, that there is nothing to be gained from reading novels or stories other than entertainment. Many books, stories I’ve enjoyed over my life, are just entertainment. Throughout high school I read the science fiction Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy series. Very entertaining, very well written, but not quite on par with one of the best SF novels ever written, Starship Troopers. Heinlein portrays a realistic, gritty depiction of military training and operations through an SF setting. It is, I believe, a highly literary work. It is not always a ‘page turner,’ but it is very insightful; whereas the Horus Heresy books were page turning military SF thrillers. I do not even necessarily like one over the other. I recognize Heinlein as a better, deeper writer, but not at the expense of the Horus Heresy authors. Like anything else, there are varying qualities to everything.
Postmodernism has soured the concept of Great Books in people’s minds. In 2001, B.R. Meyers diagnosed the problem in contemporary literary fiction in “A Reader’s Manifesto,” lashing out at its obtuse and pretentious conventions. A couple of years ago, I picked up The Luminaries, which had won the Booker prize; I incorrectly assumed the prize indicated a good story, not boring overwritten prose. Writers like Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace (whom I respect as a general intellectual), and William Gass have turned the focus of alleged literary fiction from good storytelling with a focus on characters’ internal journey to novels where the language itself is the focus. It strikes me as an imitation of Joyce or Faulkner without the attention to story either had. It is not difficult fiction in the way that Joyce was truly avant garde and experimental for his time or how Faulkner captured the American South both in content and style. Rather, it is just style without content.
The other side to literary fiction is that of the dry, boring novel in which nothing happens, which leaves you the asking “So what?” I must confess that the times I’ve read The Paris Review its fiction has left me like this. Much of it is competently written and keeps me engaged, but leaves me wondering why I spent the time to read it. It is the kind of fiction produced in Creative Writing programs. I have written on this subject before. The writers cannot stray into the territory of historical or fantastic, or anything that would take the story out of a contemporary setting, lest it becomes ‘genre’ fiction. The Sun Also Rises was contemporary fiction in its time, as was most of Hemingway’s work, but his work does not leave you with a “so what?” feeling. The institutionalization of Creative Writing and subsequent promotion of the kind of stories it produces as ‘higher’ fiction is the reason many people stick to James Patterson or EL James. MFA program fiction is designed to please a professor; modern American education is not centered around competition or risk taking. It is designed for students to complete assignments to the standards of the institution, and those standards are woefully low.
Artistic movements are organic and emerge at different times and places for specific reasons unique to that time and place. Modernism emerged out of the early twentieth century and exploded in 1920s Paris; we will never see a movement exactly like that again, just as we will never see Romanticism again. As far as a new movement for quality, truly literary fiction is concerned, it is not going to come out of the MFA programs or New York publishing houses. I am confident that indie publishing will facilitate such a movement. It is far too soon to tell what it might be.
When I say literary fiction, I do not mean the pretentious, pseudo-intellectual stories I’ve brought up. I mean novels and stories that have a focus on characters’ internal journey as they deal with the events of the story, or stories that have insight into life. Entertainment is fine. I love entertainment as much as anyone else, but I aspire as a writer to create stories that serve more than just that. I may be idealistic or full of hubris, but I hope there are others out there that want to write stories that entertain and appeal to something higher.