Monday, 7 March 2011

Is literary fiction the new poetry?

Gary Shteyngart, the New York satirical novelist, appeared in Glasgow on Saturday at the Aye Write Festival.  I hope he felt it was worth his while. I reckon the crowd was in the 20s, and although a well  informed bunch (several had definitely already read his book Super Sad True Love Story) I couldn't help but feel that crossing the Atlantic to speak to such small numbers of potential customers wasn't particularly efficient. (That said, he was doing a mini tour of lit fests and the like, so perhaps the numbers did add up. And I'm sure the publisher picked up the expenses.)

During the talk he alluded to a Jonathan Franzen comment that "literary fiction is the new poetry". It was part of a discussion that touched on his own role as a professor of creative writing at Columbia University. Somebody asked him what his students write.

Shteyngart's novel bemoans the fact that America and the west is becoming post literate, that people are surfing the web and posting pix on Facebook rather than settling down to a good book. Or any book. Literary fiction, he observed, was increasingly only being read by the people who write it. In other words, literary fiction was becoming a bit like poetry.

OK, there are exceptions (see my earlier post on the poetry slam...), but this struck a chord with me. Shteyngart said a lot of his students write novels that are concerned with language. He also points out that as 21-year-olds (in the main) their scope, in terms of the subjects they can discuss, roam from language to divorced parents in Westchester County.

It begs the question, why are they studying creative writing at all? Why are they writing about... other writing... instead of getting out there and seeing a bit of the world? Why aren't they studying medicine so they can go work for the Red Cross? Or engineering so they can build bridges, or cars, or ships? They could come back and write novels once they have done these things, and perhaps then they might have something to say. Why are they using up their valuable student dollars learning how to write books that only a few dozen people might read?

OK, they are chasing the dream: the dream that they will be special, the next Zadie Smith/Martin Amis/Whoever. I, of all people, can hardly blame them for that. In terms of craft, writing novels isn't something you can just do. You do have to work at it, often full time, and focus on it. But is 21 the time to do it?

Of course, by being students they are affording writers like Shteyngart a nice income to fall back on when they are not writing novels. Giving him the freedom to write the novels he wants, rather than the ones that sell  in numbers big enough for him to have a comfortable lifestyle.

There is nothing wrong with all this, but it underlines something to me. If literary fiction, or fiction of any kind, is to have a place in the world - and win a significant, profitable audience amidst all the chatter of the TV, Internet and movies - it has to say something. It's not enough to write a novel about language, or to do something experimental with narrative. You've also got to grab your reader and the way to do that, more often than not, is to write a really good story.

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