THE GREAT AMERICAN BOONDOGGLE
(The Sad State of the American Short Story)
The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening?
Over the past ten years I have subscribed to a variety of American literary journals. Someone advised me to try reading Agni, where, so they said, some of the best fiction in the country was being published. I subscribed to Agni for two years and never found a single short story of genuine literary merit. With few exceptions the same was true of the other “literary” journals I read.
At times I was simply astonished by the winners of literary prizes. I would read the whole story and gasp with amazement. That story won a prize? That’s a story not even worth publishing. I also subscribed to One Story for a couple of years. Here, once again, since they publish only one story in each issue, you’d think their standards for what they accept would be high. Alas, their standards are low, and most of what they publish is hardly worth reading.
Sometimes I thought that part of the problem was me. I taught Russian literature for thirty years, so I cut my literary teeth on some of the best fiction ever published. Do modern writers publishing in the U.S. today simply have lower standards? Is it no longer cool to be ambitious, to want to write fiction with verve and panache, to aim for something entirely new and unique?
The standard pedestrian story, the kind of thing I cannot stand, is in the genre of what has come to be called “domestic literary fiction.” The characters are often middle-class Americans, caught up in their daily dramas of adultery or psychological trauma. The style is bland, straight realism, with few or no stylistic embellishments. The structure is often lax, with few narrative arcs, without a clear beginning, middle and end. There is no LITERATURE in these stories, and maybe I would be less offended by their omnipresence in every American journal I come across if they would just change the name: domestic fiction. Leave the ‘literary’ out. The stories would still be as egregiously dull and unimaginative, but at least they would no longer pretend to be literature.
I have subscribed to The New Yorker for forty years. I have not done a survey, but I suspect that at least half the stories published there are in the category of “domestic literary fiction.” Maybe it’s more like two thirds. In other words, the magazine widely considered the best repository of quality fiction in the whole country is publishing more dreck than good fiction. How many different fiction editors has the magazine gone through over that long time period? Wasn’t there a single one of them who could read fiction creatively? Lovers of literature should be up in arms and marching on New York, but nobody is. WHY NOT?
In the late eighties or early nineties The New Yorker started coming out with an annual “fiction edition.” For the first couple of times the yearly issue was wonderful, packed with interesting creative writing. John Updike, a survivor from the time period before the mass deterioration in fictional quality, was still publishing his stuff back then. But quite rapidly the business of the “fiction edition” went into decline. Look at this year’s offerings and you’ll find very little fiction. In lieu of fiction the regular contributors now write little autobiographical pieces about how they spent their vacations on beaches catching crabs as children.
Let’s take a couple of concrete examples to illustrate my point. Here is the beginning of a recent story in The New Yorker:
“Close to five hours on the train. And then twenty minutes by taxi from the station to the school. He would have time to call the lawyer, work through the options. He had the number of a consultant, in case Rowan needed to apply somewhere else. Maybe the school legally had to contact the college he’d got into, but Richard wasn’t sure. And maybe it wouldn’t come to that. The school wouldn’t want to make anything public. The thought calmed him—good, good. They were on his side, even if they had not said so in so many words: they weren’t stupid.”
Is there anything about this lead paragraph that makes the reader want to read on? I see practically nothing. Is there even a faint taint of literature here? None. So where was the appeal for the fiction editor of The New Yorker who decided to publish this? Does the story get better later on? Hardly. This is exactly the kind of fiction that my literature-loving doctor is not going to read.
In recent years foreign writers of English-language fiction have been frequently published in American literary journals. These are sometimes persons born abroad, sometimes persons born in the U.S. of recently immigrated parents. You might think, Well wonderful. Stories set in other countries, based on exotic foreign cultures, will bring novel and exiting verve to the American short story. Alas, it appears that large numbers of such writers have bought into the gruesome American tradition of mediocrity. Their characters may be African or Indonesian, but they are fully as humdrum as the American characters mired in “domestic literary fiction.”
Another recent story in The New Yorker, written by a Chinese-American writer, is set in China. It begins with three Americans, Adrian, Peter (Adrian’s boyfriend) and Bella standing outside a restaurant “famous for its Peking duck.” We have the beginnings of a story in which, perhaps, something will happen. Then nothing does. Adrian and Peter fly back to the States, and for the whole rest of the story the Chinese-American Bella agonizes over her past. As if creative writing courses have neglected altogether the idea of STRUCTURE in short fiction, the whole first page of the story goes wandering around in the pluperfect tense.
“Bella had known Peter for twenty-five years. They had shared a place with two other housemates in Boston when they were in law school, and for as long as they had been friends they had been talking about visiting China together.”
Why bother telling us this, since the visit to China together is already done (Peter has flown back to the U.S.)? The story is not about him; it is solely about hangdog Bella.
“Adrian was a writer, and he was working on ‘a multigenerational and intercontinental epic,’ based on his family history, and during the past two weeks the three of them had toured a number of towns on the East China Sea, sifting through local archives, tracing the untraceable.” Once again, if we are to have a story with Adrian in it, then write that story. As it is, all of this pluperfect summing up of things about Adrian serves no purpose. If you want a story about Bella’s tribulations why not just eliminate the whole first page? Thank God that at least we the readers are not forced to delve into Adrian’s “intercontinental epic.” This story about the divagations of Bella’s mind, however—even after we get rid of Peter and Adrian—goes nowhere and does nothing. Why did The New Yorker publish it?
And mind you, The New Yorker publishes fiction only from agented writers. If Lev Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov sent in their very best fiction unsolicited, it would receive zero consideration. So behind these writers and these stories there are literary agents, there is a history of grooming in some creative writing program at a university. You check out the author’s website on the internet, and, sure enough, she has a background in a creative writing program, in fact one of the most famous; she is a highly regarded writer who has won awards for her fiction. Why does this not surprise me? Well, it would have, back before I was aware of the present-day standards in mediocrity that are widely accepted all over the publishing world. All along the line there must be people who have encouraged and continue to encourage this kind of stagnant, dead writing. But WHY?
Once at a public reading a few years ago, a successful writer of short stories, quite well known, remarked, “When I was in an MFA program the only thing they allowed us to write was ‘domestic literary fiction.’” When I heard him say this I nearly rose up in rebellion and marched upon the proscenium where he stood. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that the problem of the American short story has its origins largely in the creative writing racket that flourishes all over American universities. Instructors in creative writing programs must publish their fiction in order to perpetuate their careers. Many of them write in the gruesome and unforgiveable genre of “domestic literary fiction.” They make names for themselves, they publish their stuff in the “literary” journals. They win awards for the dreck they publish. Even worse, they perpetuate the problem by encouraging their creative writing students to write the same way. How did they win the awards? Because the prizes are given out by other hopelessly mind-numbing writer/judges who write the same crap.
In other words, everyone—creative writing instructors, agents, publishers, arbiters of literary taste, and most readers—everyone has agreed to look at the king with no clothes on and not notice his nakedness. Why, I keep asking why, and I have already provided a few answers. Here is another: publishers still want to make money, and High Art has never been much for making money. What few readers of fiction that remain in the U.S. today are, largely, readers of the pap of which I speak. Probably a lot of them think that this is what real fiction is. As Donald Trump would say—if Trump were a reader of good fiction, or even a reader of anything—SAD.
The narrator of a recent novel by the Chinese émigré writer Ha Jin, The Boat Rocker, has this to say about restrictions on the Chinese writer of fiction in Red China: “those writers, every one of them, were talented but had to toe the line, not only on the page but also in their imaginations, because they received salaries from the state and could not afford to jeopardize their livelihoods.” You say, Yeah, that’s China, but there is no censorship in America. But haven’t writers of U.S. fiction, intent on making careers, sold out their imaginations in similar ways? Not sold out to the political pressures of the ruling government, but to the pressures of the ruling trends in mediocre writing.
I sometimes think that most people, deep, deep down, are most comfortable with mediocrity. Human nature is such that in any life’s endeavor things are so set up as to find a common denominator in the pedestrian. One amazing discovery that I made while a member of American Academia is that university professors are often little interested in creativity. While professing to be great lovers of the liberal viewpoint politically, many of them are pompously pedantic arch-reactionaries at the core. Don’t try to make things better by suggesting radical new ways of doing things in Academia; they will fight you tooth and nail.
Then again, take a look at the American “free press.” Why is it that U.S. media networks all run the same news on a given evening, and all with basically the same slant? Who is the backdoor operator organizing this everyday conformity of opinion? Why, for example, is there not a single news outlet giving us, say, the Russian view of the brouhaha concerning so-called “Russian interference” in the recent U.S. presidential election? Because the Russians are assumed automatically to be guilty, since the Russians are always the bad guys. Americans take psychological comfort in knowing there are always Russians around, to bear the brunt of all the badness. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hollywood was in a quandary for a time: who will be the bad guys in our movies now? Then they found the easy solution: although Russians aren’t communists anymore, they still are BAD.
Why, to take another example, did not a single news commentator anywhere question the veracity of reporting on the most recent gas attack in Syria (April, 2017)? President Trump sent in Cruise missiles to punish our favorite bad guy, Assad, but nobody stopped to think: you know, it simply makes no sense that Assad, or his Russian allies would be behind that attack on civilians. Just at the point when our new president was prepared to consider a new approach to Assad, BAM, another use of poison gas on civilians. It’s simply not believable, but, once again, it’s a comfort for Americans, who always prefer simple answers to complicated questions. And mediocrity. Take American beers, all brewed for beer drinkers with absolutely no taste, and all selling voluminously. Beer drinkers in Germany, Holland, England, etc., etc., take a taste of such a beer and say, “What? Americans drink THIS? And we elect Trump as our President.
As for The New Yorker, luckily there are a few bright spots in the fiction offerings. Offhand I’d say the magazine has five or six stories a year worth reading. This year I have appreciated Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story with its origins in The Lives of the Saints, “Christina the Astonishing,” and a story by Etgar Keret, “Fly Already”—true, this one is not by an American writer; it is translated from the Hebrew, but at least they published it. Acknowledged masters of American fiction make their way occasionally into the pages of The New Yorker. A recent issue featured “The Itch” by Don DeLillo, about a man caught up in the typical DeLillo malaise: “He was forty-four years old, trapped in his body. Arms, legs, torso. Face did not itch. Scalp developed something that a doctor gave a name to, but it itched only rarely, then not at all, so the name didn’t matter.” And so on, in the same vein. If you’re looking for the very best in DeLillo, try his magnificent comic novel, White Noise, one of the best pieces of American fiction of the twentieth century.
Another big exception is the writer George Saunders, who is also a contributor to The New Yorker and a participant in the grand boondoggle of the creative writing racket—he teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. The most recent of his stories I have read in The New Yorker is “Mother’s Day” (Feb., 2016), and it, once again, is wonderful, full of great humor and stylistic panache. Someone as creative as Saunders is certainly aware of the sad state of the modern short story, so why doesn’t he come out and say something about it? Well, why should he jeopardize his position in the pantheon by accusing his fellow writers of insipidity and fakery? That would make him appear ungrateful and arrogant.
In the same issue of The New Yorker containing the story of Bella, there is an article about the well-known writer of short fiction, Grace Paley, a writer of the domestic quotidian. “Paley initially suspected that her work would be considered ‘trivial, stupid, boring, domestic, and not interesting,’ but she couldn’t help it: ‘Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me.’”
What is the difference between Paley’s domestic fiction and the stifling domestic fiction that is rampant today? The main difference is that Paley’s fiction is WRITTEN. What does that mean? Take this example from one of her stories, “A Conversation with My Father,” a tale in which the eighty-six-year-old father of the narrator, sick in bed, asks her to entertain him with a story about “simple people.” Here is what she comes up with at first, a story that is NOT WRITTEN.
“Once in my time there was a woman and she had a son. They lived nicely, in a small apartment in Manhattan. The boy at about fifteen became a junkie, which is not unusual in our neighborhood. In order to maintain her close friendship with him, she became a junkie too. She said it was part of the youth culture, with which she felt so much at home. After a while, for a number of reasons, the boy gave it all up and left the city and his mother in disgust. Hopeless and alone, she grieved. We all visit her.”
The narrator’s old father then complains that she has left everything out of the story. How did the woman look? Who were her parents that she should end up like this? The next attempt by the narrator is WRITTEN. What makes it WRITTEN? See the passages I have italicized below.
“Once, across the street from us, there was a fine handsome woman, our neighbor. She had a son whom she loved because she’d known him since birth (in helpless chubby infancy, and in the wrestling, hugging ages, seven to ten, as well as earlier and later). This boy, when he fell into the fist of adolescence, became a junkie. He was not a hopeless one. He was in fact hopeful, an ideologue and successful converter. With his busy brilliance, he wrote persuasive articles for his high-school newspaper. Seeking a wider audience, using important connections, he drummed into Lower Manhattan newsstand distribution a periodical called ‘Oh! Golden Horse!’
“In order to keep him from feeling guilty (because guilt is the stony heart of nine-tenths of all clinically diagnosed cancers in America today, she said), and because she had always believed in giving bad habits a home where one could keep an eye on them, she too became a junkie. . . .”
The writer of the article Alexandra Schwartz goes on to say the following: “On the branches of the bare first draft, life begins to bud. Before the woman seemed delusional, pathetic. Now we see her goodness, her confused optimism, her protective love for her son. The narrator’s tone turns rueful, tender; a piece of gossip has become literature” (New Yorker, May 8, 2017, p. 67-68). Well, maybe not high art, but yes, literature, and why? Because it is WRITTEN.
Oh, that only Vladimir Nabokov were still around, with his high standards for what is good literature and his hound dog’s instinct for frauds and literary trash. I would advocate forcing the fiction editor of The New Yorker, plus the fiction editors of all the American “literary” journals—before they accept for publication another single story—to read all of Grace Paley’s fiction. If they don’t have time for that, let them read one story published in The New Yorker back before the advent of the Age of Egregious: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Here we have a mere five pages of sheer aching loveliness. Well, it too features an American domestic scene, describing an old Russian Jewish émigré couple; they live in an American city and have a grown son who is mentally ill.
But what a difference between Nabokov’s story and the pap/dreck that has long since become the new normal. What a plethora of lovely lines, what an amplitude of emotion! Read just this one story, modern-day writer of American fiction, and try to get at least a little bit ambitious! Forget everything they’ve told you back in those dismal creative writing courses.
Write something new and unique, try for something original. Then don’t send it anywhere until you’ve revised and polished it eight, ten, twenty fifty times—until it coruscates and gleams like a precious gem of lapis lazuli. Okay, we cannot all be Nabokov, but we can at least make an effort to transcend the dreck. Not interested in writing LITERATURE? Fine. Good. Go on writing the stultifying stuff, but don’t pretend that it’s literary.
The American Literary Establishment has recently been shaken up by the power of Amazon, frightened to the core by that power. I say good for Amazon, which does not have to indulge in the fakery of The Establishment, which has done some highly positive things for American Letters. Take, for one example, the thing of the editorial review. Amazon customer reviews now cut into the reprehensible practice of having establishment literary figures write automatic positive reviews for any writer who is already IN. This often makes for an interesting contrast. We no longer have to trust the editorial reviews, when on Amazon we can read often highly intelligent customer reviews of the same books. The editorial reviews for established writers, were they to give stars, would all be starred at 4.5 and 5.0. When the customer reviews for the same book are at 3.0, we suspect that the writer of the editorial review has been engaged in meretricious fakery.
Herein appended is the final section of a recent review I wrote of a novel by Elif Batuman, The Idiot. My jeremiad here resembles, in some respects, that above, repeats some of the same points, but comes at the discussion from a slightly different viewpoint.
Although Elif Batuman has published only two books, both relatively recently, she has already made it big time in the Eastern Literary Establishment. Many American writers would give their right writing hand to be where she already is. Ms. Batuman has a literary agent in the most prestigious agency in New York, she is a contributor/staff writer for The New Yorker. She has hotshot editors on high, and her books are reviewed at the highest levels: The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, etc. No matter how good or bad her next novel is, it will without doubt be favorably reviewed at the same high levels as The Idiot—not really a very good novel—has just been reviewed. That’s the way the game works, after you are accepted into the IN crowd.
So what Ms. Batuman needs to do at this point is stop listening to the hotshot establishment agents and editors and write something that is real literature. Unlike so many modern American writers, those who have come out of creative writing programs, she has taken the time to read the great writers; she knows what literature is. For her first novel I can imagine the agent telling her, “Stick to the timeworn pattern, don’t get far away from realism, describe the everyday life of a girl who resembles yourself. Write ‘domestic literary fiction,’ for this is what sells in America. Don’t get too cute in your first published work. Nobody needs too much creativity.” So she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her days at Harvard. Okay, she has listened to that spiel once, but now that she is in with the in crowd, she can write whatever kind of fiction she likes. She should.
Elif Batuman is aware of the vast wasteland that is the creative writing industry in the U.S. How do I know? Because in her nonfiction work, The Possessed (something of a companion work to The Idiot), she expresses strong opinions about that puerile racket. Just beginning her creative life, she drops in on a writing workshop on Cape Cod, where the lead guru tells her, “If you want to be an academic, go to graduate school; if you want to be a writer come here.” The implication is that you need not even read and discuss the great writers of the past. Instead you sit around reading and critiquing short stories by pedestrian writers who have read, largely, other pedestrian writers. Who, furthermore, buy into deadening trends like “political correctness” in fiction. Who actually worry about offending people. Great writers are often eager to offend people.
Here’s what Franz Kafka said on that subject. “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply . . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” He’s talking LITERATURE, fellow Homo sapien. And AMBITIOUS writing.
“For many years [goes on Elif Batuman], I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism. In 2006, n + I magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod” (The Possessed).
“I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft.’ . . . . I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.”
This critique of the modern American short story goes on for two more pages and concludes as follows:
“Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.”
Domestic literary realism. Urggh.
This revelation—that the “best stories” written in the U.S. in 2004 and 2005 (and, alas, any other recent year) are bad stories—should open the eyes of the writing world. But given that the whole writing industry and publishing enterprise prefers to proceed with eyes shut, nothing essentially will be changed. In creative writing programs all over the U.S. “creative writers” teach their students to value the same twaddle. After which the students graduate, get positions as creative writing instructors, and perpetuate the problem. The best solution would be to abolish all creative writing departments in every university in the country. Then ban the genre of “domestic literary fiction.”
When I am elected President, I will issue an executive order to that effect. Dream on.
But what about the good writers? you may ask. Some good writers come out of creative writing programs. Fine, but we need not worry about the good ones. They will find their own way; they have no need of people encouraging mediocrity and feeding them platitudes: “show, don’t tell,” and “you can’t use adverbs.”
As is obvious, however, Elif Batuman is already aware of the Vast Egregious Boondoggle that is the contemporary American short story. I’m sure she is also aware that the people interested in selling books—her agent, her editors, all of the establishment literary world—would prefer that her next novel stay with realistic characters and pedestrian plots. She is in a position now to defy those agents and editors. Write something new, vivid, vital now, Elif. Something ambitious, something with literary panache. Write us a piece of LITERATURE.
–U. R. Bowie, author of Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams, 2016