I’m not a fan of Literary Fiction. Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing. It’s the concept car of fiction, pushing the envelope and helping to define how the field operates. It’s what my favorite creative writing teacher (though possibly my least favorite, I have two separate people in my head to which I want to attribute this quote) called, Literature with a Capital L. It’s also my least favorite thing to read, because of what I, as an uncultured barely hominid raccoon-person uncharitably call, “the tendency to sound like the author has a noseful of their own farts.” Read As I Lay Dying and try to tell me you actually enjoy it, even if you find it to be artfully crafted.
Recently while arguing with another straight white male about the state of fiction as a field, during which the phrase was actually (I swear) uttered to me, “you can’t get published anymore as a straight white male.” My response was to laugh and list what at the time was the most recent thing I’d read (Nick Cutter’s, The Deep) which, spoiler alert, was written by a white dude. We kept drilling down into it, and ultimately came to the understanding that he didn’t mean all writing was Diverse with a Capital D, but that Literary Fiction, his favorite things to read, was. I was pretty unmoved by this complaint for a couple of positions I maintain:
- The vast majority of historically Literary Fiction is white, straight, and male
- What sells is a reflection of culture, and culture wants diverse voices
- Diversity of voices is critical to dynamism and keeping art alive
- Many Literary Fiction writers who to our eyes now are classics (Hemingway, Vonnegut, Kesey) became acclaimed for their ability to give voice to those in their generations who felt unheard, and it is necessary if you want your work to be heard to reflect the culture for which you write
I don’t often try to write or read Literary Fiction because it’s not what motivates me or makes me passionate about writing or reading. If I want to know how other people live and the terrible struggles they endure, I will usually read non-fiction, and I will often relate to their struggles through Genre Fiction. This is what motivates me and gets me hot under the collar to exist and keep going. I think that Genre Fiction can do everything Literary Fiction can do in terms of motivating readers and helping them to relate to their lives. This is especially true if you’re young, a time during which guidance and inspiration are critical. I think about being a young, unpopular kid and reading Harry Potter (current author behavior not-withstanding) and how much it made me feel like I too could be special, could struggle on, and could defeat the overwhelming odds I saw stacked against me, real or imagined. It is my opinion that these are the most important stories we read: the Lord of the Ringses, the Harry Potters, the Shannaras, the things that help us hold up a candle in defiance, that no shadow can snuff out. My company went through two brutal rounds of layoffs last year, and I barely survived while two close coworkers and friends of mine did not. The culture at the company I enjoyed took a bruising, and I wound up with a totally different job than the one for which I was hired. As I white knuckled through the window during which I could possibly expect a phone call of my own, I thought for inspiration of Captain America standing in defiance of Thanos’ army more than I thought about Robert DeNiro doing something terrible to someone else in a Scorcese movie, regardless of what that director thinks of popcorn-heavy Marvel fiction.
I like to think I’m a curious person though. After our argument, I downloaded three Audible copies of three Hemingway books we talked about: The Old Man & The Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Sun Also Rises. For Old Man it’s a revisiting of a high school read to which I paid little attention (see: high schooler) and for the other two it will be my first read. If you’ve made it this far, Intrepid Cannonballer, read on, for my take on The Old Man & The Sea as Literary Fiction, how it relates to modern Literary Fiction, and how my lens [cough bias cough] of coming to the work after the kind of academic argument on Diversity with a Capital D that can only be had between two well-off straight white dudes who have the privilege of viewing the struggles of seeking to bring Diverse voices to a broader audience through the ultimate well-off straight white dude lens, i.e. how it affects them.
It will be long and rambly because I’m writing it in one go and not Editing with a Capital E.
It is remarkably well written.
What a revelation: Hemingway wrote well. Gasp. One of my favorite writing tricks however is what another author I met once, Ivan Doig, called Crystalline Details. These are details about the story that tell you significantly more than just “the curtains were blue.” For Doig’s writing, these are details like a character seeking a bar stool “shaped over time to match their own rump,” which tells us the character is a regular at the location, with a favorite spot, where they spend enough time to shape it on a glacial time scale. For Doig as a person, my favorite detail was when he told my Mom, the librarian who put together his speaking visit: that he wants dinner at, “A steakhouse, not a restaurant that serves steak, a steakhouse.” This paints Doig as: salt of the earth, red blooded meat eater, opinionated, demanding, probably a Good Old Boy.
Hemingway called this his Iceberg Theory, a theory of minimalism honed in his time as a journalist, where what’s implicit is more important than what’s explicit. We see this in the careful detail around how the Old Man fishes: tactics, strategy, instinct, experience. The Old Man is an expert, an absolute master of his craft, in spite of these words never being said. He’s also fallen on hard times, with details around, for example, the more successful fishermen having motor boats and drift nets. We can assume through implicit storytelling that these tools both make them successful, and perhaps drained the local waters the Old Man can reach in his small skiff, causing the hard times upon which he has fallen. It also gives us another implicit detail: he’s stubborn, in that he’s refused to modernize, he has a poet’s heart about the sea, and he would apparently rather slowly starve than lose the intimacy of his craft. On the subject of the work’s poetry:
It still smells its own farts.
The parts of this story that had me gripped were the intricate details of how the old man fished, the dire times he’d fallen on, the love the Boy had for him, and his strength and intrepidness as he seeks to catch and then defend his prize fish. What had me rolling my eyes were the description of The Sea as being as beholden to the moons as a woman is, and the rhapsodizing about how he and the fish are brothers. Is this just bias? Were I reading a story from a Native American author about the cultural closeness between a hunter and its kill, the appreciate that comes from the gifts of the land, would I be less flippant? Very possibly. I have my own biases of course and will never fully overcome them, just hopefully tamp them down enough to get the point on occasion. Would this story work, would it be the Literary gem that it is, without this attempt at a poetic passage that did so little for me? Truly impossible to say, but it does get to the heart of why I care more about Genre Fiction than Literary Fiction: story, story, story. The story that’s being told in The Old Man & The Sea is that of a Cuba native struggling with a changing world and a dying way of life. That speaks to me in spite of it being a story foreign to my own, it is well told, and if the points I disliked were gone with a Thanos Snap I doubt I’d care. Also, relatedly:
The Old Man & The Sea is a diverse story.
Obviously it was written by lily-white Hemingway, but it is telling the story of an old man in Havana, where Hemingway lived for a while, and there is enough verisimilitude that I think it must have been written by experience of things Hemingway saw, learned, and lived. It also was published in 1952. This was less than 10 years before Cuba became Castro’s Cuba, at which point the country becomes synonymous with Communism with a Capital C for the next 60+ years. There was print media, news, but no internet, no TikTok or Twitter for people to tell their own stories through citizen journalism. I would assert that the diversity of storytelling that this brought, at the time it brought, made it a new voice to the same degree as the new voices and tales being spun directly through our culture’s seeking of Diverse voices now.
This is where, were I still at the bar table having my argument, I imagine the next thing I’d hear would be, “It would never get printed today.” With all due respect to the arguing party in my head: who gives a fuck? It exists. It was picked up by Audible who hired Donald Sutherland to read it. It was crammed down my throat in high school. Nobody wants to burn it or take it away, they just want enough seats at the table so that we can hear the voices who, for the rest of Literary Fiction’s entire history, were, gasp, not printed. Seinfeld might not get made today either, but it also still exists and can be enjoyed, and also can be looked at through a modern lens and squinted at in places. If you want to be timeless, you must adapt with the times, like the Seuss company did when they took a hard look at their catalog, found several things that might not reach the broad and diverse audience they wanted, and proactively decided it was better to audit their collection of some pretty gross imagery than to lose their sheen as appropriate for all children. And for anyone who thinks this is a modern occurrence unique to the Twitter Age and its screeching, ill-defined and nebulous squads of Cancel Activists: did you know that Seuss wrote an all-nude book about a family of Lady Godivas, aimed for an adult audience? Probs not, because the Seuss company already did what they’re catching flak for now in the past, because culture is dynamic and alive, and to be so requires change.
So now that you’re at the end of my TED Talk, what do? We continue to need Literary Fiction. That is true whether it be the historically monochrome writers of yore or the more Diverse writers of today. Literary Fiction informs how we write, and thus what we will read, and we need it like we need concept cars which never see the actual road, because of the envelope they push. Especially if you want to be a writer, it is my opinion (cribbed whole cloth from for sure the good creative writing teacher) that you must read everything. You must read Hemingway, you must struggle through a night in the sleeping bag full of nails that is reading Faulkner, you must have your bodice ripped by Danielle Steele, and you must read horrible self-published fiction that convinces you you can do a better job than this shmuck. Literary Fiction will continue to exist, culture will continue to evolve, and we all must learn to handle change.
But also you must do things. I am certain once again that the good creative writing teacher (the more I ramble on the more convinced it was the bad one who said Literature with a Capital L. Ptooie. Good riddance.) is the one I remember pausing mid-lecture to ask for a show of hands as to who is planning on seeking a Masters in Fine Arts after getting their English BA. I was the only hand down, being a Psych major, cha-ching big money. The good teacher went on to say he advised every one of us to abandon the path to an MFA. What we are doing, as academics, he said, is training an incredible collection of writers who have nothing to talk about, no life experiences of which to write. At the time I thought he was being brutal, but now I agree: I’ve worked a couple factory jobs, social work in mental health, and now computer science. The only short story I’ve had published was about my factory work, and the experience in mental health gave me the material to write my first, still unpublished novel-length piece. Hemingway lived the adventurer’s life, and had he not, we’d very likely have yet another incredible voice telling a fantastic story about nothing. It is critical, as a writer, that you live in order to have stories to tell, because failing to do so will hamper your progress significantly more than will the imagined yoke around your neck burdening you with straight while maleness. A generation of Literary Fiction coming from MFA-trained writers who’ve lived and functioned only within academia is how you get a suspiciously broad library of masterfully crafted stories about bitter academics struggling with a nose of their own farts and a crushing desire to cheat on their wife with their teenage TA. Write what you know, after all.