Aphorisms and Asides on States of American Fiction

by strannikov

            The second anniversary of Quillette's 7 January 2020 piece “National Book Foundation Defines Diversity Down” (byline: Kevin Mims) is upon us. The piece seems not to have been overread or much remembered over the interim, but American readers and writers have been occupied with other matters.


            From the Wikipedia entry for “American Academy of Poets”: “In 1984, Robert Penn Warren noted that ‘To have great poets there must be great audiences, Whitman said, to the more or less unheeding ears of American educators. Ambitiously, hopefully, the Academy has undertaken to remedy this plight.'”


            Today's American “literary culture” is the offspring of the academic captivity that has been strangling literary enterprise and publishing for entire decades. The US academic MFA industry in scant decades has become little else than an all-but-hermetically sealed echo chamber.

            Nevertheless, a “cultural dam” could yet break in this country over the coming decade, after which publishers' preferences for selling fictions they want to see told and sold will no longer dominate what writers decide they need to write in order to speak to the world or to their own culture at large.


            These are challenging times even for writers of fiction who have not been throttled or misled by MFA commissariats.

            Literary fiction's low status on the American scene is likely linked to the guilty perception that “literature” is inherently anti-democratic because its reception entails patriarchal diktats of canon, traditional fiats of masculine (heterosexual) subject matter, and (neo-)colonialist impositions of literacy requiring some degree of literate-ness (beyond sub-literacy and illiteracy), which itself entails odious things like acquaintance with “literary history”, “canon”, “literary accomplishment”, and “substance” (degrees of insight and incisiveness beyond popular, pedestrian categories of “sincerity” and idealist imperatives of “empathy”).

            Any American serious about literature knows he can dispense safely with academic categories when it comes to reading fiction, so perhaps serious American students of literature will yet come to remember that at some point they must dispense with academic categories when it comes to writing fiction.


            Juvenal claimed up front that his historical milieu compelled him to write his satires. As the tricentennial of Swift's Gulliver approaches, the practice of literary satire in the US thus appears, by contrast, remarkably invisible. That Edward St Aubyn's 2014 British satire on Man Booker Prize productions never gained the American audience it deserved begins to show just how captive “American literary minds” are to the dazzling worlds of literary prizes and literary awards and literary celebrity, to the virtual exclusion of writing visceral prose or compelling works of arresting and atypical insight. (Granted: America has no “literary celebrity culture” to speak of because of the low status mere fiction enjoys compared to pop music, sports, video dramas, all manner of glib internet and prurient streaming fare, and video gaming, which thrive themselves at least in part because Americans accept with ill-founded serenity adult illiteracy and sub-literacy rates afflicting almost 40% of the American adult population.)


            “Best seller” is a marketing term native to the publishing industry: it is not a functional literary term. (From Cousin Flannery's “Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “. . . very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing.' They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what. And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and about markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable.” [Her remarks bear directly on the character of practically every American MFA program in business today.])


            If American baccalaureate degrees in English alone fail to equip aspiring writers with the polish they want or need to commence their writing lives, America's baccalaureate programs are all failing much more conspicuously than our post-secondary and post-graduate institutions are advertising (surprise, surprise).

            Academic literary commissariats are instead keen to “credentialize” writing, in cahoots with the publishing industry itself, to offer and instill sham “professionalism” so that more commercial fictions suiting identified markets (with marketed and marketable styles) can be sold through Amazon.

            Alas! No MFA program can equip writers with experience worth writing about (apart from unpublishable satires of MFA programs and their sponsors), but MFA programs do equip writers to participate in fawning cults of literary celebrity, to establish and maintain “professional” networking connections, and to gush over the unmemorable drivel and unreadable bilge that routinely is published and marketed and sold.

            Writers of merit need no credentials, period: they need only exhibit an ability to write and to bring their experience of life and their imaginations to their experience of writing in the attempt (however vain) to contribute an illumination or the glimmer of a perspective that can add to the perspective of the famished reader.


            Even if it is not in fact dead, the sclerotic Great American Novel deserves to be buried. (The European novel itself may well ail, but Europeans have to deal belatedly with James Joyce's final works at least as much as American writers must: Joyce ably exploded the form of long fiction in English, if not also in every language that he contributed to Finnegans Wake.)

            The fictional form with the deepest living roots in American soil remains short fiction: flash fiction (fable or feuilleton, parable or tale, aphorism or anecdote, gnomic prose or slice-of-life) has barely begun to emerge in print and has hardly been recognized or appreciated in its generic aspect, so its earnest and dedicated practitioners still have much work to do.

            Perhaps possibly maybe over the coming decade American novellas of 100-140 pp. max will fill in intermediate fictional gaps for those keen to feed specifically literary imagination.

            Bresson: “Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can with the most cannot, inevitably, with the minimum” and “The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows.” (Griffin, tr.) Now that our days continue to grow short, remember Callimachus.


            If, as American publishers tell us with their dubious lists of released titles, American literary satire has no market to enjoy: where have competent, contemporary American literary critics all gone? If they have careers presently, they are being consulted only by cosmopolitan provincials, not by the actual, mere provincials whose tastes are being neither consulted nor informed.