The Blog

A Future for Fiction? Finding a Home for Young Writers

originally published by The Los Angeles Review
reprinted with permission of Red Hen Press

This is no fiction: we are a generation of writers struggling to find a home in a changing literary landscape. While the business of bookselling has undoubtedly changed (Farewell, beloved bookstore!), equally in flux are the aesthetics of the genre itself. Few seem capable of agreeing upon what to deem “good” anymore, leaving commercial publishing to rely upon the flawed formula of “good equals profitable”—a distinction that has proven problematic to any work missing the obligatory vampire or wizard.

This gulf between aesthetic uncertainty has led many younger fiction writers (myself included) to ask what we might do as we face an unclear future. Are we to reach desperately for our wands and wooden crosses, or rather, venture gallantly into an unknowable, and perhaps unpublishable, terrain.

The answer, it seems, is neither.

After reading four newly released books of fiction (all of which showcase writers between the ages of 26-32), I’ve begun to see a theory emerge, one which argues that the future of the genre hovers between two possibilities: to continue tweaking the grand tradition of literary excellence, or to throw out convention altogether and begin the experiment anew.

Twenty-six year old JM Tohline has aligned himself with the torchbearers of tradition. In fact, his torchbearing is so complete that his debut novel, The Great Lenore (Atticus Books, 2011) feels an awful lot like a book we’ve already read. Its stylistic, structural and thematic similarities to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are uncanny (need I point out that both books have the word “Great” in the title?), though the resemblance hardly seems problematic to the author. Nor does it seem problematic to Tohline that many of his characters maintain a near one-to-one equivalency with Fitzgerald’s. Take Richard, Tohline’s writer’s-block-afflicted Nick Carraway, who becomes our keen observer to the recklessness with which the wealthy trample their love. And then there are the perpetrators of the crimes, most notably Jez, Gatsby’s understudy; Chaz, a pitch-perfect Tom Buchanan; and Lenore, a British Daisy. The similarities between the novels prompted critic Susan Green of the Washington Independent Review of Books to label Tohline’s work an “homage” to Gatsby, while Atticus Books markets it as a “throwback to authors of the Jazz Age.”

When asked to respond to accusations that he has “ripped off the stylistic grace and elegant form of F. Scott Fitzgerald…?” Tohline joked, “If one were to rip off a writer, who better than old Fitzy?” The young novelist goes on to offer his true defense, citing Homer’s The Odyssey as the foundational work for James Joyce’s Ulysses and claiming The Great Gatsby as his own “springboard” for Lenore. He acknowledges the similarities between structure and frame, calling them “borrowed and refurbished,” and concludes that while his novel was indeed modeled off Fitzgerald’s beautiful blueprint, The Great Lenore and The Great Gatsby are two “entirely different beasts.”

Yet much like Gatsby, Tohline’s “beast” is a purebred, a wholly conventional novel that fits neatly within the long tradition of first-person narrators dealing with the damages of excesses and unrequited loves. If Tohline takes a risk, it’s in his brazenness to base his novel so closely on such a recognizable work. Yet a consequence of Tohline’s Fitzgerald impersonation is that not all comparisons to Fitzgerald can be good. Stylistically, Tohline’s occasional overreach exposes the reader to various not-all-together-unique similes (“The room felt like a vacuum” and “She and Jez began to drift from each other like boats…”). Likewise, the author’s over dependence on personification (“The rain chased itself into the water” and “The flames licked the wood”) propels the book to the fringes of melodrama. Yet minor missteps and all, by book’s end, the young writer’s talents are so apparent that the reader has little interest in reading a second-rate Fitzgerald, preferring a first-rate Tohline, instead. As Green explains: “Now that he has retold Fitzgerald’s story, I look forward to the day he tells his own.”

It’s easy to chalk up such a snug fitting “homage” as a foible of Tohline’s youth.  And indeed, our fascination with the notion of a successful 26-year-old novelist seems to put him unfairly in the critic’s crosshairs. Yet Tohline’s vulnerability seems no different from other successful writers in his age group. When an interviewer from Atticus Press pointed out that some might consider Tohline “audaciously young to be a novelist” and asked if he feared “plateauing too early” he replied in ready agreement. “Yes. Do you want more than that? Yes. Yes. Yes.”[1]

Benjamin Percy, 32 years old and the unlikely granddaddy of the group, has long overcome the prospect of plateauing, authoring two short story collections, The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh, along with a novel, The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), with another on the way. Add to this a Whiting Writers Award and a Plimpton Prize and Percy’s status as a young, up-and-coming fiction writer seems embarrassingly out of date. His most recent novel, The Wilding, recounts a tale of nature gone awry—both in his characters’ human nature, as well as in the environment that surrounds them. When three generations of men embark on a wilderness hunting expedition, the grandfather, father, and son soon find themselves in a fight for survival. The hard-heartedness of the grandfather juxtaposed alongside the more innocent pairing of father and son causes clear rifts, with the innocents seeking opportunities to prove themselves men.

Like Tohline’s work, The Wilding, too, has drawn comparisons to another novel— most notably James Dickey’s Deliverance. Percy, like Tohline, acknowledges the comparison, preemptively addressing it by utilizing a line from Dickey’s novel as an epigraph to his own. He also confirms employing Deliverance as a model, believing the works’ shared theme of animalistic instincts provided a unique congruency. Yet another shared theme seems to be humankind’s unwelcome encroachment upon nature. In one memorable scene, Percy commands a great horned owl down an open chimney, sending his characters ducking for cover. The moral is clear: Sometimes it’s best for nature to stay in nature and for humans to stay in the house.

Despite these shared themes, Percy seems to have done a better job than Tohline in distancing himself from his model, particularly by employing an ensemble of unique, rotating narrators rather than breathing new life into old ones. While the book has its own share of struggles, by book’s end, Percy proves himself a different torchbearer than Tohline. For better or worse, while Percy clearly shares Dickey’s spark, he burns at his own unique temperature.

*

A counterweight to what I’ve called “conventional novels” are two works that fall deeper into the experimental realm. In the first, Sasha Fletcher’s debut novella, when all our days are numbered marching bands will fill the streets & we will not hear them because we will be upstairs in the clouds (mud luscious press, 2010) the author seems far more interested in snuffing out tradition’s torch rather than trying to bear it. The most obvious experiment is Fletcher’s weaving between genre, and in particular, his willingness to treat a novella like a bundle of prose poems. On a line level, the poetics are indisputable, though as a result, the narrative takes on an occasional murkiness. Yet the 26-year old Fletcher seems to understand that his expertise lies in the language, and what he sacrifices in narrative he makes up for in poetry. Fletcher revels in repetition (“In my bedroom is a door & that door goes straight to the ground & in that ground there is a hole & in that hole…”) as well as the labyrinthine riddles of language. However, after sifting through all the layers of dreamlike images, through all the talk of birds and fires and whales and oceans and water, the author stumbles across the simplest and most profound question of all: “What is it that we are doing here?”

Is his answer ultimately satisfying? Perhaps not, though his attempt at redrawing the boundaries of the genre manages a satisfaction all its own. Upon a second reading, Fletcher’s novella takes on the form of a kind of origami swan, though the more the reader unfolds, the more he wishes he’d left it untouched. Not everything, it seems, requires analysis. Sometimes the best riddles keep us wondering.

A second work tilting toward the experimental is Blake Butler and Lily Hoang’s co-edited anthology, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers (Starcherone Books, 2011). The anthology’s subtitle makes clear where it stands on the spectrum between conventional and experimental, the word “innovative” seeming to cry out This is something new! And it is. The book’s shtick—presenting a megaphone to “innovative” writers under the age of 30—offers, perhaps, the most complete picture of the current state of the young fiction writer, collecting a wide swath of data and allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions. Yet through all their collected works, Butler and Hoang’s selections point to a clear thesis: the future of fiction must, at least according to the subtitle, be innovative. Devin Gribbons’ “A Short Story” offers his take on innovation by providing a metafictional comic tale of a futile attempt at brokering Middle Eastern peace (“I wrote a story in which I solved all the problems in the Middle East. But only for a few seconds”), while Beth Couture’s excerpt from “Fur: An Autobiography” gives the reader vignette-like glimpses into a young girl’s abnormal coming-of-age (“When Mary turns thirteen, her sisters decide to shave her”). Yet for the many fine contributions, there are a few stories—we need not point fingers—whose uncertainty in their own objectives makes them difficult to defend.

However, one positive trait shared by most of these stories is the young writers’ continued effort to make the reader feel something through structure and language. Young writers, it seems, have fought hard to strip the world of melodrama, and as a result have shrouded emotion in the unlikeliest of places. Take Jaclyn Dwyer’s “Biography Of A Porn Star In Three Parts,” which relies upon a crime scene structure (Exhibits A, B and C) to recount the horrors of a young woman’s foray into the pornography industry. “Shadows waltz across our starlet’s moon-faced cheeks,” writes Dwyer, “fishhooked by three fingers in her face, stretching her skin to expose her treated teeth.” Dwyer’s raw prose syncs well with her debased character, and much to the author’s credit, sex has never looked quite so unsexy. Dwyer’s innovation lies in her successful failure to maintain the appropriate crime-scene-distance. In her version, the victim is a character, but so is the crime, leaving the reader blindsided by an unexpected depth of emotion.

And here’s another example—Joanna Ruocco’s “Frog”—a story of a plane crash survivor who spends her days peering into the ocean awaiting her rescue. But as the days pass with no rescuers in sight, the synapses of her brain begin transporting her to places both real and imagined. Ruocco’s innovation is apparent in her narrator’s slipstream recitation, the survivor’s attempt at carving an island between fantasy and reality, between concrete description and metaphor. One minute the survivor is on a beach and the next, a camping trip with an old boyfriend. Upon scooping up a handful of tadpoles in a nearby pond, the memory-conjured boyfriend observes: “The light makes the shape of a frog,” adding, “All the particles of the universe contain their full potential. Everything is vibrating towards perfection.” The stories in this anthology, too, seem to be vibrating toward perfection, even if all the vibrations have yet to be perfectly tuned.

While many of Blake and Hoang’s selections reflect similar innovations to those described above, at some point in the writing of this essay I began wondering if my compulsion to place “similar” and “innovation” in the same sentence might prove problematic. After all, inherent in the notion of “innovation” is the understanding that one can’t be innovative by doing the same thing twice. And yet sometimes—God bless us—fiction writers fall into the trap of repeating their own tricks. Perhaps that’s what makes finding a home for us so hard; all the best houses are already full.

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For generations, fiction writers have secured their futures by carrying out the sacred duty of tweaking the grand experiment, knowing that to do otherwise would be to refuse water to the once well-tended garden. Whether these tweaks manifest themselves as minor adjustments to the old models, as demonstrated by Tohline and Percy, or complete overhauls (as seen by Fletcher and the 30 Under 30 contributors), the young fiction writers’ continued struggle to push beyond the boundaries seems a bit of good news when taking the pulse of the genre. When dealing with innovation, an incomplete success is no failure, but rather, proof of the complexity of the task. And as long as young writers maintain the courage to embark upon this unmapped terrain, then the future—for readers—appears bright.

 


[1] Interview with Atticus Books, August 16, 2011.

Photo by Ginny on Flickr

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About B.J. Hollars

B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America—the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award—and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Tuscaloosa forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press in 2013. His short story collection, Sightings, is forthcoming next year from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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