One of the greatest dangers in my going to any kind of literary conference (or, if I’m being honest, to the book store) is the sheer quantity of books I’m likely to lug home. Even if I’m trying to budget, I’m likely to come back laden down with titles. Even at my poorest times in my life, owning books was a priority. I’d willingly eat top ramen for the foreseeable future if it meant I had books in hand. Coming back from the AWP conference in Chicago, then, it wasn’t a surprise that my bags were far overweight, and that the good people of the O’Hare Airport were treated to the sight of my crouching awkwardly on the ground, rearranging my luggage until I could get the heaviest books in my carry-on. You don’t even want to know about the process of getting that carry-on into the overhead bin.
I’ve been delightedly working my way through that tower of books and literary journals in the days since returning home. Because I’ve been thinking so much about fiction lately (which is, I suppose, appropriate: I’ve been working through revisions to my novel-in-progress this week), I dove into the novels first.
And then I was very confused.
The novels I’ve read from my pile ‘o AWP books had something in common: a completely buried lead. I was entering the books looking for stories: some narratives that had beginnings, middles, and ends, as well as characters who encountered some kind of conflict and then underwent change. But in the books, the dramatic situations weren’t ever made clear–a character or characters seemed to float from one interaction to another without will, intent, or understandable responses to stimuli. Surreal things happened to characters (for example, aliens showed up, then aliens went away. Naked people descended and ate everyone’s snacks, then disappeared sans comment from the characters) without apparent purpose, the characters then made unrelated remarks, and the author rinsed and repeated the above until the book was simply…over. Where was the story?
I’m not against experimental approaches to fiction. I’m a fan of many writers–Mark Z. Danielewski and Kazuo Ishiguro on the more commercial front and Laird Hunt and Matt Bell in the small press world, to name just a few–who don’t take the most straightforward approaches to narrative. But all of those writers still tell stories. Satisfying stories that have a shape, a trajectory, a humanity about their characters, and a resonance with the traditional gestures of fiction.
It could be coincidental that I picked up a handful of books that all focused on surreal situations without character arcs or much plot at all, but perhaps there’s a deeper current running through literary fiction today. Is story dead?
Tell me, readers. What’s going on here?