Daily Archives: June 27, 2009

Thinking More on the Falseness of Literary Fiction, sometimes

The thing is, in all these stories, by numerous authors of literary fiction, characters have this hyperreal awareness of their own misery, and comment upon it.

In fact, people are often too busy in the habits of their life to be aware of how miserable they are until something happens to break that comfort in familiarity.

That’s a problem: subtext is not the end-all and be-all of human experience. You wouldn’t know this to read the pregnant prose stylings of Amy Hempel. Every single character is almost crushed under the weight of the sea inside their own minds, where an emotion is spilling out.

Which is, I’m afraid, incredibly false to the vast and overwhelming majority of people who are – whether they admit it or not – basically happy people who have a set of daily habits that helps them be happy.

Moments of crisis are necessary, then, to break people out of this series of habits. Literary fiction knows this, too, and embraces it with dead children, endless affairs, cancer, unwanted children, etc., etc., etc..

Alas, moments of crisis, expressed in literary fiction, are often tiresome and forced because they are too similar to our own lives to be plausible expressions of things we, the living, already know. Our own experience of those crisis and ones like them often don’t line up with the expression of that crisis presented by one writer spewing subtext all over the place. Crisis, in life, is rarely the realm of subtext. In fact, when a child dies, however that child dies, subtext is not the rule of the day. Surviving that grief is an exceptional feat of emotional rebuilding, where there is little subtext. In fact, it is a time to not embrace subtext at all because facing the pain head on is really the best way through.

Thus, the falseness of literary fiction: reading about someone whose everyday experiences with a crisis moment diverge wildly from our own natural world alienates us from the prose, because it alienates us from the humanity of the characters.

In fantastic fiction, the crisis moment is often wildly different from our known experiences. The person who is trying to escape the Zombie Apocalypse, or the one that’s discovered they can read minds for real, or the one that stares down the sword at a horde of misshapen monsters straight from our dark subconscious, are thrust into situations where subtext is the rule of the day because those crisis events came out of the subtext of our cultural detritus that clings to our psyches wherever we go.

In speculative fiction, readers experience a universality of crisis, because everyone is discovering this crisis for the first time, and no one has a basis for experience exactly, literally like that. Then, the crisis enters our deep minds not as exactly what to do if my wife’s cheating on me, but a general guide of what to do if my spouse has a secret world within herself that I cannot understand. This trains us for numerous human experiences, including an affair, instead of just the one. One could say the literary fiction scenario has the same power, but the familiarity of the events, to me, forces me to see it in terms of just that one experience, and I guess I’m not imaginative enough to extend the crisis outwards as a metaphor in quite the same way.

It is much easier for my subconscious to view the dream logic of a speculative fiction piece and gain insight into the human experience involved, than to read that mis-named academic juggernaut “realistic fiction” and gain insight into the human experience. After all, the real world is far stranger than we’ll ever truly believe. The world is only getting stranger. Realistic literary fiction hasn’t quite escaped the small town worlds, the hangers-on, and the empty room in the house that no one talks about.

It is like having a ghost in the house, that empty room. But, to make the human experience universal add the dream: put a ghost in that empty room. Put a ghost there, because that’s what it’s really like to have one of those. Because the mother will walk into that room and talk to the ghost, whether its there or not, and the ghost will follow the father out into the yard at night, will carve a place in-between the parents in bed at night, and hang around with the siblings long into adulthood.

Just an empty room is not universal. It’s not universal because not everyone eperiences grief that way.

Making an actual ghost, though, in the room, provides a reason for experiencing grief that way, and speaks to a universal experience with a dream-like thing presented as if real.

In speculative fictions, we gain the human experience of what the characters went through without the limitations of forcing a situation upon reality so similar to our own as to alienate us. It is easier for me to understand a character from the streets of Bombay if that character is thrust out of their known world, into space, for instance. I learn that character, and street survival in Bombay, by how they interact with this Other.

Does this make sense?

I hope it does. I have a headache, and I won’t be editing this or expanding this anytime soon.

I had surgery in my face yesterday, and I’m going to lie down and put an ice pack on my face, and rest a while.

I hope this makes sense.


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What I’ve Been Reading Lately, What I Want to Read Next…


The Amy Hempel stories suck in that way that only well-crafted, carefully worded literary fiction can totally suck.

I kind of blame Thorough. His little phrase about leading lives of quiet desperation seems to pollute an entire genre of fiction with stories about ordinary people feeling their ordinary pain.

It’s beautifully-crafted drivel, self-importantly clever, and I post it here as a warning of elegant suck more than anything.

Right what else do we have in the pile… (Maybe something that doesn’t suck?)


D’Ambrosio has some interesting and fascinating stories in this collection, and a couple that are guilty of the same problem as above. On the whole, however, I’m down with this. The turkey hunting story was the best so far.


This book is awesome. Dan Simmons does an excellent job of capturing the 19th century, and his main characters never fail to surprise me with their humanity, self-blindness, and actions. When Dickens stopped to place handkerchiefs over the miscarried babies, instead of just waling on by, I was sold. Dickens turned to his bodyguard and told the guy to come back and bury the babies. The reader is aware that the bodyguard will do no such thing no matter what he says, but Dickens believes the man when he agrees. It’s a decently human act, and a naive act, and the moment I was sold on this book.

I’m about halfway, and I’m enjoying it. Will keep reading into the night.

What’s next for this book-hungry reading machine?

Glad you asked…


Diana Rowland’s latest is probably next. It looks like fun, and a nice escape away from the high literary fiction of late.

I also expect a bunch of books from Small Beer Press’ dollar book sale. Can’t for the life of me remember what I ordered, but I know it will be good because I’ve either read, or want to read, almost everything they’ve put out to date.


I have nothing clever or smart to say, at the moment. I just had surgery in my face, and I’m zonked on pain killers, and playing video games.

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