In a recent piece on the Review Review, Dan Chaon writes about the need for young writers of literary fiction to emulate their counterparts in music, and develop an obsessive interest in the products of the culture they hope to join. He bemoans his students' unfamiliarity with the litmags they hope to be published in, and encourages them to explore the literary world. He recommends the annual best-of short-fiction anthologies, and name-checks a few good magazines. “Young writers,” he says in conclusion, “if you want to be rock stars, you have to read.”
On the face of it, this thesis seems impossible to refute. But I'm going to try.
It does go without saying that fiction writers ought to be reading, and most of us do, naturally. But I feel as though the particular course of action that Chaon is suggesting — immersing oneself in the world of contemporary literary fiction — is, potentially, a recipe for hackneyed, insular, boring writing.
Chaon's argument is perhaps stronger when applied to the world of poetry, which is smaller than that of fiction, and more dependent upon a robust dialogue with itself. The world of poetry is also less risk-averse than that of fiction; poets are more naturally experimental, less embarrassed about strong and unpleasant emotion. Poets aren't bothered by the same career anxieties fiction writers are — they don't presume there is any money to be made doing what they do. And poetry is less concerned — not unconcerned, certainly, but less concerned — than fiction with the common idioms of storytelling. Poets are constantly reinventing language. A poet ignores new writing at his or her peril.
But I don't think Chaon's advice is necessarily beneficial to literary fiction writers. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It's inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published. (This is not an anti-MFA rant: I loved the program I studied in, and love the one I teach in, and enjoy helping students do their best, even when it doesn't end up being very good.)
As a result, the dialogue literary fiction writers are having with themselves is, by and large, uninteresting. It isn't that there aren't smart people writing and conversing, it's just that the lit-fic world is so enormous that the noise tends to overwhelm the signal.
Chaon takes his students to task for their shallow knowledge of contemporary fiction: “When I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high-profile examples.” But maybe that isn't such a bad thing. There is more superb fiction already extant in the world than any of us will be able to read in our lifetimes. Why develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the present cultural moment when so much of it, inevitably, is crap?
In my view, a good writer can learn something from whatever he or she reads. And so I certainly don't begrudge a student reading any piece of contemporary fiction. In fact, I assign the annual best-of anthologies as textbooks in my workshops, and more often than not our discussions of the assigned readings — initiated by students, not by me — center on what makes the stories so goddam awful. This is useful and good.
But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre — I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose. We ought to be reading poetry, too, of course, and nonfiction. We should read instruction manuals, legal documents, restaurant reviews and corporate newsletters. We should follow weird people on Twitter and go to lots of parties and have lots of intense and ridiculous conversations with drunk people. We should go home for the holidays and argue with our families, and we ought to listen to lots of music and we ought to watch plenty of television, because television is, at the moment, the most artistically important narrative medium. We should eavesdrop, and we should gossip. We should probably be in therapy. We should probably drink more coffee.
Let's face it: Literary fiction is fucking boring. It really is. It's a genre as replete with clichés as any. And when you're as deeply immersed in it as many of us are, it's all too easy to stop noticing the clichés. They no longer stand out. They're just What People Do. And so, we do them. If a writer of literary fiction wants to be great, she needs to poke her head up out of the echo chamber every now and then and absorb the genuine peculiarity of human striving. And that means reading stuff that is not literary fiction, and, sometimes, not reading at all.