Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” What is the nature of this need? What would happen if it wasn’t met? We might also ask: why does Franzen refer to complex stories? And why is it important not to be interrupted by Twitter and Facebook? Are such interruptions any worse than an old land line phone call, or simply friends and family buzzing around your writing table? Jane Austen, we recall, loved to write in domestic spaces where she was open to constant interruption.
Do we need to finish books? Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it? I ask the question because this is happening to me more and more often. Is it age, wisdom, senility? I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?
Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey.
Let’s imagine that we have been condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance. How do we go about it? We look for some simple, rapid and broadly acceptable criteria that will help us get this pain out of the way. And since, as Borges himself noted, aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection, while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped, we begin to identify those areas of the world that have grabbed public attention, perhaps because of political turmoil or abuses of human rights, we find those authors who have already won a huge level of respect and possibly major prizes in the literary communities of these countries and who are outspokenly committed on the right side of whatever political divide we’re talking about, and we select them.