Guest Post by Marty Gerber - Terra Nova Books Editor
Bookends is a New York Times column in which two writers go mano a manoover a book-related issue chosen by editors to put them at opposite ends of the widest possible spectrum.
One such recent spectrum was book subjects that are "underrepresented in contemporary fiction." (Though the question “Compared with what?” was ignored, I think the intended answer would be the world we breathe and bleed and breed in.)
For Ayana Mathis, joy was on top of the “missing” list. Today's writers, she said, have dived into a sea of "despair, alienation, and bleakness." And she sees the reason clearly—a need to "write against" our culture's most common images of how people live: those created by ad writers and political speech-makers. As a result, Mathis says, "We have elevated suffering to the highest of virtues."
However, the counterpointing Siddhartha Deb awards writers more personal responsibility for what they ignore: refugees drowning at sea, life in solitary confinement, endless doomed struggles to merely pay the rent. "Literary fiction," he says, "seems cut off from . . . the very substance of living." And the cause that he sees goes deeper than Mathis's view; it is "the narrowing of sensibilities and interests of those writing today."
I realize there's a theory that "literary fiction" is impervious to the marketplace, that its creators should somehow be able to buy gas and pay the babysitter with specie consisting of the good, the true, and the beautiful. This is fantasy, of course. Reality is that those allowed by idealism or trust fund to avoid considering what people might want to read—the "demand" part of the capitalist equation—are pretty few on the supply side of the writing world. The large majority might wish they had that luxury but know they’re sadly stuck with the need to at least occasionally consider their audience.
Deb holds out Elena Ferrante, a writer focused on "unpalatable truth," as someone who "might free herself from the tired pursuit of fiction as a matter of professional advancement" and replace it with "indifference to what the market wants." He probably regrets that she's shown no interest in having her novels go unread. As a fallback, my best suggestion is that Deb, an author praised for both his fiction and non-fiction, step forth himself into that land where writers answer only to themselves.
"The rot of today’s literary scene," he laments, is "reinforced by the corporate demands of mainstream publishing houses"—clearly unacceptable for any person of honor. It's only a matter of time, I'm sure, before Deb will be bravely putting his keyboard fingers where his mouth is—except, that is, for the middle one proudly reserved for his readers.
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