Fiction should do more than entertain or provide an escape from the reality of the world. Rereading Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Henry James’s “Art of Fiction,” the Gass and Gardner debates of the late seventies, Eric Williamson’s Say It Hot are all enough to convince readers of the intellectual role fiction plays in our lives. What should be of real value in writing contemporary fiction is the author’s willingness to aggressively encounter reality. Authors should try to work from the violence, the despair, the poverty of this country and it is there that they will find the stories of our true America.
Writers should meditate on a very old, and dare I say dangerous tenet of realism: showing things as they actually are—they can learn a lot about this from classic noir and working-class fiction. Noir writers and working-class fiction writers have made the seedy underbelly of our country the centerpiece of their work from the very beginning. Poe—our first detective fiction writer—Melville, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Hammett, Chandler, and others all made everlasting careers illuminating the dark and often dangerous experiences of the common American.
However, today’s mainstream American fiction is constrained by a realism that is self-involved. Much of it is enveloped in the false notion of importance that is memoir. I think the popularity of this fiction derives from writers borrowing from reality TV instead of reading books. Popular fiction is overrun with the same stories so much that even the most intelligent reader will forget the true goals of great fiction. A writer who aspires to be placed alongside the Melville’s and Hammet’s of our American literature must thoroughly engage the environment from which he produces. Through the creative use of his imagination the writer will develop an aesthetic that is wholly individual while maintaining some semblance of the real world from which all fiction is imitative of—this imitation can be as clear as the accessible world of Steinbeck’s Depression-era America, or as demanding as Joseph Haske’s kaleidoscopic noir in North Dixie Highway, or as backwoods-surreal as Barry Hannah. The writer who avoids the clichés of popular fiction, for example emphasizing a good vs. evil scheme or “the world is pure evil” motif will excite the reader, pushing them into actual engagement with the text, questioning not just the motives of the characters and their environments, but their own socio-cultural realities as well.
The answer that often arises to questions regarding the troublesome state of contemporary fiction is that America’s writers are too insular. The majority of American writers are often MFA graduates who may have studied literature all their lives, but have failed to actually live a life that is suitable for good storytelling whether through their own experiences or imagination. An aspiring writer can know the canon and even throw in a few other off-the-beaten-path favorites—Henry Miller, Tomas Rivera, Nelson Algren. But, if that aspiring writer has no unique insights about their personal experience, the social world, cultural identity, and/or imagination they will fail as artists. This of course seems like an assumption that we all may have as readers and writers, but how many people who sit down to write a book really believe they have something original to say?
Where are the contemporary writers who have made an attempt at matching the works of our literary greats? I argue that these writers have existed for years on smaller presses. The work of authors Joseph D. Haske, Stephen D. Gutierrez, William Hastings, Jodi Angel, Ron Cooper, Michael Gills, Richard Burgin, Larry Fondation, Christine Granados, Patrick Michael Finn, and Gonzalo Baeza ranges from realism to experimental noir about the experiences of working-class Americans. Perhaps if the popular book clubs of America and major publishing houses were to be more serious in the books they promote the reader of contemporary fiction would see that literature can be something other than an alternative form of entertainment when TV and the internet become tiresome.
About the author: Daniel M. Mendoza is the editor of Stray Dogs: Interviews with Working-Class Writers (Down & Out Books, 2016). He is a literary critic and writer living in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. His fiction and criticism has appeared in Boulevard, American Book Review, Colorado Review, Texas Review, and other venues. Mendoza is the non-fiction and reviews editor at Goliad Review and an assistant editor for Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.