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Which Subjects Are Underrepresented in Contemporary Fiction?

Saturday 16 April 2016

APRIL 12, 2016

In Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Ayana Mathis and Siddhartha Deb discuss joy, class and other subjects missing from too much fiction these days.

By Ayana Mathis

In our ennui and end-of-days malaise, we have elevated suffering to the highest of virtues.

Writers are a bit flummoxed by joy. With few exceptions, we (I am no less guilty than anyone else) seem to have decided that despair, alienation and bleakness are the most meaningful, and interesting, descriptors of the human condition. In our ennui and end-of-days malaise, we have elevated suffering to the highest of virtues. We are a postmodern band of medieval monks, self-­flagellating and deprived, suspicious of the joy and fullness of life.

In our insistence on despair as the most authentic iteration of experience, we risk writing fiction that is hamstrung in its ability to represent our humanity with the necessary breadth and nuance. The despairing self, characterized by alienation and misery, is limited and incomplete, and not a particularly accurate representation of the lushness of life as it is lived, mingled thing that it is. In our fixation on bleakness, we echo a deleterious conception of our humanity already rampant in the culture. We court a literature that veers toward categories of discourse we mean to write against: the flattened depiction of the human being used in advertisements and political speeches.

In his “Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Joy and sorrow proceed from love, but in contrary ways.” His conception is religious, of course, but we can consider it through a secular lens — joy and pain as reactions to the same stimulus, that is, the enormous complexity of being alive. Real joy is rare and transcendent. Think of the scene in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which Dmitri hosts a frenzied fete, complete with dancing girls in bear costumes, in the village to which he escapes just before being arrested for his father’s murder. Or the bucolic rapture William Wallace and company feel while dredging the river bottom for his pregnant wife’s body in Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net.” In both examples joy asserts itself unexpectedly in onerous circumstances, and its effect on the narrative is transformative.

Joy, it must be remembered, is nothing like happiness, its milquetoast cousin. It is instead a vivid and extreme state of being, often arrived at in the aftermath of great pain. I was reminded of this recently, during a class I teach on hip-hop music as a narrative form. Each week, my students and I listen to a few songs and think about what sorts of narrative devices they use; then we consider a piece of fiction that might have similar strategies and preoccupations. A few weeks ago we listened to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 classic, “The Message.” It describes a terrifying and dysfunctional reality, in which the people of the South Bronx of the ’70s and early ’80s were abandoned to slumlords, drugs, rampant arson and a reduction in desperately needed municipal and government services. After listening, one of my students described hip-hop music as a byproduct of a terrible situation, the sometimes gruesome expression of rage and woe of a people living in gruesome conditions. Another questioned the dissonance between the lyrics — “Got a bum education, double-digit inflation./ Can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station” — and the lighthearted, up-tempo beat. The student found these elements contradictory and distracting. I suggest another interpretation: “The Message,” like much of hip-hop, is a series of complicated gestures toward the exuberance the music elicits, which exists side by side with the pain sometimes described in the lyrics.

Hip-hop is more than lament, more than protest. It’s a modern-day blues, which Albert Murray characterized as a vessel containing the whole of experience: sorrow and defeat and misery and also ecstasy, triumph and maintaining one’s cool under near unbearable pressure. Hip-hop certainly includes its fair share of despair, but it also urges its listeners, and composers, toward a kind of revelry and transcendence in spite of it all — or perhaps because of it all. The joy in hip-hop is paradoxical and complicated, which is, of course, the stuff of fiction.

Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the 2014-15 New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Fellowship. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” her first novel, was a New York Times Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013 and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Ayana taught Creative Writing at The Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. ◆ ◆ ◆

By Siddhartha Deb

Where is the contemporary novel of rent and the struggle to find a home?

“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?” Instead of Saul Bellow’s condescending rhetorical questions, let us ask: Where is the contemporary novel of refugee people drowning off the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea? Where is the fiction that gives us an account of what it feels like to be in solitary confinement? Where is the contemporary novel of rent and the struggle to find a home, one that can do for 21st-century New York what William Dean Howells’s “A Hazard of New Fortunes” did in the 19th century? I’d be glad to read all of them.

The questions are easily expanded upon, but the answers require a little more work. Of course, fiction takes time, especially good fiction, and no doubt some day, somewhere, there will spring into existence books that grapple with all of the above. And yet, the fact that fiction needs time doesn’t fully explain the degree to which literary fiction written in English seems cut off from the world, from the very substance of living.

I felt this isolation most acutely when reading through a set of applications for a prestigious fiction fellowship a few months ago. Most of the applications displayed much professional accomplishment, and yet only in a handful did the proposed fiction stand out. I remember an intriguing novel building itself up to the present from a historical workers’ strike in Montana, and another set among a group of African-Americans in a near-future California. Of the others, I recall only the aura of social ambition expressed by their authors, and the hackneyed subjects that gave the sense that the literary novel these days is exclusively concerned with the fulfillment and frustration of bourgeois characters, confined tightly to their own segments of race and class.

That weirdly compelling writer J.G. Ballard once praised the Surrealists for placing the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible. But the fiction being proposed these days appears to be all about placing the logic of the visible at the service of the visible. In this, it reflects the narrowing of sensibilities and interests of those writing today, something reinforced by the corporate demands of mainstream publishing houses, the astonishing lack of meaningful inclusion in cultural criticism and writing programs, and the emergence of a global elite in the world of Anglophone letters — one that creates the impression of diversity while leaving untouched the supreme reign of the unadventurous middlebrow.

The exceptions only prove the point. The emergence of Elena Ferrante, with her haunted fiction about women, ambition and modernity, is perhaps possible only because the writer has preserved herself through her anonymity from the rot of today’s literary scene. Her fiction and her life struggle with the fact, she has said in one of her rare interviews, that “class origins cannot be erased, regardless of whether we climb up or down the sociocultural ladder”; Ferrante therefore sets herself against the most entrenched of contemporary myths, the idea that it is possible to remake oneself endlessly, and at little cost to oneself or the world.

In Ferrante’s dramatization of such an unpalatable truth, and in her own living of it, one sees how a writer might free herself from the tired pursuit of fiction as a matter of professional advancement and set out in quest of the stories that don’t get told. It involves indifference to what the market wants and a turning away from the superficial truisms of the day, but it is only in such indifference that there might exist a liberation, a way for us to beat our way through to the stories that escaping refugees and confined prisoners might want us to tell.

Siddhartha Deb was born in northeastern India. He is the author of two novels and “The Beautiful and the Damned,” a work of narrative nonfiction that was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award. He is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Society of Authors in the UK, the Nation Institute, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University, and the Howard Foundation at Brown University. His journalism, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Baffler, The Nation, n+1, and The Times Literary Supplement.

A version of this article appears in print on April 17, 2016, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: Which Subjects Are Underrepresented in Contemporary Fiction?