Dispatches | April 10, 2013

Today’s blog post comes from Nathan Elwood. 

In recent weeks, you may have followed the small dustup between respected writer Dan Chaon and equally acclaimed author J. Robert Lennon. The spat was prompted by Lennon’s particular contention with Chaon’s interview with the review review, where Chaon claimed that young writers must become more actively engaged in the literary community, and actually bother to read the literary magazines they hope to be published in. Lennon, in his article for Salon, argues to the contrary, saying most currently published literary fiction would be a waste of the readers’ time, time much better spent watching tv, getting drunk, and reading just about everything but modern literary fiction. Now, as a barely published undergrad with strong opinions and very little common sense, I decided to go ahead and hop into this debate between two literary giants.

Ding ding, gentlemen.

On the surface, Lennon seems to have a fair point. A lot of submitted and even published fiction reeks of an unacceptable sameness. I have personally given up on reading short stories from the slush pile this semester in favor of poetry on the simple basis that if I had to read one more story about an unhappy urban white couple, I was liable to begin throwing various pieces of furniture through my window.

More to the point, I’ve argued in the past that the worst thing the literary community can do is make itself even more insular than it already is. I can agree with Lennon here that to read exclusively modern literary fiction would lead us to be the exact kind of pretentious, closed off community that simply cannot survive anymore: a group of boring intellectuals constantly coughing up the same ideas at each other, while the rest of the world moves on around us.

So, we meet again, old friend.

I’m also not going to disagree with his stipulation that writers watch television and get drunk and read lots of anything and everything, because, well, I like to do those things.

Nevertheless, as an intern for one of the very sorts of publications Lennon is railing against, I feel like it’s my duty to make at least something of a defense for the trade I hope to be part of.

Is a great deal of literary fiction published these days boring? Probably. But a great deal of television is reality, and it’s almost impossible to avoid auto tune in music. The bad is always going to outweigh the real gems, no matter what the medium. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth the search.

Is there room for experimentation and improvement all across the board? Without a doubt. But that doesn’t mean experimentation and reaction isn’t happening. The Missouri Review has recently itself produced a new anthology of contemporary experimental fiction, and all throughout the publishing world there are venues for the experimental, for the exciting. And to say that none of that experimental fiction is being recognized or celebrated really risks hurting Aimee Bender’s feelings.

Look, J! Look what you did to Lydia Davis!

Lennon bemoans the lack of conversation in contemporary fiction as opposed to poetry, but how can we have a conversation if one side is not willing to engage? Writers can hate the fiction they find in journals. I know I often do. But start looking for that. What do you hate about it? Is the story you’re reading emblematic of all contemporary literature, or just the magazine in your hands? Having served my time slogging through the slush, I can say one of the biggest problems with the overabundant, borderline-competent MFAs that Lennon laments is the fact that they haven’t read our review. They have no idea what kind of work they should be submitting, or what may actually surprise and delight a jaded reader.

You want to change the face of literary fiction, writers, at least know what it looks like. Read the small magazines, feel free to buy a few, because whatever my feelings about it, the literature publishing field is a community that deserves to survive right alongside the sci-fi, YA, and romance fields that Lennon advocates. Don’t like what you find there? Find a magazine that does have what you like and submit there. Or better yet, keep submitting to the ones you think have gone stale and boring and try to shake things up a little.

Literary fiction has the potential to be just as exciting and fresh as anything in modern poetry or any other field, but it has to be worked towards. We need to know what is being said, what we want to say alongside or against it, and that, friends, means reading. Lots and lots of reading.

Nathan Elwood is a near graduate of the University of Missouri and intern at the Missouri Review.