Shirking My Responsibilities

I’m glad Shawn Vestal addressed Ted Genoways’ contribution to the Fiction is Dead! canon. Three months ago, Ben Yagoda also joined in. Just in time for the release of his new book, he had a polarizing opinion (how providential): memoirs are endangering the future of fiction writing. He told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Memoir is to fiction as photography is to painting.” He claims, “When it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is done.” Somehow I think he wants us fiction writers to start panicking, agreeing, and scraping that novel we pull our hair out over every morning—but I didn’t. Maybe the annual Oh no, what will happen to fiction complaints have numbed me to these hyperbolic claims, but I had a different response.

What a relief? Fiction no longer has the responsibility of “proving points and making cases”? Whew. Because I’m sick of reading fiction like this, and sick of the small, annoying critic inside my head who wants me to write it.

Actually, I’m sick of all the conversations about what fiction has the responsibility to do, about what it should do. Whether it’s arguments about its focus (characters or plots or language, like one of those will win out in the long run) or what moral or political responsibility the artist has. I’m talking about Ted Genoways’ essay, about John Barry regretting that short stories aren’t time capsules of our culture anymore, about the modern classic “Mr. Difficult” and the writer’s contract to entertain.

There are a number of things stories can do—like reflect a culture back to itself, distill an emotion, or surprise with the turn of events—but nothing they should do, nothing the writer should feel they must do. These claims, I think, are motivated by fear about sales, or self-promotion. They’re motivated by discoveries about one’s own voice that need not necessarily be extrapolated to the rest of us.

What are the shoulds you’re sick of hearing as a fiction writer? Any relief that Ben Yagoda has freed you from proving points and making cases?

7 Comments

  • shawnv says:

    As a writer, I like the idea of no “shoulds.” No end but the art. But as a reader I can start piling up my own shoulds — the language should be original and lively, the sense of life and human experience should be authentic, sentiment should be avoided without sacrificing emotional impact, etc. Pretty vague. It’s like saying I think fiction should be good. Maybe I’ll write a magazine article: Should fiction be good?

    I was reading some Paris Review interviews last night, and came across this in the Borges one:

    INTERVIEWER
    But that’s not something you intend to show: the degeneration of the world by the metaphorical use of colour?

    BORGES
    I don’t intend to show anything. (Laughter) I have no intentions.

    • TJFuller says:

      I will read that magazine article. I’ll probably blog about it. Will you argue that there is such a thing as good, apart from the shoulds readers develop? That taste in fiction can be refined? I’d say I believe that, but I’m not sure how I’d explain it.

      Don’t Genoways, Yagoda, Barry & Franzen all seem more concerned with fiction’s relevance than its quality? Actually, they probably equate the two, which is part of the problem.

  • Knezovich says:

    Yagoda’s point is valid. I mean, when do you last see someone paint a picture?

    The answer, obviously, is never. Who paints anymore? That shit is like so 1839.

    Daguerre forever.

  • Sam Edmonds says:

    I have to hear enough about shoulds in nonfiction workshops, especially since there are so many types of essays, so yeah – it’s nice to know that there are some folks out there who are happy to see art as the only end of fiction. I write fiction when I need to unwind, though I suspect some fiction writers would scoff at such a remark. I suppose that would be sort of like saying, “I perform open-heart surgery when I need to unwind.” Maybe not that drastic, but you know.

    • TJFuller says:

      Do you think the reason creative nonfiction is more heavily burdened with shoulds than fiction or poetry is because it is still young, in a sense, as a form? I’m totally out of my element commenting on it, but I was shocked to hear that one of our fellow bloggers received a rejection from a decently-circulated magazine because his essay didn’t have enough of a conclusion. Who still cares about that? Just from talking to the essayists I know, it seems the form is still significantly governed by shoulds.

      • Sam Edmonds says:

        Sweet – got it.

        To answer your question, it’s tough to say. I think the problem is that the term creative nonfiction is constantly being redefined. I personally write memoirs, which don’t necessarily have central arguments; fellow workshoppers have sometimes suggested that I ought make a few things up to make the piece work better, then call it fiction. I was a little offended by this at first, but I’m sure it was the style they had in mind. But then you’ve got essayists like Jonathan Franzen, who start with a first-person “life” moment, then yo-yo the lens out to research, interviews, etc., then bring the yo-yo back to himself. That, I’m getting the impression, is considered to be a solid example of a personal essay. It’s all very confusing to me still.
        As for our fellow blogger, was it the conclusion, or the “aboutness?” (I may write an essay sometime about how much I loathe the term “aboutness.”) Either way, I think it may be what you said – that because the creative essay is new, in that it’s being taught to students more often today, there’s a tacit rule among essayists that it ought not (or should not, rather) stray too far from the basic structure of the essay, which has been around for ages, as we all know. I don’t have solid evidence to back this claim, and Rachel could conceivably blast me back to 2nd grade, when I was writing fantasy “stories,” but I just get the impression that the genre has to walk on eggshells for the time being, until a better definition – or definitions – has a chance to solidify.

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