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?