Monday, January 26, 2009

One (ok, Two) Trends in Fiction...To Which We're Ready to Wave Goodbye

Things happen in trends. Skinny jeans, sweet-voiced British singers, foie gras - point is, it's natural. It doesn't necessarily mean that the folks at the beginning of the trend were geniuses or that those at the end are unoriginal (necessarily).

But one thing that all trends have in common is that eventually have to go, if only so that they can come back again in 15 years when it becomes retro-cool. And here's one I'm ready ready to usher on its way:

Novels set in small town America.

I came into the store this morning and saw Chuck Klosterman's new novel, Downtown Owl. Here is the first line of the dust jacket description: "Somewhere in North Dakota, there is a town called Owl that isn't there." Sigh. I want to like this book, I even want to read this book, but I was doomed the second I read that line and realized that this was another novel about the private struggles of small town American folk. There's probably a twist that makes it vaguely different from The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen or Empire Falls by Richard Russo, but I'm afraid I still can't over the gut feeling that I've read the novel before I've started it.

Well-written or otherwise, these "small town, blue-collar, Nowhere, USA" novels are  inevitably the same. They're usually about middle-aged people who are struggling to understand where their dreams went and who are living out their lives in emotional isolation without realizing the connections lying just beneath the surface. Want to know why these novels are basically all the same? I'm pretty sure it's because small blue-collar towns are basically all the same. I know this because I grew up in small blue-collar towns and I recognize myself in every one of these books.

Small towns deserve their heroic novels, too. But really, I think we've had enough for the moment, don't you?

While we're on the subject, here's another trend that I think could take a breather:

Epic novels that span entire lifetimes, and also sometimes generations! 

These are the novels that aren't satisfied with presenting a small, pivotal slice of someone's life with a few flashbacks or flashforwards thrown in for context. Instead they show the whole gritty thing from start to finish. This way, by the end of the novel we can't help but agree that "Yes. Yes! This really is the only way things could have happened!" And hopefully we've also learned something about ourselves in the process. (Cue music, aaaand fade out!)

The epic novel has had a good run. This trend gave us great works like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Nasland. Many epic novels are quite masterful - if only because it takes an author of particular skill and strength of character to see the project through to completion. 

But here's the thing. These epic novels also require readers with particular strength of character. Starting one of these novels takes a real commitment. You're promising to see it through, to remember all the characters and their personal dramas, and to not lose track of the decade or the continent. I have no problem tackling one or two of these novels a year. It's like eating a bran muffin for breakfast after a few weeks of frosted maple-nut scones. Good for the system.

But lately, it's gotten to be too much. My backpack is heavy. My "Books To Read" shelf is sagging. I look at these doorstops and my gaze drifts over to the copy of Twilight a friend loaned me last week. All I'm asking is for these authors - these great, wonderful, brilliant, award-winning authors - to just get together and agree on some sort of time-table. Please?

And P.S. - A little shout-out to Louise Erdrich. She's got the right idea. Notice how each of her novels tells a little bit of the story? How her body of work as a whole becomes her epic tale? So nice. So bite-sized. I love you, Ms. Erdrich.

On a final note...

If you're an author with a half-finished epic novel about small town America sitting next to your keyboard as you read this, take heart. Finish your novel. Put it in the bottom of your filing cabinet. And then set yourself an Outlook reminder to go off in 15 years reminding you to find an agent for your manuscript. You'll be at the top of the NYTimes list within the week, I promise.

(Image: Dzian-Dzian via Flickr Creative Common)

No comments: