The New Yorker Story

This paragraph from Jonathan Franzen on the birth of the New Yorker story is spot on.

It was also in the fifties that “the New Yorker story” emerged, quite suddenly, as a distinct literary genus. What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste. Outside the offices of The New Yorker, its fiction editors were rumored to routinely delete the final paragraph of any story accepted for publication.

Fiction's willful ignorance of tech

“And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.”

Ann Patchett on one of the chief problems of novel-writing today. The internet has disrupted lots of things, and one of those is dramatic information asymmetry

Steve Himmer on one popular solution for fiction writers:

In literary fiction, the more popular solution seems to be relying on settings close to the present, but far enough back to avoid such inconvenience. Granted, the popularity of the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s as settings also owes plenty to generational shifts in literary production as people write about formative periods and the years they remember. But it also avoids any number of narrative problems and allows writers to go on telling stories in the way they are used to, rather than incorporating the present in ways that are difficult and disruptive. When I recently wondered on Twitter — one of those very disruptions — if we’ve reached the point of needing a term for this kind of setting, author Jared Yates Sexton suggested “the nostalgic present.” And while it’s easy enough to incorporate mention of that into this essay, where might a tweet fit into a novel? As dialogue, formatted like any other character’s utterance? Or embedded with timestamp and retweet count and all? What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays? It’s a hard question, but not one that gets answered when writers aspire to be more like Andras Schiff than Lukas Kmit.

Himmer goes on to urge more writers to embrace the technology of today and incorporate it into their fiction, and I'm with him. It strikes me as lazy screenwriting when they incorporate one of those old school answering machines just so the audience can hear what message is being left. I haven't seen one of those in ages. If it's meant to be a message missed, show us the person as they leave the message so we can hear it. If we're meant to see the recipient read as they hear the voicemail, give us the audio as the person listens to the voice message.

Younger fiction writers, in particular, have a great opportunity here. Embrace the massive role that all this technology plays in our lives and teach readers about how it is affecting us and how we might cope. Novels are supposed to, among other things, illuminate the human condition. No one using all this technology should feel any less human, but the absence of technology in art leaves an odd temporal void in which we can only travel to the past or the future or, as Sexton suggests in the passage above, the nostalgic present.

The genre fiction revolution

The landscape of realism has narrowed. If you think of the straight literary novels of the past decade—The Marriage Plot, The Interestings, The Art of Fielding, Freedom—they often deal with stories and characters from a very particular economic and social position. Realism, as a literary project, has taken as its principle subject the minute social struggles of people who have graduated mainly from Ivy League schools. The great gift of literary realism has always been its characteristic ability to capture the shifting weather of inner life, but the mechanisms of that inner life and whose inner lives are under discussion have become as generic as any vampire book: These are books about privileged people with relatively small problems.
Not that these small problems can't be fascinating. It is exactly the best realist novels of our moment which are the most miniature: In Teju Cole's Open City, a man and his thoughts wander over various cities. In Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the action consists of the tiny fluctuations of the inordinate vanity and self-loathing of the main character. Both novels are superb, and both are focused on the most minute of details. They draw larger significances from those details, certainly, but the constraints are ferocious. Any discussions of politics or any broader aspect of the human condition are funneled through the characters' fine judgments.
In the wide-open spaces left by the narrowing of realism, genre becomes the place where grand philosophical questions can be worked out on narrative terms.

Stephen Marche on how genre fiction has become more important than literary fiction.

Genres that endure in any medium across time—the western, horror stories, gangster films, fairy tales, detective novels, landscape paintings, superhero origins, to name just a few—fascinate me. For a genre to resonate across long periods of time, it usually is about some deep-seated human condition or social issue, allowing the artist to make a statement about that merely by manipulating the conventional elements of the form. The genre is like a ritual known to both the artist and the audience, allowing an immediate and efficient engagement between the two parties.

The simulator

I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.

That's Cory Doctorow on where fictional characters come from.

This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out. But the simulator isn’t just adding in the details you tell it about: it’s guessing about the details you haven’t yet supplied, so that when you go back to your imagination and ask it about Bob’s particulars, some of those answers come from the simulator – it’s a kind of prejudice that affects imaginary people, a magic trick where your conscious and subconscious minds vie to fool each other with compounded lies about fake people, each building on the last in a feedback loop that runs faster and faster as you go.

That’s why your characters eventually ‘‘come to life.’’ Eventually, your characters’ details contain so much data gleaned from things the simulator ‘‘knows’’ – because it has supplied them, after guessing about them – that they come to seem real to you, and to it (which is the same thing).

George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year

This loving profile of George Saunders is just gorgeous.

At the risk of hyperbole at the end of a story that began in a state of fairly high exaltation, I would say that this is precisely the effect that Saunders’s fiction has on you. It “softens the borders,” as he put it in one of our conversations. “Between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer.” It makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people. The guy talking on the bus about how his girlfriend doesn’t appreciate his music and why couldn’t she just cut him that much slack, seeing how he just did all that time? The couple in the basement of the Port Authority, the wife helping her husband get into his Grover costume before he stepped out onto 42nd Street. The woman, one recent morning, who screamed at panhandlers on the subway that it was the day after Christmas and why couldn’t they just give us all some peace? “Peace on Earth,” she hollered. “Is that so much to ask for? Get off the train.” She went on for a while, and some other passengers started to turn on her. “I’m right!” she yelled. “I’m right.” And then her face took on the saddest expression.

It’s hard to maintain, the softness. It’s an effort. That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

It's safe to say the modern fiction writers who've most captivated me ever since I developed a passion for short stories in college are Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver.