Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The future of literature...are the elements of fiction obsolete?

Let’s talk aesthetics, kids. Why are stories becoming so short and fractured? I know this answer, in part. Attention spans are shorter; digital media lend themselves better to shorter works. (And I would say, too, that it’s more expedient for writers, who want their work read and write a lot of small works to send out quickly, and to editors, who don’t necessarily want to slog through 4,000 words.)

Follow the HTMLGiant dialogue here!

But why, too, are stories so often about empty sex and blow jobs? Why are so many of them full of violence and figurative blind corners. And granted, there’s a lot of generalization in those statements. They are not all like this, but there is a trend I’ve been noticing. To what end? Is there some deeper meaning here? Is it truly intended as deeper commentary on our culture, or is it, particularly the sex part, intended as a narrative gimmick? And I suppose the next question would be, is that so bad? Not necessarily. But the tide seems to be moving, while not exclusively in this direction, then ever more strongly to a splintered or disjointed, micro narrative form that involves reference to sex. Fair estimation? Maybe not. Still, I welcome dissent and response. Why are we as writers writing, exactly? Why as editors, do we gravitate towards certain works over others? What informs our personal brand of subjectivity?

I recognize the tide is turning, just as it did for the Impressionists, Post Impressionists , the Cubists, and the Expressionists. Writers are dealing with narrative as Picasso and Braque fractured the picture plane. And so, I acknowledge that my storytelling approaches are probably outmoded and will possibly even be superseded by the new wave of short, experimental prose and segmented vignettes. (And this isn’t to say I won’t eventually find this a freeing mode of expression.) However, in the meantime, I’m going down with my long-narrative ship because the kind of literature that I enjoy reading (and writing, although I admit that my own work might never achieve the following...I don't intend this post to be a case for my own work, but as a consideration of what's happening now) is literature that is psychological and lush, that explores motivations and human nature in longer form. This is the kind of analytical power and descriptive opulence I both admire and aspire to.

And certainly, there is a multiplicity of approaches. There is still the conventional, linear narrative, but it is growing ever shorter and is not found as often in the burgeoning online literary communities. I was recently involved in such a discussion about the problem with posting longer works on Fictionaut. There, works with higher word counts don’t seem to get as many views or comments. Moreoever, online journals avoid anything over 3,000 words and tend to gravitate more towards 1,000, which hovers in the “flash fiction” range. Still other journals are moving towards a micro-mini flash, with a 200-250-word limit. With such restrictions, can a writer adequately foster sympathy for a character, understand their circumstances , or even establish enough rising action to understand the transformative power of the story’s climax, if there can be one? Is the traditional rising action, climax, falling action and denoument obsolete? Are they really needed for effective storytelling?

While low word counts can curb dawdling narratives, sharpen language and characterization, I still find that it prevents the building of complexity and the adequately developed contradictions that are part of life. Strict word limits feel like a narrowing of possibility. I acknowledge that this may be a similarly narrow view that is easily disproved, and I welcome a rich story, thick with atmosphere and capable of stirring empathy, created in a micro format. After all, Aesop’s Fables were short and sweet and didactic. Still, I remain skeptical.

Ultimately, I’m both hopeful about the course of literature and wonder what will emerge as the dominant theme in a decade or two. What will appear in textbooks? Maybe we are the decade of fractured, sexual narratives in the same way that we have, in many ways, become a fractured and highly sexualized culture. So, perhaps these brief splintered stories are a more authentic and interesting representation of our time than longer narratives, and can reach students much more powerfully and immediately than the longer narratives characteristic of decades and centuries before. Time will tell.

On Facebook, writer Karen Lillis commented on my link:

"Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Savannah. I heartily agree. Should we really be calling many micro-fics "fiction" when they are dipping so much into narrative poetry territory--that is, a precise elucidation of a moment or a feeling rather than an unfolding of character, setting, complex feelings over time? Given that we can live in a novel we're reading for days and weeks, can a flash fic ever pretend to take the place of novels?"

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Also, I've finally figured out where the heck to turn comments on, so please definitely add your thoughts to this discussion. We're in interesting times on so many levels, and we might as well have a healthy virtual chin wag about them.


  1. I feel, especially in a culture that is so oversexualized (as HTMLgiant notes) of course our writing is going to be oversexualized, probably also in reaction to certain nonsexual trends in Twilight and other such books.

    I feel like we're also entering this time when we want to get noticed, to write something taboo, we're taught in class that the ppl who are noticed are the people who pushed the envelope, and so we want to push the envelope but don't really know how to do that yet, I think.

    Just a thought.

  2. Yes. Very true. As Lily Allen says in _The Fear_, "I'll take my clothes off, and it will be shameless 'cause everyone knows that's how you get famous." Thanks for commenting, Susana!