Tea and Windows: An Expansive View of Literary Fiction
Siân Griffiths | May 2016
This summer, I stumbled on a podcast of two acclaimed writers, one interviewing the other. The interviewee said that he had grown bored with literary fiction because of its lack of attention to plot, accusing the genre of focusing too often upon characters whose only actions were to sip tea and look out windows. I had heard this popular young writer make the same claim a couple years earlier at his AWP panel, where it got a good chuckle from a packed room filled with young writers. Both times, I balked. His laugh line seemed to be based on an underpinning that was hateful, self-loathing, and deeply unfair—not to mention, too easy.
As he went on to discuss literary fiction’s need for bank heists and chainsaws, making an argument that seemed to privilege action-oriented male narratives over quieter stories, it struck me that this same sentiment underlies complaints that MFAs are creating uniform writing. Yet wasn’t it also seeking to narrow and normalize, to create a single type of fiction writer?
I started a mental roll call of my favorite contemporary writers: George Saunders, ZZ Packer, Rebecca Makkai, Kelly Link, Toni Morrison, Ben Fountain, Junot Díaz, Callan Wink, Amina Gautier, Margaret Atwood, Kevin Wilson, Caitlin Horrocks, Luis Alberto Urrea, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy… I couldn’t think of a whole lot of tea drinking or window gazing in any of their work. In fact, what struck me most was their work’s diversity, equally likely to include guns and ghosts as tea and windows. (Does a zombie sipping tea while sighting a rifle out a window still count as a plot-light tea and windows story?)
As I struggled to decipher exactly whose work the interviewee had in mind, I began to think of the comment as code for another thought altogether. I arrived at the following possible translations for what he might have meant:
- I don’t like Henry James, or Virginia Woolf, or Proust, or a lot of other people who my college professors made me read, and I am going to transfer that rage onto contemporary writers, including those whose work bears scant resemblance to that of writers who have long since moldered in the grave. (Contemporary bias.)
- I am threatened by Alice Munro. And Alice McDermott. And Carol Shields. And thoughtful, intelligent women in general. Therefore, I will take this opportunity to undermine them and their impeccable lyricism. (Misogyny.)
- I am afraid that people will not buy my books if they think I am serious or thoughtful or care about language (especially because I am serious and thoughtful and care about language); therefore, I will distant myself as much as possible from those readers’ stale clichés of literary fiction by reinforcing those clichés. If readers see me as different, they will buy my work. (Self-interest.)
- I don’t like writers who don’t write the kind of books I like to read. The only fiction written should be work I personally enjoy. (Egocentrism.)
Perhaps these translations are unfair, but I am at a loss to explain what else might have been compelling his repeated slur year after year. If his complaint about literary fiction is that it lacks diversity (a complaint I would challenge), then why would he want to eliminate any of the possible kinds of stories? The interviewee clearly preferred more action-oriented fiction, which is fine, but this leads me back to the question of why he feels its necessary to dump on another kind of style. If someone else chooses to buy and read a language-driven tea and windows story, why is that a problem? Clearly, publishers wouldn’t waste money putting out this work if it didn’t resonate with readers. Shouldn’t we allow space for all aesthetics? Doesn’t the presence of one enrich the other? What possible benefit comes from writers beating up on other writers? Why is the quiet book so threatening to a man who’s now able to make a living solely from his own fiction?
Perhaps the real problem is that literary fiction is a genre without a firm definition, leaving even writers who should know better to reduce it to a small subset of what the term encompasses. Even the Wikipedia page is woefully thin and contradictory. No one, including contemporary fiction writers, seems to know just what we mean when we say “literary fiction.”
We’re poised at a moment when literary fiction has come to include a wider diversity of stories than perhaps at any other point in the history of the term, and this seems to be creating greater anxiety the blur between literary and commercial fiction. Looking through the lens of history, we could say Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a perfect example of a novel that’s literary while holding enormous and long-standing commercial appeal, but it was written at a time when all novels were dismissed as trivial entertainment. At some point, we began to separate some novels as being “high-minded” and distinguishing those from the commercial. Perhaps this begins in the nineteenth century when Matthew Arnold and others argued that English literature could be taught in the university in place of Classical literature. Arnold, like his contemporaries, saw novels as too light for inclusion, and fiction had to step up its game. The move towards subgenrification was compounded as bookstores began to segregate books by shelf to aid marketing and consumption.
The current moment finds us in an altogether different place. As brick and mortar bookstores continue to shutter, the once-solid walls between fiction genres have become fluid again. We have slipped back out of that narrow definition of literary fiction, thank goodness, and back into a broader, more inclusive mode where genres bend, blend, and comingle. For word-loving literary fiction writers, perhaps it is threatening that we cannot define our own genre, but that lack of definition also provides tremendous opportunity for cross-pollination and growth. There’s a place for anyone who loves language on the “literary fiction” shelf, and, in this boundless and borderless world, writers no longer have reason to shove one another out.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Redivider, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semifinalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com.