You've met these two words before. You know what Contemporary means, and what Fiction is. Have you met the two words together, walking arm-in-arm, along the boulevard? And when they introduced themselves, did they just say their names; or did you infer a relationship there, a shared meaning that implied more?
For comparison, consider Modern Art. Suppose we walk into a friend's studio, and she just finished a painting. So we know it's Modern, and it's Art. Looking at it, we see something in a Renaissance style, or perhaps a velvet Elvis. In either case we know instantly, it isn't Modern Art.
I'll ask again: What is Contemporary Fiction? What do those two words, joined together, mean to you? When in doubt, ask the internet. Aha. Contemporary Fiction means:
A fictional book (events, settings, characters etc. described are not real) set in contemporary times (modern times)What a paltry definition! There's scant meaning here, and no beauty. This definition does not resonate at all. No doubt about it, I'm throwing this definition out, back into the electric sea I fished it from.
Ugh. I still feel that clammy, feeble definition, flapping in my hand, gasping for breath. I pity the puny creature. May it swim the etherial seas, nibbling up more meaning, until it grows into something considerable. We'll fish for it again in a couple of pages, when it has more flesh on its bones.
Forget the fish for now. We're safe here, on solid ground. Breathe deeply; inhale the pine, the orange blossom, tendering natural bliss. Look at the forest all around us, stretching off into eternity. A soothing symphony for the eyes: pea green, tea green, sap green, sea green; moss, mint, myrtle, laurel, lime; apple, ivy, shamrock, sage, juniper; jade, emerald, viridian, harlequin... We discern more shades of green than any other color. These trees around us, and carpeting the valley below, they are all the prose that ever was.
What makes prose great? The question, like this forest, is too large to grasp. What makes a novel great? I spend a lot of time here, alone, wandering these woods. I've been pondering that very question. I have about twenty answers, but only three I'm sure of. A great novel needs at least three excellences: Plot, Characters and Style.
Style is the most fluid of these three, the hardest to define. Each tree we see here is the style of an author. Pick a tree, any tree. They all start from the same place. The fundaments of style are the roots, sucking up the water of clarity and the minerals of meaning. At ground level, Style is what Strunk & White teach: how to write in a clear and orderly fashion, so you can get your meaning across. Some authors radiate this. Orwell, Austen and Hemingway are never obscure, and never half-empty.
Style can grow much higher. Look at those redwoods, scraping at the belly of the sky: Joyce, Rushdie, Wallace and Woolf. Up in the canopy we marvel at the profusion, all the different fruits and flowers there. Even the leaves look distinct, from tree to tree. A myriad of shapes, so very many shades of green.
Every ambitious author wants to grow their own tree, a tree so fresh and fruitful that you and I, and many other wanderers, will come throughout the centuries to admire and enjoy the particular style they planted here. What gives a tree such unique beauty that it thrives for centuries? Harold Bloom has wandered and pondered these paths more than I have. In The Western Canon he responds to this question:
I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange...Bloom is talking about the redwoods here. Not every tree can be that tall, nor should it. These behemoths are thrilling, and show us new vistas - but they wear us out, too. "Uncanny startlement" is an uncomfortable place to live. Still, it's hard to be an exceptional author without finding an original voice, and without at least reaching towards the bold azure sublime.
When you read a canonical work for the first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations. Read freshly, all that The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Faust Part Two, Hadji Murad, Peer Gynt, Ulysses and Canto general have in common is their uncanniness, their ability to make you feel strange at home.
Is that always so, I wonder. What about Jane Austen? She has a skillful narrative voice, and an exquisite moral sensitivity, but she never sets my imagination on fire. However, she may be one of those Bloom mentions, "that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange." She does sound a bit like many other Romance novelists. The difference is, it was strange when she wrote it, for Austen invented the genre.
Now we're ready to fish again. If anyone has a considerable answer for our hook, it's bookgirl. Let's see what she had to say when she started this Contemporary Fiction Views series:
...subscribing to The New Yorker. This was during Mr. Shawn's last years as editor, and his tenure introduced me to a completely different world. Subscribing has been my lifeline to the greater world of ideas out there beyond my door, as I've never lived in a big city.Oh! I see what bookgirl did there. Did you catch that? We've been swindled. It's like she promised us fruit loops, and then all she has is grape nuts. I came in here, like you, because I saw 'Contemporary Fiction' on the marquee, and I was curious. After we've paid admission, we're milling about inside, and now bookgirl is selling us 'Contemporary Literary Fiction.'
The fiction of that era was a magical introduction to contemporary literature. Cheever, Updike, Munro, Trevor -- they whetted my appetite for exploring worlds not my own. Over time, stories such as Alice Munro's The Albanian Virgin and Carried Away awakened my belief in the power of fiction to put me in someone else's experience. Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain remains one of the strongest reading experiences of my life, and I'll be forever grateful to The New Yorker for publishing it. That final image of the two coats on one hanger made me gasp out loud, then bawl my head off. What love. What loss. What power...
That did it. I was hooked. And what a joy it has been to be addicted, because otherwise I would not have discovered:
Don DeLillo and the magnificent Underworld (especially that glorious opening sequence at the game where the Shot Heard Round the World was hit),
the heartache and love in Larry Watson's Montana, 1948, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, Per Petterson's work and Alice McDermott's Charming Billy,
the sheer beauty in Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Martin Booth's The Industry of Souls,
the exuberance of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and Zadie Smith's White Teeth,
the darting can-we-believe-the-narrator play of Kazuo Ishiguro,
the multiple ways to tell a story in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin,
the resilence in Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,
the fables in novels by Colson Whitehead and Richard Flanagan,
the skewering social commentary in Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park,
the longing for home in Bo Caldwell's The Distant Land of My Father,
the big messiness of Salman Rushdie's stories run amuck,
the unknown made known and combined with the familiar in the work of Diana Abu-Jaber and Jhumpa Lahiri,
the quest for the real in Peter Carey's novels,
the quirkiness of Hilary Mantel and,
above all for me, the magic of Haruki Murakami. Oh the stories that sweet soul weaves. Just read his work. Any of it. All of it. I'm taking my time with his latest, 1Q84, simply because I want it to wash over me and become absorbed instead of inhaled.
Contemporary literary fiction may draw the scorn of those who do not see its treasures. But it's a genre that extends, reworks and plays with its boundaries even as it delves into the depths of the human heart and the scope of what people are capable of dreaming, destroying, grieving and creating.
We mistrust Literature, because we've heard it's nutritious. To be fair, bookgirl does make it sound appetizing, too. Her definition has more meaning, beauty and resonance than that guppy we had to throw back in the sea. Now we have a fish worth considering.
Look in bookgirl's quote, at those 14 single lines on 21 different authors of Contemporary Fiction. They are a kind of sonnet, a kaleidoscope of qualities, reflecting the myriad possibilities of the genre. Now, from her last paragraph, let's pluck out one chord that resonates: Contemporary Fiction is " a genre that extends, reworks and plays with its boundaries".
You could say that these authors are literary. Or you could say that they each share a certain ambition. They don't want to follow familiar formulas, and tell the same old stories again. Each of these authors is working out a style of their own, so that they can tell us something fresh.
Contemporary Fiction is not only set in modern times, it is alive right now. It lives, as William James said of the present moment, in a "perfect effervescence of newness". These budding shoots, few of them will make it to their heaven, the canon. But it is wonderful to feel their vitality, and to see how hungrily they reach up.