Aug 29, 2021

fiction: not all interiority

I’m focused on writing short stories this fall, and I loved coming across this strong-headed affirmation by Lydia Millet about the range of concerns in fiction, outside pure individualism and interiority:

[Christian Lorentzen]: What effect do you think neoliberalism has had on American writing? Does it cause certain types of writing to be valued more than others?

My sense, obviously as a reader and writer and not a historian, is that there’s been a fairly clear parallel between the devaluation of collectivism in economics and policy and its devaluation in fiction. And probably art in general. Our most popular and lauded literary stories have increasingly been about the life arc of the private individual. The personal struggles of a self and the ultimate triumph of that self over the obstacles in its path, or, approached more subtly, a story of the delicate accommodations a personal self makes with the other personal selves that constrain its behavior or obstruct the realization of its desires.

Either way, the assumptions of neoliberalism—at their foundation, that so-called free markets are the best and the only possible model for macrosocial organization—has become an existential tenet of Americanism. So, fiction is often deemed to be overreaching itself unless it accepts that precondition—in a sense, unless it agrees to play a humble, apolitical, nonphilosophical role. Agrees to stipulate that its job is not to critique the way power is structured: Outside identity politics, arguably, power structures aren’t up for discussion in fiction. Just not on the table.

The notion seems to be that only the personal is a viable subject—the novel’s consecrated form. That novels have to be exclusively about the personal, because hey, they’re about people and people’s feelings. But it’s a specious idea, a self-inflicted wound. A Stockholm syndrome gesture of abstention that pretends feelings aren’t intermeshed with abstract thought, with our illusions and presumptions about our place in the wider landscape.

Novels offer interiority, for sure, but there’s no law, aesthetic or otherwise, that says an interior monologue has to limit itself to the realm of the domestic, the therapeutic, or the transactional. To the scrutiny and ascendancy of interpersonal relationships. In fact interiority is perfectly free to go beyond immediate, self-absorbed questions like what does this made-up person want and how does this made-up person get it. And even beyond more important questions of personal feeling and being, like how do I get less sad? How do I feel less alone? Or how do I resign myself to my own death? It can ask other things, like why we’re afraid to die or why we want what we want. It can ask about the ethics and effects of desire and mortality. It can look at the places our blind spots drive us to. It can ask anything.