Brief Thoughts on Fiction in America

I mentioned in a post on 15 November that I’m currently serving on the search committee for a job opening in my department. The position is for a fiction writer, so I’ve been reading lots of short stories which serve as the candidates’ writing samples. Much of the fiction is quite good, which is comforting because it shows that American literature is in a good place and that there is an up-and-coming generation of writers who will help it continue to thrive.

However, virtually all of the stories that I’ve read thus far–both realist and speculative, and by both whites and persons of color and across genders–have been about alienation, about failing relationships, about characters who have enough material goods to be happy, but are not. While it is true that it is usually more interesting to read about imperfect characters and scenarios than their opposite (e.g., the American literature from the 1950s that has lasted is also mostly about these themes), this trend gives me pause because of what it says about the current state of American life. What does it mean when the people who should be happiest because of their level of education and wealth remain dissatisfied?

Obviously this is not an original question, and the political side of me immediately wants to answer “Of course people aren’t happy! Capitalism has rotted their souls!” or something like that, but nevertheless it is always troubling when I am again reminded of it. It is difficult not to think that America is heading for a painful reckoning sometime soon. This status quo can’t last.

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