Pioneers and Settlers

Covered Wagon in Kansas Windstorm, Harper’s magazine, 1879

We talked yesterday about the difficulties in differentiating between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Today, I’d like to offer an alternative classification scheme. But I need to give you a little backstory first.

I’ve written before about an editor at a major house describing one of her recent acquisitions as “the first millennial post-apocalyptic office novel.” I was, and remain, unimpressed by the innovation, but I know that people love to put things together in new ways. And this takes us to another of the comments I’ve received from my writing group:

The academic angle by itself would be a tough sell, and the foster angle by itself has been done many times over. Put them together and there’s great potential for new energy.

This, I think, is perhaps one of the most crucial differences between what we think of as literary fiction and all the rest. Those who would aspire to the “literary” label must be pioneers. They must construct something unlike what has come before. They are pushing the boundaries of what is known about fiction; their allegiance is to literature as a practice, rather than to any particular story itself.

I’m grateful for pioneers. But a vastly larger number of writers might better be described as settlers, building productive and neighborly lives on land already cleared.

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

C. S. Lewis

Where does this drive to novelty (the word novel, of course, being closely related) come from? Well, there’ve always been pioneers, in every field. But to oversimplify, I think that a lot of the pressure to create self-consciously literary fiction comes from the second half of the 20th century and the normalization of the MFA in creative writing. University faculty have their jobs not merely because of what they know, but because they’re engaged in the creation of new knowledge. They research and publish things that the rest of the world has never before understood.

That’s easy to demonstrate in the world of physical and social science. We do a literature review that tells us what we do and don’t know about some phenomenon, and then we propose a question and a set of methods that will help us know something more than we did. MFA faculty are likewise pushed to create that which has not before existed; not merely a more perfectly honed version of a known form, but a new form that advances (and occasionally unsettles) the field. The abilities to name the established knowledge and to formulate a hypothesis are substantially different than they are in more “tame” fields, but the drive toward advancing our knowledge is the same.

Since college faculty recreate their own interests among their students—not through imitating the smallest areas of content and form, but in dedication to the larger principles of originality and advance—all of those MFA grads who now populate agencies and editorial offices and book-review columns are trained to see novelty as a definitional trait of serious fiction. It’s a paradoxical sort of meta-copying, nervously looking over our shoulder to see the wave of current interest crashing down behind us. We will surf, or die.

I often find it useful to compare one’s field to others; the comparison helps to highlight things we take for granted in our work, that are entirely unlike the work of different crafts.

There are a handful of restaurants, for instance, that carve out the boundaries of what can be done with food. Molecular gastronomy, cellular aquaculture, gas-injected protein foams—the culinary world is always moving, just as any craft is always moving. But the proportion of restaurants that live out on that edge is minuscule; most restaurants are just trying to provide a good evening of hospitality, as its particular body of customers defines that. And that’s noble work, and damned hard to do well.

Culinary schools and kitchen apprenticeships focus on known craft, and teach their participants how to do good work reliably, efficiently, and with some degree of grace. If there were a master of fine arts in culinary production, the restaurant professions would shift much more thoroughly toward the pioneer rather than the settler. Conversely, if writers were trained in literary institutes, preparing for steady professional lives in writing, those programs would be turning out lots and lots of settlers who were prepared to offer solid genre experiences.

And let me be clear that the difference I’m proposing between pioneers and settlers is in no way a value judgment, whether we’re talking about dining or reading. It’s a statement of preference rather than absolute worth, and it relieves us of the burden of deciding what’s “canonical.” We’d quit worrying about representation and dead white men, and we’d be talking about different kinds of experiences for different communities who held different preferences—and we’d be talking in detail about those preferences and experiences, and thus broadening all of our own.

One last pass through this stuff tomorrow.

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