The Weightlessness of Contemporary Literary Short Fiction

I’m going to get hate mail over this, but I don’t care. It has to be said aloud because a lot of people are thinking it, others feeling it, but neither is saying it: the vast majority of contemporary literary fiction is beautifully crafted prose wholly devoid of substance. It is masterful meaninglessness. I’m speaking especially of short fiction here, the kind found in literary magazines. When I do bother to read one of the well-established brands—I don’t think I need to name them—I come away forgetting everything I’ve read because none of the stories said anything to me. The stories are like exercises in style, like perfectly choreographed ballets about nothing.

I don’t get this feeling when I read genre writers like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. Sure, some of Bradbury’s stuff is childish and Dick’s paranoid universe can get a little old, but many of their stories have depth to them. Take Bradbury’s The Burning Man.  The characters’ encounter with “genetic evil” on a hot summer day speaks to a deep-seated fear in the human soul: that we can unintentionally stumble across evil that can only be held at bay so long by cunning before it consumes us.

Or take The Veldt, one of Bradbury’s best-known stories. It’s often portrayed as a cautionary tale about the effects of immersive technology—a warning about video games before the first one had even been created. But it has a deeper resonance. The children kill their parents because they’ve been cut off from the real world by their parents’ own well-intentioned desire to insulate them from it.  The world of human relations—of love, obligations, goals and striving for excellence—has been replaced by one where every need is met by technology. In attempting to create happy children, in other words, the parents have created sociopaths who know, feel and desire nothing beyond the sensual inputs provided by the artificial world created to entertain them into happiness. It’s something every parent agonizes over.

Contemporary literary fiction, by contrast, is devoid of real pathos. The most delicate and refined of sentiments are as deep as it gets. In fact, this aesthetic is intentional. Someone loses a not-so-loved one or witnesses an accident and then ruminates about it as a complete outsider—endless rumination on trivialities by witnesses to mundane events. There’s also something unsavory lurking in this too common how-it-affects-me standpoint. The person actually suffering is cast into the background so the bystander narrator can ruminate on how it affected him emotionally.  This is the especially unsettling dimension in all of it.

If you’re still not convinced of the problem with the aesthetic, let me put it in more concrete terms. Suppose a friend comes to you and wants to extemporize for an hour or two on his feelings over the death of a neighbour he had never even spoken to. Would you not invent some excuse to get out of it? “Sorry, I have to wash my car. Can this wait until next year some time?” And if you wouldn’t listen to what is, frankly, shameful self-indulgence, why in the name of Zeus would you read it?

Isn’t it ultimately decadent navel-gazing? Isn’t that where it originates—in decadence? After all, the stories I’ve read have their closest kinship in form and feeling with late imperial Rome, when every literary work was a glossy, meaningless ditty churned out to titillate with the cleverness of the style and lightness of its sentiments. How else does one define what is at once so beautifully wrought and yet so utterly superficial?

Now, I’ll allow the possibility that I missed something—that there are great examples of literary short fiction that I’ve completely overlooked. And I do desperately invite the opposite view. But be forewarned: don’t bother informing me about wonders without justification. Don’t just give me titles and authors and instruct me to read them. I need you to make the case; simply asserting it may demonstrate your elevated tastes to this philistine, but it won’t move me.

The floor is open. Please prove me wrong.

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4 thoughts on “The Weightlessness of Contemporary Literary Short Fiction

    1. In a word, no. Myers complained about pretentious purple prose in literary fiction. I’m talking about the content. Most literary journals publish beautifully written prose that’s as empty as the Saviour’s tomb.

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