We’re not quite halfway through 2017 yet, but I’ve noticed a very visible pattern to my reading this year: I’m not enjoying novels the way that I always have. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel that has really blown me away, the way memoirs from Patricia Highsmith and Sherman Alexie did this year. No novel has wowed me with its ingenuity and energy and passion, the way Claudia Rankine’s Citizen did. No novel has reached out and forced me to reconsider the world the way The Righteous Mind did.
The book-critic-o-sphere, even in its weakened state, has already promoted quite a few novels as the year’s best, of course. And if you’re preparing to counter this post with a tweet that reads “But, @paulconstant, did you read [insert hot 2017 novel title here]?” let me assure you that the odds are good that yes, I did try the book. I’ve abandoned more novels this year than at any other point in my reading life. I’ve tried almost every flavor-of-the-month and none of them have moved me.
I haven’t written reviews of these books or called them out on social media because, frankly, I’m not sure what the source of this problem might be. There are two options:
Maybe I’m not in a place to receive good fiction right now. This happens every so often, especially in politically difficult times. I couldn’t read fiction during the end days of the 2008 or 2012 elections, for example. So perhaps my adjustment into the Trump administration has temporarily eaten the part of my brain that enjoys novels. If so, I’m sure it’s a temporary condition and my fiction-brain will reaffirm itself eventually.
Perhaps we’re in a fallow period for modern literary fiction. It has been a while since some person or group of people has claimed a new literary aesthetic as their own. Not everyone is happy with these moments in literary history, but they at least provide a point of discussion for writers to consider as they move forward. As a young man, I was thrilled by the whole McSweeney’s aesthetic, which seemed to reinvigorate literature for younger audiences. I was less thrilled with the Tao Lin-style simple-prose aesthetic that made a big deal of ostentatiously incorporating tech brands like Gchat and Facebook into the narrative. But at least those writers offered critics something to align themselves against. You may not agree with a literary movement, but you can’t argue that literary movements allow literature the opportunity to reinvestigate what it has and has not been doing well.
Either of those statements may be true. Perhaps I’m too distracted by current events and addled by Twitter to focus on the quality literature that’s being published this year. Or perhaps we’re in a too-comfortable fallow period of the kind that has traditionally preceded some young writer’s attempt to blow the whole damn kingdom up in order to reinvent it.
Either way, I can’t wait until I’m eagerly engaging with literature again; this last half-year has been difficult, because while non-fiction might help me understand the world and poetry might help me see the world, I build my world out of fiction. A good novel rebuilds your understanding of the universe from start to finish, and I have rarely lived in a universe more in need of reinvention than this universe we’re living in right now.