Alexander Nazaryan, wrote an article in Salon.com, that underscored Mr. Engdahl’s comment by saying, in effect, “He’s right.”
Nazaryan wrote that American writers are “too insular and self-involved,” too “interior.” Nazaryan blames the mantra of writing teachers over the last three decades or so to “write what you know.” In his view, this caution (or rule) makes American writers avoid the imagination, what he calls the “great leap of faith.”
For my part, I think there’s some truth in the idea that American writers are too “inward.” I also think the literary establishment is too timid to venture beyond well traveled opinions of what is good fiction.
However, the blanket indictment that novelists only write about their own psyches is denied daily by the vibrant activity among genre writers, whose works find an audience. I enjoy writing about Montana during the Civil War era because that way I can get beyond myself, to the “not me.” Of course, Nazaryan also complains that too many American writers are stuck in the 19th or 20th centuries instead of writing “new fiction.”
Perhaps. For my part, I’m trying to make sense of this enormous and complex nation I was born in, which may be at a crossroads as important as the Civil War, with some of the same issues still alive. With current events and controversies in mind, I write about a time when these same controversies stirred the nation to war with itself. History in historical fiction becomes a metaphor for the present.
Besides, it’s exciting to turn my thinking over to the right side of the brain, where imagination lives, and let ‘er rip. The characters surprise me with their comments and conversations and above all, with their decisions. None of these are strictly mine.
That’s part of what’s so much fun about writing fiction. I get in touch with the “not me.”
At the recent Montana Festival of the Book, with the concurrent Western Literature Association conference, I met writers and scholars of the Western, both traditional Westerns and the writers of historical and contemporary fiction set west of the Mississippi.
Nazaryan is, of course, as contemptuous of Western writers as he is of the inwardness of current literary fiction, if not more so.
Both Engdahl and Nazaryan are missing the point here.
The American literary scene is vibrant, experimental, contentious, fragmented, and above all, wildly alive. Those of us in the thick of it may well consider the whole Nobel thing to be irrelevant. We’re too engaged, too caught up in the tidal wave of publishing change to concern ourselves with the sneers of the pretentious.