After the New Yorker’s 20 fiction writers under 40 came out, I quoted Phillip Meyer on this very blog. So to review, what made him go from a guy with two failed novels living in his parents’ basement to someone Deborah Treisman picked to be one of the best voices of a generation under 40?
[I began] to seriously question my writing. It occurred to me that I couldn’t even define literature—not even to myself. I could give very erudite and intimidating answers to other people, the sort of bullshit that anyone with an English degree can throw up as a smokescreen, but I didn’t have a substantive answer that I believed in. I didn’t know why I liked the books I liked. So I decided I would throw everything away, everything I’d heard in college and everything else. I decided I would trust only myself—what I really believed and felt to be true. Which, of course, didn’t exactly occur overnight: it probably took the better part of 2004. But it was a very conscious effort. That was when things began to change. I think of it as year zero, though it was actually year ten.
And I think what he’s saying is that to be an artist, and not just a curator of ideas, you have to have a real sensibility of what art is. This is more than having an aesthetic, though that’s part of it. It’s making a decision about art’s purpose.
I’m still trying to make those decisions myself. As far as I can tell, a good story builds to a moment where something true happens. What that truth is depends on the writer. Part of the reason Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It works so well is each story builds to the truth of conflicting desire.
David Grann, who for my money is the best non-fiction writer around, also has a clear idea of how long form journalism should work. All of his pieces use experts to prove and disprove each other, until he gets to the truth of his case.
For right now, I just want my fiction to reveal some truth. The thing with novels versus short fiction (and the triumph of short fiction in this year’s Pulitzer) is that the novel is set-up to do something fundamentally impossible: explore a whole world. Short fiction attempts to just reveal part of it.
Ok, off to work on my new collection of short fiction: Feelings That the Author Effortlessly Makes Seem Universal.