When I was twenty-nine, shortly after I started writing fiction, I went to a two-day workshop. The first night, a group of writers—including an accomplished or at least published novelist (I forget who it was; I'm not choosing not to name him)—were sitting around talking about the "writing life." Loose after a few drinks, I asked them if they ever questioned the value of writing fiction. "It feels indulgent," I said.
There was an awkward silence, as if I'd said something borderline racist or taken off my pants. Finally, the published author suggested that I might not have the stuff to be a fiction writer. Among writers, it's taken on faith that what we do is important.
And I agree, to a degree. Sometimes I agree. Reading fiction I love makes me feel connected to other human beings and more capable of handling adversity. That's not nothing. That's really something. In my optimistic moments, I'm able to believe that fiction makes people more empathetic and compassionate, better.
(Does writing fiction make me better? That's a separate but related question. A lot of fiction writers are douchebags, but maybe they were bigger douchebags before they started writing fiction.)
I've never had the kind of certainty that graced Sam Shepard, who, reflecting on the beginning of his career, wrote, "I thought to myself the only thing to be in this life is an artist. That's the only thing that makes any sense."
Here's where I'm supposed to tell you that on top of writing fiction, I do grassroots political organizing, design contraptions to reduce carbon emissions, and volunteer four times a week in a soup kitchen. Not the case. While I have worked for public interest nonprofits and done journalism on various social issues, I also question the usefulness of this work, so my doubts about fiction's importance are clearly tied to a larger anxiety about not helping humanity.
My doubts are also tied to my anxiety over the diminished power of fiction in our culture. It's hard to imagine something with the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle coming out today. What was the last novel to spur social progress?
On the other hand, people have been lamenting "the diminished power of fiction" for decades now. It carries on and, by some measures, is doing pretty well. As Richard Price says, "The novel will be at your funeral."
So before our funerals arrive, maybe we fiction writers should think big. (Oh, man; now I sound like Jonathan Franzen.) I'm talking about fiction that brings downs corporate criminals, inspires social movements, becomes a handbook for radical activists. Where's the great modern American prison novel? The Black Lives Matter story collection? The great anti-capitalist fiction for this era of economic inequality and imperialist plunder?
These might exist, actually. Maybe small presses are putting them out. Maybe big presses are putting them out but they're not making a big impact because, as I said, fiction usually doesn't. Maybe publishing houses turned them down because their authors' previous works didn't sell well and isn't that a crappy reason to reject books? (Asking for a friend.)
My semi-educated guess is that there are indeed openings for ambitious, explicitly political novels. We need them. So write one, would you?