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Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


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American Fiction Sucks

I read a lot of translated literature. Every now and then I make an effort to find out more about what’s being produced by my own continent’s writers, but a lot of time it’s not very good. Obviously there are exceptions, but oftentimes I have a much better shot of finding something worth my time if I read stuff by dead people or by people who don’t write in English.

But I don’t think Chaon’s advice is necessarily beneficial to literary fiction writers. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible—mannered, conservative, and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published. (This is not an anti-MFA rant: I loved the program I studied in, and love the one I teach in, and enjoy helping students do their best, even when it doesn’t end up being very good.)

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10 comments to American Fiction Sucks

  • Of course, you’re presumably being offered in translation only the best or the most noteworty books being published in those countries. Most of their dross remains untranslated. Here we’re exposed to the whole range of the mediocre fiction that gets published.

  • l

    I agree with Dan’s comment. For example, Cesar Aira has become a niche favorite among many English speaking readers of translations because only his top-tier books are translated. Become exposed to him in his native Spanish and you are confronted by dozens of his lesser novels.

  • Alex

    Out of curiosity, who are the contemporary American writers whom you would consider ‘exceptions’? I’m constantly struggling to find American work that’s worth my time. Most often, I wind up reading something old, or translated, or just not fiction. I’m divided by a feeling of abhorrence at most contemporary American fiction I bother to read, and a very acute guilt at being sort of clueless about contemporary trends.

  • Alex, if you’ve not read Laird Hunt, I’d check him out. His work is most decidedly not “mannered, conservative, and obvious.”

  • Padraic

    This is pretty silly. Obviously the work of the entire history of literature + the rest of the world will be > than work being produced by Americans living right now. If, given how vastly small living and writing Americans are as a proportion of ALL literature, modern American literature could actually compete with the history of literature and the entire rest of the world, it would be astonishing.

    I find American fiction is about as proportionally good as one would expect. Give it some time to weed itself out.

  • Sawn

    This article is ridiculous, not because it is wrong, but because it seems to suggest that at sometime in the past there was a lot of great writting being produced. The percentage of good writing that lasts has always been small. Whenever I go to some used bookstore that has been around for a very long time there are stacks and stacks of ancient paperbacks – the majority of which are just terrible books – even if they may have been “best-sellers” in their day.

    Look at the books by the two people whose essays brought up this topic: Don Chaon and J. Robert Lennon – not exactly steller writers, and they are suppose to be teaching writting? What possible hope can their student have of learning anything worthhile other than perhaps grammer or maybe basic plot structure? So if they produce a Michael Connelly or a PD James they’ll be lucky.

    The most telling comment J. Robert Lennon makes is that “television is, at the moment, the most artistically important narrative medium.” Really? Because one or two programs currently are OK and not complete drivel? And how is most television written? Not by an author, but by a committee – a group of writers with a boilerplate outline of the program’s format who sit in a room bouncing ideas off of each other to meet a deadline. A great way to produce light entertainment, but not great art.

  • Sawn

    This article is ridiculous, not because it is wrong, but because it seems to suggest that at sometime in the past there was a lot of great writting being produced. The percentage of good writing that lasts has always been small. Whenever I go to some used bookstore that has been around for a very long time there are stacks and stacks of ancient paperbacks – the majority of which are just terrible books – even if they may have been “best-sellers” in their day.

    Look at the books by the two people whose essays brought up this topic: Don Chaon and J. Robert Lennon – not exactly steller writers, and they are suppose to be teaching writting? What possible hope can their student have of learning anything worthwhile other than perhaps grammer or maybe basic plot structure? So if they produce a Michael Connelly or a PD James they’ll be lucky.

    The most telling comment J. Robert Lennon makes is that “television is, at the moment, the most artistically important narrative medium.” Really? Because one or two programs currently are OK and not complete drivel? And how is most television written? Not by an author, but by a committee – a group of writers with a boilerplate outline of the program’s format who sit in a room bouncing ideas off of each other to meet a deadline. A great way to produce light entertainment, but not great art.

  • Chuck

    Coincidentally I just purchased J. Robert Lennon’s most recent novel. Perhaps I should return it unread since it qualifies as recent American fiction.

  • Rachel Owlglass

    I’m seconding Sawn and also pointing toward new books by Gass, McElroy, Coover, and Pynchon this year that might suck, but probably won’t.

  • Pat O'Donnell

    Late coming to this: to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “suck” is just a four-letter word. Most of anything, generically, sucks. Most wine (if placed alongside the best wine), most films (if placed alongside, etc.), most American fiction “sucks.” That’s precisely why edged, discriminating criticism is important: to help us find the way through the fog. “Most . . . sucks” is a zero-sum game; saying that Gaddis, Bolano, Marias, etc., are worth spending one’s time on, and why, is helpful and illuminating.

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