‘Woke’ Fiction Writing–is it Responsible for the Decline of the Serious Novel?
Are you getting bored by so-called literary fiction these days? Perhaps finding it didactic, lecturing and hectoring—and terribly predictable? One of the results of the ‘liberal consensus’ which almost everyone I know shares, is that there is a great tribe of people who not only have the same views on nearly every issue, but also that this tribe, composed largely of academics and the intelligentsia, expects its writers to trumpet those views, and punishes writers who fail to do so. Writers have always been concerned with social issues like poverty, prejudice against women, certain social classes, and ethnic and other minorities; the difference is that nowadays, instead of investigating them, dispassionately, and allowing the reader to make up his or her mind, many writers are simply preaching: using fictional forms to promote an ideology. And unquestionably the ideology in fashion is the ‘woke’ one.
Few, if any, of my writer friends would admit to prejudice of any kind, sexist, racial, or whatever, and I’m sure that is sincere. I don’t consider myself a prejudiced person either—obviously I can’t speak for subconscious prejudices, which the psychologists assure us we are all guilty of—and I approve wholeheartedly of tolerance and diversity. Nevertheless, if ‘woke’ attitudes are the only acceptable ones, literature (and of course journalism) becomes terribly tedious. We know that the old white guy is going to be a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe or transphobe, or possibly all of these. Equally we can predict that the old black or Asian or Native American woman is going to be kind, compassionate, wise and loving. There may be novelists who have the courage to depict complex characters, including minorities with serious faults, and white men with an occasional virtue, but even a cursory glance at the lists of who’s winning and being shortlisted for literary prizes shows that on the whole writers are rewarded for having the right views now, not for the quality of their writing. Let’s be frank: they are also rewarded for having the right sex (gender, if you prefer), sexuality, ethnicity and so on too.
Am I against diversity? Of course not. I welcome writers from every kind of background, as long as they can write. Reading Arab fiction writers, for example, taught me as much or more than living in the Middle East. However, I don’t want to read a writer just because she’s a woman, or Latina, or transgender, or whatever. First and foremost I want to read beautifully written fiction, and I want diversity of opinion and theme more than diversity of the author’s background. I want to be challenged by what I read: I don’t just want my own views repeated back to me, however flattering that may be.
And what is ‘wokeness’, really, but a parroting of pious platitudes, often insincere—we all know it’s the only game in town now—and revolting in its sanctimoniousness? I dislike politically correct writers, not necessarily because I disagree with them, but because I find their condescension offensive, and their sheer laziness unrewarding.
Publishers are increasingly unwilling to bet on literary fiction. The market for it is declining, particularly among men. Could that be because people are sick and tired of the preaching, the whining, and the same old themes—the oppression of minorities by the white patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and so on? Could it be that they are bored to death with reading about victims of one kind or another?
If literature is to recover its once vital place in our intellectual and spiritual life, it needs to be more honest, more iconoclastic, more unsettling—and it needs to take up the ancient mythic themes once again: the quest, the hero’s journey, tragedy and rebirth. At the moment, most of it is going down a dead-end street.
Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell, until 2017 professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the National University of the United Arab Emirates inspired him to write his story collection, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. Powell lives in northern Portugal and writes full-time. His novel, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, was published by Flame Books in 2022, and is available from their website, Amazon, and all good bookshops.
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