Ah, sour grapes. Listen, I read a fair amount of fiction, but if I wanted to describe what I’ve seen in the past few years I could do it with a sadly short list of topics and types. They tend to overlap, I presume by necessity, which means they can be freely combined should you wish to construct a generic bestseller:
1. The woman who discovers / recovers herself. These stories tend to be pretty straightforward, even Little Women grade straightforward, which is really odd for a contemporary theme. They’re all: When will she finally figure out what everyone’s known all along? She never, ever figures out anything everyone hasn’t known all along, except maybe a relatively unimportant plot point.
2. The New York or California novel (can be Dublin, etc.). This is what I think of as a DIRTY book, one you find again six months later and wonder: “Did I read that yet?” It’s highly intelligent and wannabe edgy, drops the names of artists and rappers, invariably details what the protagonist has for breakfast, if rife with job dissatisfaction, has a troubled but uninteresting romance, and why the hell am I reading this pretentious, self-involved crap anyway?
3. The psychological mystery, increasingly feminist, although I suspect that tag is sometimes added after the fact. Here the violence is extreme, the danger real, secrets often span generations, and if it’s set in a small town things aren’t remotely what they seem. You know where you’re heading with this one; it’ll be unpleasant but cathartic. Have a fun trip.
4. The immigrant experience, which turns out to be difficult and often depressing. There’s generally a return to the home country, where strangely, things seem to be going better. This one is important, but on its own too familiar.
5. The fantasy element book, usually employing some kind of convergence or warp in time, and interesting because it exists. It hasn’t been done right yet. This renewed interest in the way time works is about something actually profound that deserves a decent book, and I think I’ll write it.
6. The adolescent experience, inner city or rural, featuring drugs and/or incest and/or physical abuse. It will end with the protagonist in a new if not necessarily more favorable situation.
7. The book about the gay / trans experience. This overlaps one or more other categories; I don’t know that I’ve seen it standing alone, but maybe that’s just me. A couple of weeks ago I read a novel / memoir about a gay semi-rural immigrant dealing and the opioid epidemic. It was valid and quite decently done, simultaneously fresh and tired.
8. The science fiction book about the Internet or else a dystopian future / the science fiction book about alien invaders or a mission to Mars. Sometimes a random gleam of light, an actual idea, winds through the simple survival mechanics of this genre; merely an invention, mind you, not an insight or revelation, not that kind of raw concept.
None of the above are anything like great, although they’re constantly described as such. All those pages, all those characters, and not one truly tears the heart. Compare, for example The Goldfinch, which is objectively a terrible book, derivative and sloppy, and I loved it.
Well, once artificial intelligence takes over the publishing business along with everything else, it will automatically select only excellent works of fiction precisely fitted to the above urgent topics. That’s because AI is entirely self-referential. And after all, if you have to choose between equally good books, and you really can’t tell which is best, or why, go for the one that’ll make it a better world. The book-buying public, passionate adherents to the cause, will naturally love it.
I suggest AI favor climate change as well. I definitely need some fresh air.
And speaking of fiction, see the Home page for a link to purchase Worthy of This Great City, or read the Prologue on the Excerpts page.
Photo credits: Giang, Bookstore (CC BY 2.0) / Bovee and Thill, Artificial Intelligence (CC BY 2.0) / Sparsh Ahuja, Genius (CC BY 2.0)