On Fiction: An Interview with Jared Yates Sexton
Jared Yates Sexton, an Indiana native, is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. His short story collection, An End to All Things, was published by Atticus Books in 2012, and he is putting final touches on his second novel. His work, which has appeared internationally, has been nominated for two Pushcarts, the Million Writer’s Award, Best of the Web, and was a finalist for the New American Fiction Prize. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jared about his thoughts on current trends as well as the future of literary fiction.
Linda Legters: The conventions of fiction deserve respect, but so do stories that successfully break free. You do both. I’m thinking of the stories in your collection, An End to all Things, as well as the far less conventional “Alone, Ypsilanti.” With regards to the latter, experimental literature — art — can seem to rely too heavily on gimmick. “Alone, Ypsilanti,” breaks with convention without ever losing sight of the power of story. In your own work, and as a teacher, how do you play with, or even dispense with, convention without disappearing into gimmick?
Jared Yates Sexton: That’s a tricky question because it happens. What I try and tell my students is that if you’re going to write an experimental piece, if you’re going to mess with frame, voice, or logic, then there better well be a good reason for it. And there are plenty of good reasons. “Alone, Ypsilanti” is the way it is because it’s about the blurring of reality and perceived reality. Experimenting for the sake of experimenting is awesome, and something I encourage students to do regularly, but when putting a finished piece of fiction out there it should have intention.
LL: Tanuj Solanki writes (in the voice of his narrator) in his story “The Geometry of the Gaze”: “The grand continuity of narrative is no more. All that became hyper killed it — hyper-reality, hyper-referentiality.” He says this in response to the idea that perhaps our inner lives are more broken than ever before. Perhaps this is true, but to what extent must fiction mirror these fractures — and there is certainly a place for this — and to what extent can fiction also offer order, or a place to repair our broken insides?
JYS: I actually disagree with that statement as a whole. First of all, though I’m a pessimist by trade, I think the “inner lives” of people have always been broken in some way or another. In the past maybe it was a lack of self-recognition, then agency, and now perhaps there’s a feeling of malaise or disconnectedness from self. But I think people, depending on their time, always feel like “______ is worse than ever before.”
That being said, if the problem really is the fracturing of reality, or linear narrative, then isn’t the antidote linear narrative? I feel like a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to rationalize their use of experimental techniques or frames by trumping up societal change. While I like to employ experimental language and frames myself, it’s usually only in response to facets or trends that need satirizing or, for lack of a better term, demand hyper-reality or hyper-grotesquerie. Other than that, I usually prefer linear stories.
LL: I don’t believe continuity is dead, either, and I’m frustrated by things clever replacing the search for truth, which for me defines art. For example, the ‘story’ in an anthology that is a list of song titles. Or the story that won a high-level contest a few years ago that was a grocery store list.
JYS: I couldn’t agree more. There’s so much cleverness now. Novelty. It’s getting hard for some writers to publish well-crafted stories just because there’s a deluge of gimmicky stories and books. The list stories, the powerpoint stories, the clever little flash pieces. It’s aggravating on a whole other level. Seems like all the good writers I know are frustrated a lot of the time.
LL: Are you saying there is no place for flash fiction?
JYS: Oh, sure there’s a place for Flash, though I don’t really care for that term, or Micro, or Short-Short, or any of those designations necessarily. I think you can write short stories that are surprisingly short and exhaustingly long, but I prefer stories that are self-contained and/or effecting.
When I write, I don’t like to ever waste a sentence. If it’s in a story or a book I intended that line to have something to do, whether it’s moving plot forward, foreshadowing, channeling authorial intent, setting scene, or earning authority, and I tell my students that if they follow the same type of intentional focus they’ll feel naturally when their story is running toward its conclusion. For me, regardless of length, it’s the story, or the plot, and I can feel it quickening or lengthening toward its outcome.
LL: Gabriel Garcia-Marquez wrote that fiction is driven by love, humor, politics, and nostalgia. Certainly your stories are full of love and humor. Do you see them as nostalgic? How about political?
JYS: Well, thank you. I like to think there’s love and humor in there. As for nostalgia, there’s definitely a nod to where and how I grew up. I’m from a small town in Indiana and I’m from a dirt-poor family that lived simple, albeit dysfunctional, lives. Many of the characters in my writing are from that background or possessed of that difficulty. By the same token, I’ve had some rough times in my life that bleed their way through. So yeah, when I write about those things, it’s familiar.
And politics — yes. When I write something I want it to have meaning, resonance. I tell my students there aren’t many times in their life where they’ll have an audience willing to entertain their points of view. On the page is one of the few.
LL: Charm. This word keeps cropping up at conferences and workshops. Stories that are publishable apparently need charm. How would you define this?
JYS: My initial reaction to the word “charm” is that it’s a buzz word. But, depending on what definition’s being used, I suppose that’s correct. Thinking about it like an enchantment, or the idea that the author’s job is to dazzle the reader into believing what they’re reading, seems like an apt idea.
LL: You have said that fiction from and about the ‘fly-over states’ is neglected. Are there other segments that are underrepresented?
JYS: Sure. There are a lot of underrepresented groups and subjects. Women. Minorities. LGBTQ authors. Poor writers and stories about poor people. Writers who haven’t been educated in MFA programs. Writers who write shocking, riveting stories with structurally-sound sentences. Writers who might appeal to non-academics or the public at-large.
LL: Despite constant ‘fiction is dead’ proclamations, including a recent one from Mother Jones, there seems to be a surge of interest in literary magazines, as well as a new and wonderful profusion of small presses. Any comments?
JYS: Every couple of weeks a magazine or website will run one of those damn things. Poetry is dead! Fiction is dead! The Great American Novel is dead! Imagine how narcissistic a writer would have to be to declare fiction dead. Journals and magazines are being birthed all the time. I know a large swathe of undergrads I’ve taught and mentored who are starting up journals as we speak. They’re starting peer-workshops in the summer and winter. They’re having readings in bars and spontaneous poetry readings in the streets. So, for lack of a better term, that’s bunk.
I will say this though — the reason there’s such a scare, or even the perception that fiction and poetry are suffering, is because of what’s being published and who it’s being published for. Because publishers are so concerned with the business aspect of it all, they’re only publishing pieces marked for certain demographics. They’re saying, well, we want to hit men 18-35, or whatever, and they’ve taken their eye off the ball. Good stories are good stories. Good poetry is good poetry. If the gatekeepers focused more on publishing those things, in marketing books that people would actually be interested in reading, you wouldn’t have all that drivel popping up everywhere.
LL: A lot of writers will take comfort in this.
JYS: A large part of the problem is that we’ve gotten to the point where a lot of books and journals are offering self-congratulatory writing that pays no attention and gives no care to what the reader experiences. We are, after all, responsible for the reader, which is something that a lot of academic and experimental writers forget. You can write strong prose with strong descriptions and experiment with form, ideas, and language, but forgetting about the reader holding the text is just masturbatory. The public at large has things to do. You’re competing with television, with the Internet, with their phones. They can listen to any song and watch any movie and stream whatever show they want and in order for them to read your story they have to make a conscious decision to forego all of that for your work, which, by the way, is a participatory action. They have to take your words and make their own visual, engage their imagination, and steep through metaphor and imagery.
LL: Please go on.
JYS: It’s preposterous for writers who traffic in excessively veiled meanings and allegories or academic pillow-talk to stand around and pout about “so-and-so is dead because people won’t read” when they’re simply not giving them anything to read or anything worth their time. There’s a certain level of snobbery and arrogance that, to be frank, makes me not blame people for choosing not to associate with the world of writing. It’s tiring and aggravating for any writer worth his/her salt who is trying to be artistic and entertaining.