Detroit Fiction: On Rightsizing American Literature

February 20, 2013 | 4 books mentioned 35 5 min read


Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway?

coverEulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like “Where Have All The Mailers Gone?”, a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction “a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers.” The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction…has always thrived.”

The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art — in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue.

coverIn one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists — they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates.

That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden.

This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century.

coverI am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban — these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent.

covercoverThere is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions.

I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century — the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again.

In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game.

covercoverAnd the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either — cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them — and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today’s suburbanized literature — a dim light bulb — has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.

Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn’t to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller’s furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog “the hot lava which was bubbling inside me.” So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart.” That’s about as far from the suburbs as you can get.

Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is on the editorial board of the New York Daily News, where he edits the Page Views book blog. He is at work on his first novel.


  1. Literature has been “dead” about as long as it has been alive. And Franzen’s literary essays shouldn’t be taken too seriously – the chief concern of things like “Perchance” and “Mr. Difficult” is self-promotion/exaltation of the Franzen Brand of Fiction. Sure, the publishing industry is going through some changes. But I can’t understand why so many people insist on equating “change” with “death” – least of all Mr. Franzen, who sold something like 3 million copies of The Corrections.

  2. “I have never been to Detroit” yet I will base the thesis of my essay on it…

    Mark Binelli is a native of Detroit’s SUBURBS, huge difference. It is saying you live in Comptn when you live in Beverly Hills.

    Terrible article Millions!!!

  3. “All the fresh styles always start off as a good little hood thing
    Look at blues, rock, jazz, rap
    Not even talkin about music
    Everything else too
    By the time it reach Hollywood it’s over
    But it’s cool
    We just keep it goin and make new shit”
    – Andre 3000

  4. I like the idea of thinking that American literature is like Detroit because we currently have to opportunity to make of it what we want without any interference from “corporate or popular dictates.”

    However, I think the whole comparison is somewhat contrived. That might be because the sentence: “In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis” should never have been printed, (show me, don’t tell me).

    Also, where is a good copy editor when you need one?

  5. I enjoyed the article and the notion that literature will rise, Phoenix-like (“Detroit-like”?), from the ashes of the publishing industry’s demise. As a working writer/novelist living in Michigan, I’m all for it, even though I’m originally from Chicago, not the Motor City.

    But still, I second Kevin’s comment above: where’s the copy-editing?

  6. Ryan – just a quick note that “The Corrections” was published some five years after that Harper’s essay. And it is pretty clear, at least to me, that Franzen has been grappling with those issues ever since.

  7. True, but regardless of timing, I’m not sure how “prescient” that essay can be when its author would go on to sell millions of books. To me Franzen is proof that lit is alive and kicking instead of some authority on the death of it.

    The need to purge the lit scene of the “inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction”, though, is something we can agree to agree on.

  8. It seems to me that Franzen is not exactly the person to point to when talking about rebuilding the city of fiction. His idea has always been to write fiction the masses want to read, easy to digest, snappy. He wants to save “serious” fiction by selling it to people who buy paperbacks, e-readers, and ask for Nora Roberts when they come to book stores. Personally, I think the reinvention of fiction should be coming from people like George Saunders, Pynchon, Ben Marcus, DeLillo, etc. So-called “experimental” writing. These are the “hipster farmers, European architects, [and] African-American community activists” that will save the city of fiction. Let Franzen live right where he belongs, not quite in the suburbs, not quite in the city.

  9. To Jeremy (above):
    Mark Binelli never represented himself as some sort of Compton/ghetto homey. He is precisely what he says he is: the son of Italian immigrants, a guy who grew up in the blue-collar suburb of St. Clair Shores, made deliveries throughout Detroit as a teenager for his father’s knife-sharpening business, then, after he’d left town and established himself as a solid journalist, moved back to Detroit to do research for his wonderful, insightful book. To disparage him with this Compton/Beverly Hills, suburbs/inner city cliche is to expose yourself as someone who doesn’t know the first thing about Detroit, about Binelli’s book, or about the fact that the above essay, for all its flaws, makes an interesting link between the decline of once-great American cities and the decline of the once-great American book publishing industry. Let’s talk about what we need to be talking about. And let’s lay off the cheap shots. This website deserves better.
    Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions

  10. Great article. Literature is in a strange place indeed and at great risk of becoming an outmoded form of entertainment. Movies, television shows, internet articles are infinitely more accessible and require far less an investment of time than most novels. It takes all of thirty seconds to figure out whether a 1,000 ish word essay is worth a salt, while it took me 400 pages to figure out that Dostoevsky’s “The Devils” was a wretched, drawn-out account of quibbling aristocrats and hardly anything more. Hair splitters be damned, I thought it was a valuable piece.

  11. yawn. woe is this, woe is that. contrarian remark, contrarian remark. please, internet, stop publishing this guy.

  12. Attack the piece on on its merits, pick apart the arguments while suggesting your own. But resorting to ad hominem attacks, most of them poorly spelled, just make you sound like a moron. Moreover, such attacks are utterly unconvincing.

  13. In the spirit of this essay: can The Millions kindly provide a print button that allows one to read this essay properly?

  14. What about Edward P. Jones two collections of short stories taking place in Washington D.C.? Of course, they’re not novels, but I do think they’re great works of literature set in the urban sphere.

  15. I don’t disagree with anything Nazaran says here, but I would point out that one could have written an essay like this at any time in American history. Literature has never been central to American life, and the American reading public has always preferred “improving” books to challenging ones. Take away the topical references, and this could have been published in any small magazine in the 1890-1930 period. So what’s especially new about the present moment?

  16. Here’s a 34 year old quote from Joyce Carol Oates’ intro to the 1979 edition of Best American Short Stories that, in essence, says what Jerry is saying.

    Though much is routinely said about the troubled state of contemporary fiction—as it is said, routinely, about the troubled state of contemporary politics, religion,—morality, education, and television—it seems to me self-evident that we are living in an era of particularly well crafted creative work, whether fiction or poetry. More good work is being done by more gifted writers than ever before. More magazines are being published; more public readings (of prose as well as poetry) are being given, often to packed auditoriums. I know that it is fashionable to lament the passing of a literate order—I know that one is supposed to worry aloud about the malefic effect of the media and “eroding standards” in public schools, and the fact that notorious nonbooks or ghostwritten concoctions are best sellers while the sales of an award-winning collection of poems are distressingly low. Yet it has always seemed to me that such observations fail to take into consideration that the audience for serious literature at any given time has been fairly limited, and the audience for difficult literature has always been extremely limited. Decades ago, people say, there was a far larger market for short fiction—The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, among others, paid high prices for stories—while today the market has been severely curtailed. Once upon a time a writer such as Scott Fitzgerald could make a handsome living by his short stories, but today he would certainly have to produce novels if he wanted to survive. The laments are familiar: we have heard them many times. But what they fail to acknowledge is that mass magazines of the twenties and thirties were primarily interested in slick, formula fiction, the sort of thing that now goes directly into television and would never qualify as “serious.” The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s were the television of their time, and if writers such as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, O’Hara, and others could make a living from them, it was perhaps to the detriment of their art. (See Faulkner’s Selected Letters, for instance, which makes dismaying reading: he exhausted himself churning out stories he considered trash for the high-paying Post, in order to finance the writing of his novels—which were, of course, commercial failures.)
    —Joyce Carol Oates from Introduction to Best American Short Stories 1979

  17. Article neglects the many artists colonies springing up in Detroit, a growing sustainability movement tied to these establishments and the expansion of three universities in the metropolitan area. We shouldn’t demand a high literature to emerge from a city that has been failed by the social elite. nazaryan’s observations regarding the state of literature may be correct, but they are certainly irrelevant.

  18. The premise is right on the money. Just like Detroit, literature got stuck in a rut, abetted by overconfidence in an increasingly irrelevant self-image. Detroit automakers thought they could do no wrong. They interpreted their past success as a license to maintain a status quo which had, in fact, eroded. Literature got stuck too. It is full of tired maxims about what is and what isn’t — none of it backed by anything but concealed self-interest of factions of writers and publishers and editors. Sociologically, literature has become mired in tradition, hypocrisy, and a conservatism based on aesthetic preferences and moral imperatives — sometimes confusing the two in the process. Physiologically, literature is sclerotic. Meanwhile, drama is re-emerging as the dominant narrative art-form. Interest in taboo literary forms like parable and allegory is reviving — and literature will have none of it.

  19. Jerry, you are not entirely incorrect, but while maybe literature has never been central to the American experience, it has never experienced the devaluation we see today.

  20. This article is so ill thought out it is almost embarrassing to read, and on top of its misreading and misrepresentation of Detroit, it failed to mention a SINGLE AUTHOR OF COLOR, despite the fact that Detroit is a majority-black city! What a typical upper middle class American apartheid crock of ____!

  21. Actually, VG, “Native Son” was written by Richard Wright, an African-American novelist. But don’t let details get in the way of your assertions.

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