by Joan Frank
Prose once complained that too few literary characters have to use
the toilet now and again. It irritated her in a craft-monitoring
way. She wondered why writers don't more often choose to deal with
real human rhythms, while evoking otherwise grittily-authentic
worlds. Prose was suggesting that this sort of omission, while
discreet, flattens the dimensionality of an art form that wants
nothing to do with discretion.
years it's struck me that much contemporary work rushes past a
similar concern. In talking with my best friend, I cited what most
bugged me about a popular story collection I'd just read: the
effortless wealth through which its characters moved. Luxuriant
goods, services, homes and cars, high-end toys, food, booze, drugs,
travel—automatically furnished their lives.
characters breezed from astonishing best thing to astonishing best
thing. No one had to haul out of bed to slog to an eight-to-five. A
few might teach a couple of (small, exclusive) classes as a kind of
amusing dabble. This lucky ensemble needed no second thoughts about
jetting to Paris or even paying for sex-change operations. An
outer-space visitor reading the book might assume all modern
Earthlings live this way. Most troubling to me was that nothing
about these characters felt connected to their sleek
legacies. That is, the wealth seemed a generic given—a cartoon
backdrop in perpetual loop.
sensibly pointed out that if a work’s characters were sufficiently
developed and its story compelling, she did not mind its characters
being rich. She named writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton,
Henry James. I agreed. But my beef is that while many modern writers
set protagonists loose after giving them a fat inheritance or
marrying them off to someone who's loaded—these writers seem bent
not so much on evoking a class or cultural reality, as simply
refusing to deal with money.
hideously boring to be broke in literature? Possibly. But whose
fault is that?
need to find more contemporary stories as honest as those of Hugo,
Maugham, or Dickens, with their rosters of wretched beginnings, or
Austen's juggling of who's-got-the-dough, or Flaubert's spellbinding
account of Emma Bovary's doom-by-debt: dramas of coming into riches
starting with highly particularized rags, from rats in sewers to
slop poured from windows.
words, if place may be considered a literary character, so, surely,
must money. Relationship to it defines character, in life and art.
Yet time and again I see the actuality that drives and vexes us all
our days swept aside, screened off, or shunted down a rabbit-hole in
a narrator mumbles some explicating circumstance (alimony,
inheritance, stock market windfall) and turns abruptly from the
topic. Writers sense that dwelling there commits the gravest sin in
lit-biz: dullness. Numbers don't figure, we tell ourselves: it’s
what our characters do with the stuff. We want to convey the
human story. Didn't we flee to art in the first place to be
lifted away from all that moneygrubbing muck?
problem with this assumption becomes clear after a prolonged diet of
modern stories set in worlds slippery as silk, whose denizens feel
tacked to a level of vanilla affluence—but not convincingly
issued by it. Their emotional worlds are scrutinized as
unflinchingly as if by colonoscopy—but not their money. Who is
paying? Anyone, someone: who cares.
slick enabling backfires in a James Bond-ish quality: the antics of
the monied verge on caricature. Characters move in a sanitized
space, unmoored from earthier textures. To switch metaphors: readers
may come away from these works feeling we've been chewing
marzipan—story candy. It may be tasty. It
may push around a question or two about human ways. But somehow we
know in our bones it’s not risking a blessed thing.
aren’t needing to use the toilet, figuratively speaking.
insisting that we write more about desperadoes, or Pa and Ma
scrounging under the mattress for last dollars, or even Jo March
selling her hair (though that was a brilliant exemplar of economic
authenticity). And nobody wants lectures about class disparities.
Preaching murders fiction; it shatters the dream. I’m saying that
too seldom do modern characters have to choose between lunch or
dinner, or be handed a rejected credit card, or break into a sweat
as they grope for face-saving coins, or tremble while writing a
check against nonexistent money. Whose stomach drops, realizing a
certain desire is forever beyond reach? Who thinks what can I
sell? or what can I steal?
ask, Henry Higgins fashion, that characters be more like me—though I
do sometimes wonder why my planet seems so different from that of
certain modern novels. (Great. Another wealthy ingenue
with no larger task than her next affair.) What's really missing
is writing that shows a character's gut-involvement with her bank
fiction, money solves all the niggling problems it would solve in
life. So on the face of it, filling characters’ pockets makes it
easier to get on with the story. But it may also cheat a reader.
Puffy what-if scenarios leave readers feeling unnourished.
For work to come alive and enter us to stay, it must embody, along
with the story of its characters, the story of their money.
accomplish this? Authority, for one. I absolutely believe the
testimonies, in their fiction, of Fitzgerald, Wharton, and their
like. Whereas the book that frustrated me felt rigged, prettified,
purring along among hopelessly glossy goods that most only dream
about. Maybe all that largesse was meant to invite us in, but
it only made me wonder why I should care. The work reeked like
perfume ads in Vanity Fair—and suggested, I'm sorry to say,
an eye toward that very market. (It may be peculiarly American, this
affliction of ours. But that's another discussion.)
Of course rich people live and die, and have complex internal lives.
(Well, some must.) The great challenge is to persuade—make it real.
Meantime, might we also see anybody scrambling for dollars besides
the proverbial drug addict, prostitute, or runaway kid? Might we not
feel (with a story's characters) the hard pinch of want, like a
too-small shoe? Paradoxically, money worries dominate most writers'
waking lives. Shouldn't we relish siphoning from life to page more
of that familiar panic, that dazed resolve?
the great joy of writing fiction is its infinite canvas.
Everything's grist. The only criterion is that a thing succeed
(persuade) on its own terms. So we write to reflect a raft of
attending givens: class, language, culture. And as we shape those
worlds and interiors, I think we ignore at our peril the element of
money. This doesn’t mean sacrificing artistic values—quite the
opposite. We’re looking to give a marble veneer the cool weight and
sheen (and scars and pockmarks) of real marble. The money that
funds the stories we tell is just another color on the palette,
another tool for getting it right, like weather, geography,
physiognomy. Infusing it may test craft powers, but won't steal our
souls, or backbones. We don’t have to come from money to evoke its
presence—or its lack.
is the author of four books of fiction: her most recent, a story
collection called IN ENVY COUNTRY, won the 2010 Richard Sullivan
Prize in Short Fiction (University of Notre Dame Press). She is a
MacDowell Colony and VCCA Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of
the Dana Award, Michigan Literary Award, Emrys Fiction Award, and
Iowa Writing Award, two-time finalist for the Northern California
Book Award in Fiction, and recipient of grants from the Ludwig
Vogelstein Foundation and Barbara Deming Fund. She lives in Northern