by Joan Frank
Francine 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.
In recent 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.
Those 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.
My friend 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.
Is it hideously boring to be broke in literature? Possibly. But whose fault is that?
Maybe I 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.
In other 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 fiction.
Too often 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?
The 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.
This 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.
People aren’t needing to use the toilet, figuratively speaking.
I’m not 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?
I don't 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 account.
True: in 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.
How to 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 largessewas 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?
We know 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.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) 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 California.