A very thoughtful interview in The Millions with fiction writer Joshua Henkin, whose new novel The World Without You has just been published.
AS: … I also experience writing fiction as a very humbling act; it puts what one notices, feels, imagines, above what one knows. So where do you think the “grand idea” impulse comes from? Are the writers you’re talking about truly meant to be sociologists and politicians? Or are they responding to some pressure — an idea they have about what constitutes Literature, or what kind of Literature sells?JH: …I do think we’ve been living in a time when certain kinds of “big-idea” writing are in vogue. … I think there’s also something psychologically complicated at work here, which has to do with the anxiety of influence. Someone once said that there are only two kinds of stories, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip — which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view. I don’t find this particularly perturbing. Yes, every story has been told, but it’s the way of telling — the how — that makes every writer unique, and if you have a distinct voice, if there’s emotional truth to your characters, if you use language in service of this voice and these characters, then your book will be distinct. I mean, look at the world around us. We don’t say, Why fall in love, why have a job, that’s been done already by billions of people. We don’t not get married just because everyone’s been doing that forever. But I think this feeling that every story has been told does concern a lot of writers, often to their detriment. They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics. You read a lot of novels that smack of, I’m John, hear me roar, I’m Jane, hear me roar. Reading these writers, I find myself thinking, Would you please just chill? There’s an underconfidence at work that comes in the guise of overconfidence. Whatever it is, it does bad things to the fiction — it makes it a lie.One of the paradoxes is that novels that try to be big often end up being small, whereas novels that, on the surface, seem more curtailed in their ambitions, end up being bigger….