Innovation in Fiction: Exploring the Human Condition

Tracey M. Romero

When you pick up a new book, short story or novella to read, what are you looking for? What compels you to keep turning the pages? The beauty of the art of fiction is that it is subjective. Each reader might take something different from it and it might not even be what the author intended when they created the piece.

Nvate Fiction novels and books by Andrew Ervin, Carla Spataro, Nathaniel Rich, Cli-fi

Credit: freedigitalphotos.net marin

For some it is the subject matter that attracts, for others it is the action, characters or style of language that draws them in. Because of this, trying to pinpoint innovations in fiction can be difficult. Despite our technologically advanced world where most new things created involve technology, in the world of fiction, it is more about finding new ways to express the human condition.

Innovation in fiction can’t be pinpointed to one form, length, theme or technique. It is more about the author trying to tell a story about our shared human experiences in a new and interesting way. Climate fiction is becoming a popular genre, but writers are experimenting in other ways as well.

When I asked a handful of writers what they saw as being the current innovations in fiction, no one pointed to one single thing. While I was thinking flash fiction, a short fiction between 300-1,000 words, was still pretty groundbreaking, it turns out that it has been around for quite a while and that it is just one of many ways writers play with form, length and language to tell a story. Other popular trends in fiction include fabulism, or fables; cross-genre mashing, for example blending fairytale and horror with science fiction; and fragmented narratives.

What Makes Fiction Truly Innovative?

Andrew Ervin, author of a collection of novellas, “Extraordinary Renditions,” as well as a book reviewer and editor, believes that it is important for writers to push themselves out of their comfort zones whether it is in form, length, subject matter or language.

“[Ezra] Pound’s great cliche, ‘Make it new,’ has sent a lot of writers—myself certainly included—to work outside of their comfort zones, which is terrific,” Ervin said in an email. “No artist should have a comfort zone. The best writing advice I’ve heard lately was, ‘Run toward the fire.’ That means taking chances, be it formally or in terms of voice or subject matter.”

Ervin believes that innovation in fiction is a personal process. “I try not to repeat myself in my own fiction, of course it’s inevitable, but I still try, and so that means creating an entire worldview and rhetoric for each thing I write, be it 600 words or 60,000,” Ervin said. “I don’t care if what I do is innovative, or making-it-new in some way, except insofar as it’s innovative for me.”

Carla Spataro, editorial director and co-publisher of Philadelphia Stories magazine and PS Books as well as director of the MFA in creative writing program at Rosemont College believes that “art is always an exploration and examination of life.”

She believes that people are being innovative more with form than length of stories right now. She said that although formalism, a critical approach to literature that focuses on the form of the work—genre, structure, and grammar—instead of the content, has been around for a long time that changes in modes of communication will lead writers to explore new forms of fiction.

“Instead of seeing a novel like ‘Dracula,’ written in 1897, which is written in the form of letters, journal entries, and news articles, I now see stories that are written as Facebook posts and text messages,” Spataro explained. “Who knows what the future holds? I follow Sean Hill @VeryShortStory on twitter and he sends out 140 character short stories, which have now been collected and published in a book titled, ‘Very Short Stories.’ So this is an example of how form and length have come together.”

“Writers are drawn to these techniques because they have become a part of our everyday lives,” she added. “The beauty of fiction is that we can reveal deeper emotional truths because we aren’t constrained by pesky facts.”

Climate Fiction is a Growing Genre

Some writers are using fiction to explore the dangerous repercussions of climate change and the ways the human race will handle them. According to JunkScience.com, climate change has been a part of science fiction for at least 50 years, and although this may be the case, “over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth’s systems are noticeably off-kilter,” according to NPR.

Given the nickname “cli-fi,” this new genre is trying to bring people’s attention to a pressing world problem.

A cli-fi book, “Odds Against Tomorrow” by Nathaniel Rich seemed eerily precognizant when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in the fall of 2012. According to an NPR article by Angela Evancie, Brian Gittis, a senior publicist for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, came back to the office after it had been shut down for over a week due to the superstorm, to find Rich’s book with a cover that showed Manhattan’s skyline sunk in water.

Nvate Fiction novels and books by Andrew Ervin, Carla Spataro, Nathaniel Rich, Cli-fi

Credit: Nathaniel Rich website

Gittis told NPR that “it was definitely sort of a Twilight Zone moment.”

In the book, a young boy sells worst-case predictions to corporations and during the story New York City is flooded by a hurricane. Although it might look like Rich predicted Sandy, he said that he didn’t see her coming either.

Rich explained in his NPR interview that he wrote the novel because he felt it was important to explore what climate change is doing.

“I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative,” he said. “And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?”

Rich isn’t trying to prove to people that climate change is happening or going to happen; he believes that is an unquestionable truth. He believes that cli-fi novels like his deal with how we handle the fallout from climate change. For him, the suspense and the drama of the stories come from how we deal with it.

“I don’t think that the novelist necessarily has the responsibility to write about global warming or geopolitics or economic despair,” he added. “But I do feel that novelists should write about what these things do to the human heart—write about the modern condition, essentially.”

Other writers who have written cli-fi include Brian Aldiss, Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver and even the popular fantasy series “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin, which was turned into a HBO series, deals with the effects of climate change.

Kingsolver said in her NPR “Talk of Nation” interview about her novel “Flight Behavior” that “Because it is about perception and how we need to be—to understand what we’re seeing before we can really see it, that’s really key to understanding this whole issue of climate change and why we see or don’t see what’s right in front of us.”

For Kingsolver, novels don’t solve things; they just ask questions worth considering.

So while I started my article looking to know the newest trends in fiction, I have learned that innovation does not always have to do with some shiny, new invention or expensive piece of technology. What writers strive to do is to explore the human heart and the conditions we live in, in any given age. And while they might use different narrative forms, lengths and genres to share a sliver of the human story, what makes fiction truly innovative is the way a skilled author can make us take a good look at ourselves and the world around us.

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