What forms of art, activism, and literature can speak authentically today?

I want to read more novels that make me feel like the end of The Copenhagen Trilogy—which is not a novel—did: shaking, sputtering, like I had just (barely) survived a car accident. I want to be physically stunned, physically immobilized by language. There is no formula for that, nothing in particular that one should risk but it probably involves risking everything, courting humiliation, being open to being misunderstood, and telling the truth. We should write only what has to be written and what can be written only now that is about life as we live it now, and we should write novels that have to be novels and could never exist as memoir or another literary genre, let alone film or television. Writing in this way would mean taking the risk that some books, even good ones, would remain unwritten. —CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD

I am struggling to think of what the recent books I’ve truly loved have in common, because in most ways they are all so different, and the only way I can think of to describe it is “aliveness.” So many books are perfectly good but not alive—they are skillfully made, are entertaining or edifying, serve a purpose (in the author’s career at least). My favorite books have a headlong quality, a sense that the author was having fun, saying “fuck it” at some point in the process and letting go of the idea of controlling an imagined audience’s reaction. There is a kind of deliberate messiness that always thrills me, like seeing a beautiful model’s unshaved leg or getting a pump of industrial pink soap from an Aesop bottle. I’m thinking of the central conceit of Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby and how it’s established in order to introduce the characters, who then just keep getting reintroduced, and at the end of the book the question’s still unanswered. Or the blood at the beginning of Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind and how it peters out and then starts up again but it’s someone else’s blood, and then at the end there’s no blood, and there’s really not much else that can be said to have “changed.” Or the “Middle (Nothing Happens)” section of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts—just the existence of that chapter heading. Those all read as aliveness to me, and they made me feel alive. Aliveness is the opposite of trying to get an A+ in novel writing. —EMILY GOULD

I wish that future novelists would reject the pressure to write for the betterment of society. Art is not media. A novel is not an “afternoon special” or fodder for the Twittersphere or material for journalists to make neat generalizations about culture. A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitive industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves? —OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

I would very much like the novel to make sense—or perhaps just make mincemeat—of probably the most pervasive way in which we currently make sense of the world. I’m referring to the ingratitude or amnesia that parades as a cleansing iconoclasm. I don’t mean statues or privileges—those can go—but the manner in which earlier breakthroughs in thought or social progress are now taken for granted or worse, not so much the baby thrown out with the bathwater as a garlanded (and often feminist) adult. I remain semi-convinced that fictions are uniquely well-equipped to avoid the binarisms and bipolarity of an age, retain even now faith in the bit in Lady Chatterley’s Lover where Lawrence or his narrator says that “the vast importance of the novel, properly handled,” is that it can “lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness,” or, better still, William Empson saying that the function of imaginative literature is to put you in touch with the “basic fact” that there are people who live by codes, customs, morals, and values different from one’s own. So if a novel in a language I can read could simply sort out that. . . . Meanwhile, back in reality, I’m waiting, as always, for the next contribution to the never-ending, ever-shifting debate about representation (in the old-fashioned sense), how to steer the familiar course between the pat or over-patterned and the meaningless or merely “reflective,” waiting, in other words, for a new or newish writer who finds a way, for their own unique time, to render the problems of existence, or some of them, as questions about form (or is it vice versa?), an addition to a list that for me includes, inevitably, James, Conrad, and Woolf, but also, at different points, Gordimer, Spark, Coetzee, Tyler, Pynchon, Adler, Murdoch, DeLillo, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joyce Carol Oates . . . —LEO ROBSON

When did American literary fiction lose the plot? It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that nothing ever happens in contemporary novels, but a certain scale of entanglement has gone missing. If destinies once collided like particles in a chain reaction, they now more often pass like horses on a merry-go-round: isolated characters on their own private journeys around a predetermined loop. This style has a certain elegance—two recent examples, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and David Szalay’s Turbulence, hinge on the “missed connections” poignancy of parallel lives—but also feels like an abdication. Novelists, daunted by the world’s complexity, seem to be recusing themselves from the appeals court of cause and effect.

I understand their reluctance. Television has annexed a great swath of narrative territory, while the zanily profligate storytelling of the postmodern era may have triggered a new age of austerity. The autofictional turn—fed by incentivized authorial narcissism and fears of identitarian trespass—seems to have depopulated our novels, leaving them without the density of characters and worldviews necessary to achieve narrative fission, or what Mikhail Bakhtin called “polyphony.” (The telling exception might be historical fiction, where plot takes refuge in the safety of retrospect.)

The biggest reason may be a narrowing sense of writerly vocation. Novelists used to moonlight as psychologists, sociologists, and all-purpose explainers, wielding an authority that the specialization of knowledge has largely discredited. But the duty to link individuals to the larger course of events hasn’t evaporated simply because it’s difficult. A few more daring recent entries, like Caleb Crain’s Overthrow, an Occupy novel about friendship under twenty-first-century surveillance, and Namwali Serpell’s ecologically profound family saga The Old Drift, still plot in this more expansive sense. May yet more writers break the test tubes of “inner life” and let the world contaminate their experiments. —JULIAN LUCAS

Daniel Gordon, Crescent Eyed Portrait (detail), 2012, C-print, 37 1/2 x 29 3/4".
Daniel Gordon, Crescent Eyed Portrait (detail), 2012, C-print, 37 1/2 x 29 3/4". Courtesy the artist and M+B, Los Angeles

If only my craving were simple: for a novel unconstrained by the age’s various curses, chiefly that which renders every work of art a performance of itself. I don’t read as much contemporary fiction as I’d like, in part because the curse cuts all ways. What a relief it would be to pick up a novel without the sense of participating in an attenuated dance with the author, the object of which is to keep the form we both know and love alive. The “risk” that interests me now involves retreat from that dance, an end to the mania for renovation, shallow politicking, and aesthetic primacy. Its result seeks to inhabit not a single consciousness but an intricate context, putting at its core not one striking voice but a set of bristling relationships and ideas.

The desired risk, in other words, is for one step forward by way of two steps back. If I have shared Rachel Cusk’s aversion to the “fake and embarrassing” contrivances of fiction—plot, character, world-building—my aversion to that aversion is gaining ground. In a cultural landscape more apt to fetishize its own alienation than consider it, finding a way forward for the sweeping, intimately observed social novel might be the most ambitious, surprising task a fiction writer could undertake. I’ve come around, I’m young again: show me the way from there to here, I promise I will follow. —MICHELLE ORANGE

I wish that more writers writing today would be as outrageous, irreverent, and just flat-out funny about race as Fran Ross was in Oreo almost fifty years ago. —SUSAN CHOI

There is a wonderful moment in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000) when its narrator, Sibylla, offers what I like to think of as a prophecy for literature: “I kept hearing in my mind snatches of books which might exist in three or four hundred years. There was one with the characters Hakkinen, Hintikka and Yu, set provisionally in Helsinki—against a background of snow with a mass of black firs, a black sky & brilliant stars a narrative or perhaps dialogue with nominative genitive partitive essive inessive adessive illative ablative allative & translative, people would come on saying Hyvää päivää for good day there might be a traffic accident so that the word tieliikenneonnettomuus could make an appearance, and then in the mind of Yu Chinese characters, as it might be Black Fir White Snow, this was absolutely ravishing.” I am fascinated by the proposition that the language in which a novel is written could be changeable, determined not by the accident of one’s nationality, but by the demands internal to the narrative. What if certain scenes, certain characters, certain modes of speaking and thinking, found their ideal expression in different languages? What new dimensions of criticism might open to us? Any novel that tried to answer this question seriously would require readers who had engaged in comparative-language study from a very young age. This is the approach to early education pursued in many countries—my country of birth, Turkey, comes to mind—although certainly not in the United States or the United Kingdom. The novel DeWitt imagines would require changing how we approach the study of language at every level of the educational system—a utopian prospect, a project that probably can’t be realized now, but one to work toward over the next three or four hundred years. —MERVE EMRE

I’d love to see a white novelist honestly address the experience of being racist, of having racist thoughts and feelings. I’m not asking for a self-flagellating confession or a stunt self-cancellation—just a writer brave enough to admit, through his/her/their characters, that we all bear ugly feelings, many implanted in us by the society we grow up in, and that to provide a full picture of this society, a reckoning with these feelings is necessary. Though such a novelist’s work would risk misinterpretation by a few rubes, I actually think many readers of color would welcome such a journey into the Heart of Whiteness—much like certain women I know like Philip Roth precisely because he paints an unadulterated (if troubling) picture of masculinity. Who will be the first to smash this long-standing taboo? (Jess Row’s essay collection White Flights is a good place to start thinking about whiteness—and the avoidance of race—in fiction). —KARAN MAHAJAN

All American novelists should write in Italian. —ED PARK

It was inevitable that America’s dance with a wannabe dictator would embolden us to fashion our poems, paintings, novels, and films in the shadow of The Leader. How could you not want to respond imaginatively to the vice and vainglory that characterized the period? Many have. For some, a nod in the form of a nebulous, nefarious, possibly eccentrically haired presence. For others, a more explicit alignment with the Resistance. But what if a cartoonishly bad president invites a cartoonish response? The best political fiction suggests that the political is diffuse. It doesn’t come and go with a single leader (a convenient notion!) or a single event (9/11 inspired countless insipid novels). It resists the temptation to write virtuous characters and their foils, reveling instead in paradox and ambiguity, the two most magical forces I know of. Recently, I rewatched Jean-Pierre Melville’s La Silence de la Mer (1949), based on a novella of the same name, in which an uncle and niece are forced to host a Nazi in their home over several months during the Second World War. An oblique sympathy develops between all parties, a complication that destabilizes ideas about both the French Resistance and the German devil. Mind you, I am not calling for a reappraisal of Nazism, but I am calling for moral complexity. Characters that crack open prefab wax-museum molds and repel and charm us in equal measure, characters that hew more closely to our experience of the world. The Trump years have wrought too many terrible things to list here, but let us at least reclaim the fullness of our imaginations. —NEGAR AZIMI

Novels should say how people really feel. —SARAH NICOLE PRICKETT

In truth I mostly revisit works of fiction I already love. I’m not the only one. Once long ago I spent a week with Martin Amis and I promise you he was fingering the same cheap crumbling paperback of a lesser Saul Bellow work at every spare moment: the car, the restaurant, the bar (we were teaching—and eating and drinking—on someone else’s dime). Amis rereads Nabokov and Bellow. I reread Duras and Proust. Proust has a lot of ideas about what the novel is as art, and how far it is from life, and by design. It is only in the present, he insists, that the past can finally become “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.” Lived experience is not sufficient. Not because the novelist doesn’t rely on it—he does, she does. But for Proust lived experience, whether enchantment or humiliation, disappointment or jealousy, can only be apprehended from a great distance, once that time is gone forever. The true paradises, he insists, are those paradises that we have already lost. He also says: “Excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.” The rub is that Proust is saying all this not about a novel, but in a novel. So not only does he delineate in exquisite detail what the lie of art gives to the truth of life, he finds a way to bend the form of the novel to reflexively feature this selfsame revelation. I could say I’d like to read a novel that does this, but I’m referring to it now, and it’s Volume 6: Time Regained. —RACHEL KUSHNER