There’s a problem for fiction writers in the modern world, and that is that for those of us who live in first world democracies, there really isn’t very much at stake.

Women, for example, have a lot of meaningful choices. We can be as highly educated as we want to be, we can participate fully in the workforce, we can have relationships with the people we choose, and if those relationships fail, we can have other relationships.

Think about some of the great fiction of the nineteenth century: it is all built around the terrifying abysses of nineteenth century life. Women, for example, had only one meaningful choice to make: the choice of  marriage partner. Get it wrong and your life was ruined. That was true of women in all classes, rich and poor, and it made for fiction with real excitement and tension because it was a decision that really mattered and could not easily be corrected. For women today, as a general rule, no relationship choice you make is as perilous, because you have choices. You can leave your husband, you can find another one, or not, or you can take up with a woman or start a company, you can join the army – and go into combat. For nineteenth century men wanting to make their way in the world, there were almost insurmountable barriers of class, and the economic world they inhabited was brutal and terrifying, with severe penalties for failure, and very little in the way of a social safety net. Sex and relationships were tied up with money, in various ugly and depressing ways: men couldn’t marry unless they could support a wife, or responsibly form a relationship unless it was directed towards marriage, while sex outside of marriage carried the risks of unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and the fear of being trapped into an unwise marriage.

The territory of literary fiction, taken in the broadest sense, is the relationship of the individual to the world in which s/he lives: the world of work and the world of relationships. But in a world where many of us do have a lot of choices, there are really not very many seriously negative consequences to any of the decisions you make – not in a nineteenth century kind of way. Relationships end, jobs end, but if you can just do something else, go somewhere else, find somewhere else, there’s really not much at stake. Where would Edith Wharton and Henry James be if women could just get a degree in marketing and start working for a large multinational if their relationships didn’t work out? Would there have been a Jane Eyre if Jane had actually had some meaningful choices? Dickens’s subject was the gap between rich and poor, and that hasn’t gone away, but his novels wouldn’t have had half so many of those horrifying gargoyleish marriages in them.

I’m not saying that the world has become a safe place to be and fiction has become impossible. Clearly the world is not safe for a great many people. And literary fiction hasn’t heard enough from them, possibly because they’re too busy surviving to write literary fiction. But if you’re from the middle classes (I mean that as a fairly broad term, even though I know there are plenty of readers and writers who will vigorously insist that they are not from the middle classes), then it has to be said, this is a pretty safe place to be, economically, emotionally, psychologically, as well as physically and legally. Which, to my mind, makes fiction about our lives difficult to make really interesting. Yes, good writers can make anything interesting. But when it’s scenes from middle class life, really, you’ve got to be on top of your game.

This might explain the flight to historical fiction (higher stakes, more exciting background action), to crime (the intrusion of violence and danger into comfortable middle-class lives), and fantasy and science fiction, where the stakes can be as high as you like.

Who do you think is writing really amazing fiction about contemporary life?

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