Won’t Somebody Please, Please Think of the Children?

D.G. Myers, who for my money runs one of the best new(ish) litblogs going, recently spent a little time with the question of whether American literature has something of a family problem—he argues that there’s a lack of fiction that addresses parenthood, especially motherhood. The problem, he suggests, may lie with the backgrounds of writers themselves, and to give something of a scientific imprimatur to his musings, he looks at the the authors featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1914-1945) and discovers: “Forty-nine children born of thirty-seven writers—a child-to-writer ratio of 1.32, the fertility rate of a former Soviet Bloc country.”

One problem—heck, let’s call it sample bias—is immediately apparent. By drawing the line at 1945, Myers is neglecting writers who came into prominence after World War II, and might presumably have been having children during the largest burst of fertility in the country—the Baby Boom. John Updike had four children. John Cheever had three. Raymond Carver had two. Michael Chabon has four kids. Female authors? Louise Erdrich: three children by marriage, three by adoption. Marilynne Robinson had two children. Maxine Hong Kingston has one child, as does Alice Walker—though, famously in that case, mom and daughter don’t get along.

Of course, it’s best not to obsess too much over this: I’m being just as selective as Myers is, and there are plenty of childless authors in the postwar era (DeLillo, Roth, Cisneros, Welty, etc). And it wouldn’t change his central concern about “how very little of ordinary life—family life—gets into American writing.” There are plenty of families in American literature, he figures—they’re just a lot like the Snopes clan, or the Portnoy family.

Tolstoy’s riff on happy families comes in handy here—it may simply be that normal family life doesn’t make for interesting fiction, in the same way that the workplace rarely does. Though I’m happy that my family life in no way resembles, say, Russell BanksAffliction, that doesn’t make me any less grateful for the book. Ordinary family life makes it into plenty of novels and stories, though that ordinariness can make critics skittish—the chief (and I think wrongheaded) complaint about Ha Jin‘s A Free Life was that it didn’t do much but cover relatively mundane domestic matters. The real trick is to cover those mundane bits of family life in a way that has depth and intelligence; the young mother in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong comes to mind, as does the aging father in Robinson’s Gilead. Whether or not this country has a “low-fertility-rate literature”, as Myers writes, the fact is it hasn’t neglected stories about families—it’s just that the wisest writers seem to know how sizable a task it is to write about them honestly and well.

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