NEA Literature Fellowships

Paul La Farge

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "The New Fiction"

In an age of so many marvels, it is hard to believe that most fiction still runs on wood. Certainly, wood-burning fiction has its charms; I have already spoken of them. But I do not burn wood in my fiction any more. After my father passed away, at the age of eighty-seven, I dismantled his machines and sold the parts for scrap. It is a question of resources. The old fiction, as everyone learns in school, dates from an era of abundant forests, undulating canopies of greenery that covered much of the land. In those days, the danger was that you would go into the forest and either you'd get lost or you'd be killed by wild animals, or by the savages for whom the uncombusted trees were story enough. Indeed, the original purpose of fiction was to reduce the size of the forest. Mankind's first stories were a by-product of the need to clear land for agriculture; no one suspected until later that fiction might have a value in and of itself, independent of the need for food. And of course you have only to study the old folktales to be reminded of how often the forest is represented as the enemy, the territory of the witch and the wolf.           

The old stories may still thrill us, but the forests that inspired them have largely disappeared. (In this regard, we might conclude that fiction has achieved its goal.) And yet we still need fiction, or imagine that we do -- in fact our need for fiction seems to grow with every year that passes. And so we continue to chop the woods down. The forests of the Northwest dwindle; Canada's mountains are muddy and bald; smoke rises from the Amazon… The forests will not last forever, nor can we depend on the oil-burning fiction of Mailer and Roth to save us: a so-called innovation which in fact depletes the environment far more profoundly than the fiction that came before it, for no purpose other than the amplification of its own mechanical roar. Such stories weaken us at home and abroad.           

It is time we think seriously about the new fiction. Certainly it has its drawbacks: it is odd-looking, hard to make and even harder to fix. Indeed, some people think that the new fiction is not fiction at all. My father -- I'll summon him up just this one last time -- was one of those people. After his encounter with annular fusion, he lost interest in the new fiction, and went back to work on his old, wood-burning machines. But the spirit of his work had changed: he knew, I think, that he was no longer upholding an old way of life, but merely clinging to the past. I remember how he came downstairs one morning in his brown bathrobe, and found me tinkering with a Marcus engine. He pretended to be interested in what I was doing, but after a minute he said querulously, "There must be some fire in it." No, I said, no fire, and I tried to explain the flywheel principle, to the extent that I understood it myself. My father was furious. "How can you tell me this is fiction?" he cried. "It's just parts!" Then, taking a different tack, he accused me of being a dilettante, bedazzled by the new fiction, but not able to invent anything new, or even to give a satisfying explanation of what Marcus was up to. That stung -- I'd accused myself of the same thing -- and I got up from the table without answering him, and went for a walk. When I came home, later that day, my father was in his shed, ostensibly working, but actually just banging out melancholy tunes with his hammer. We never spoke about fiction again.           

There are those who will resist the new fiction to the end. But they must not hold the rest of us back in their grip, which is, literally, a death grip. Consider how the future will look if we keep going as we are going now: the forests will vanish, and the soil they protected will erode; the planet will strangle under a blanket of carbon dioxide. Before long we will be living very literally in what Baudrillard called the desert of the real, a hot, barren world where human beings fight over combustible scraps in order to power their failing stories. Possibly, as Swift once joked, we will resort to the ultimate expedient of burning one another to make our fictions run. That is where the old fiction takes us. But we need not go there. We are no more than a few decades from fulfilling Da Vinci's dream of universal fiction, not by burning our world, but by remaking it. Imagine a world where Davis' and Vollmann's inventions have been perfected, where Pynchon's late conjectures have been proved, implemented, and improved upon. Fiction will no longer run on anything at all; it will simply be, and be everywhere: in the air, in the ground, in the oceans, in the animals, even in the moonlight, as it filters fictively through the branches of the equally fictive trees. It will not be the old world; we have long ago passed the point where we can go back to the old world. But it may be a world worth living in, and it will certainly be better than the one for which we are headed, unless we change our fictions in time.

Paul La Farge is the author of three novels published by FSG: The Artist of the Missing (1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction (2001), and Luminous Airplanes (2011); and a collection of imaginary dreams, The Facts of Winter (McSweeney's Books, 2005). His short fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, McSweeney's, and the Village Voice. He is the winner of two California Book Awards, the Bard Fiction Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His most recent project, Luminous Airplanes, can be found online at

Photo by Carol Shadford

Author's Statement

If I'm careful, and my car doesn't die, and the roof of my house doesn't fall in, the NEA fellowship (for which I am enormously grateful) will allow me to take a semester off from teaching. If, on top of that, I'm foresighted and fortunate enough to line up a residency at an artists' colony, I might be able to get through a whole academic year without teaching more than one or two classes. You may think that I could aim higher: I could bum it in Paris, or buy a catamaran and explore Micronesia!  But to me the time is a big deal. Four months off could be a big part of a book; nine months could be a draft. Even if the lucky candle I picked up from the botánica place on Seventeenth Street doesn't deliver its book-writing magic, and I come away from the fellowship empty-handed (alas, these things happen), I will have had another chance, which is, I guess, at bottom, what the NEA means to me. It's a door you can open, a season you can begin with a good feeling. Which is, in the deepest and most literal way, all I've ever wanted.