I’ve complained here before that writers shouldn’t use fiction to advance their personal causes or issues. Never say never, of course, and it took author T. C. Boyle to show how to have your agenda and tell a good story too.
My writing mentor, Doris Betts, once told me that either you’re a novelist or a short story writer, that trying to be both will diminish your talent at the one you’re really good at. This doesn’t daunt the best writers, though. Consider the ones who continue to try, including T. C. Boyle. I’ve read some of Boyle’s long fiction and quite a bit of his short stuff, and while he’s a most capable writer across the board, I think in his case Doris was right; Boyle’s gift is in short fiction.
Which brings me to his story, “Are We Not Men?” in the November 7, 2016, issue of New Yorker magazine. Boyle apparently worries, as we likely all should, about the dark side of genetic manipulation. Gene tinkering hasn’t hit society full bore yet, which demonstrates another “ism:”social phenomena are born and have their first pronouncements through the arts. But back to how a skilled writer might editorialize and still have readers enjoy it.
I won’t go into a lot of boring classroom analyses here – just read the story. As you do, you’ll come across freakish, cross-bred pets which, if that were the sum of Boyle’s story, this reader would grind his molars, roll his eyes, and find a way not to notice Boyle’s wit, his cross-breeding of French and English. But he rolls all this into a family/marital drama I daresay everyone in the US of A can relate to, even laugh at.
This then is the trick, fellow writers: be subversive. grind your axe if you must, but slip it into a witty, trenchant story. All things register in fiction, perhaps in multiple readings, but they do register.
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