“Modern Fiction” Today
Essays Culture Literature

“Modern Fiction” Today

Peter Kranitz

Moving Toward a Literature of the Future

I n the 1925 essay “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf defines what would come to be called modernism, a genre of novels concerned with “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.” To Woolf, a writer freed from the old, restrictive idea of a novel structured around conflicts, rising actions, and resolutions would structure a novel like a life: “there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.” Lucy Ellmann seems to have taken Woolf’s advice to heart in Ducks, Newburyport.

Writing nearly 100 years after modernism’s peak, Ellmann’s book consists almost entirely of a single sentence, interrupted periodically by brief passages about a mountain lion. It traces the inner monologue of a mid-forties homemaker and mother of four living in semi-rural Ohio who supplements her husband’s teaching income by baking pies to sell at local restaurants. It’s hard for a mind or a day to be more ordinary than those depicted by Ellmann. The novel has no plot whatsoever; instead, it consists of childhood memories, recollections of past baking failures, secondhand accounts of gun violence, anxieties about motherhood, random free-associative fragments, clickbait-style headlines, remembered plots of the Little House on the Prairie books, discussions of the relative merits of bulletproof backpacks, pages-long summaries of old movies, fears about pollution and climate change, and lengthy grocery lists, among many other things, all separated only by commas and incessant repetitions of the phrase “the fact that.” Amazingly, the book clocks in at over 1000 pages, so massive that if we spend enough time with the speaker, we may think it better suited for blocking bullets than for reading. The overall effect of this accumulation of language—while an impressive formal exercise and, in the book’s sheer mass, an amusing extratextual taunt to the reader—is, frankly, boredom.

The specter of James Joyce looms large over Ellmann’s novel.

[1] Molly Bloom’s seventy-page, unpunctuated soliloquy concluding Ulysses seems an obvious spiritual predecessor to Ducks, Newburyport. However, Ellmann provides nothing for her speaker like Molly’s final, climactic (orgasmic) phrase, “yes I said yes I will Yes.” In fact, sex is maybe the most underrepresented subject in Ellmann’s novel; her speaker may be one of the most repressed characters in contemporary literary fiction, chastising herself when she refers to an ass as anything other than a “sit-me-down-upon,” or underwear as anything but “me-oh-mys.” Beyond this, Ellmann also lacks much of the linguistic playfulness that energizes the long and often difficult work of Joyce in particular, and other modernists in general.

[2] There are some puns and a few amusing associations, but I got the sense that Ellmann has little interest in language as much other than a tool for writing.

Maybe a different comparison would be useful. Joyce’s novel, aside from Molly’s soliloquy, is mostly in the third person, creating a sense of slippage between what is interior to its characters and what is exterior. As a construction of pure interiority, Ducks, Newburyport may better be compared to Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. Beckett’s speaker is interior only; it’s unclear if anything even exists outside of its consciousness. Similarly, Ellmann’s speaker seems to interact with the world, but the reader never sees it, never experiences it alongside her. I would not have been surprised to learn that she, like Beckett’s speaker, was sitting in an inescapable void, the monologue only seeming to correspond to a world that actually isn’t there.

With such strong predecessors, why does Ducks, Newburyport fall so flat? I don’t think the issue lies in Ellmann’s subject. As a protagonist, the mid-forties homemaker is sorely underrepresented in both novels and films—which, when you think about it, is shocking given how central mothers and wives are to society. The repetitive monotony that makes reading Ellmann’s novel a task of excruciating drudgery is in part a replication of the experience of its speaker, an ultimately admirable but ineffective attempt at verisimilitude through structure. Regardless, I would love to see more books with women like the speaker of Ducks, Newburyport at their centers, though hopefully they would look somewhat different. Further, I see nothing wrong with a book about, as Woolf puts it, “the life of Monday or Tuesday.” The production of literature about real experience, about life as it actually gets lived, has more importance now than it did when Woolf wrote her essay nearly a century ago. The problem, then, is the form.

Ellmann’s emphasis on interiority, while admirable as an exercise, does little to show what modern life is like, and even fails to construct a believable person. In this, modern technology creates a bit of a paradox for us. Today, while we’re more atomized than ever before, our daily lives take place more outside of our heads than they have in the past. Our cell phones and laptops connect us to endless bounties of information, infinite sources of stimulation that can’t be captured simply by looking inside of our heads. Every text message, every notification ping, pulls us away from our interior lives and into a vast labyrinth of interconnectivity. To borrow an idea popular in the computer science world, we all possess an extended mind, one that encompasses not only our thoughts but also our environments and the digital worlds we are all tapped into.

Ellmann’s novel ignores this basic fact. While her speaker occasionally intones the aforementioned clickbait headlines and at times seems to recite things she has just Googled, her narration remains divorced from technology. The instances where technology does surface only show more vividly how flagrantly it has been omitted elsewhere. She is obviously online; why do we not have access to her full mind—her extended mind?

Our existence, then, is less one of interiority, as it was for Joyce and Woolf, and is instead one of exteriority, though in a radically different way than appears in traditional storytelling. Our mental selves cannot be untangled from our digital selves, no matter how limited our use of technology may be. Even receiving emails or reading the news online cultivates this out-of-head experience. A modern novel of the life of Monday or Tuesday will not be afraid to delve into the extended mind, to explore how we now interact with our now omnipresent technological environment.

The project of postmodernism began to address this through further exploration of multiple subjectivities, of fragmentation, of the lack of agency that comes from being swept up in a late-capitalist world where so much is out of our control. The theorist Fredric Jameson called this decentered, frenetic experience schizophrenia. Part of this schizophrenia is, as Jameson puts it, “an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence.” The Jamesonian schizophrenic has no attachment to history or the world around her, existing instead in an identity-less now. Ellmann’s speaker, while at first seeming to fit the schizophrenic description, actually constructs an identity out of connected signifiers—linked words and phrases that trigger predictable patterns of memory and association. As the reader gets further along, these signifiers coalesce into a truly coherent sequence, one almost rigid in its consistency. In eschewing this postmodernist schizophrenia and instead depicting a mind that is, if anything, composed entirely of histories—in fact, the speaker once taught history—Ellmann rejects the postmodernist project, opting instead to stick to a well-trod modernist structure. The experimental fiction of the future cannot ignore the work that has already been done.

It also cannot revert back to the pure subjectivity prized by the early twentieth century modernists, nor can it stick to a late-twentieth-century notion of ahistorical, asocial atomization. It must showcase the individual experience while also exposing the breadth of its connection through technology to the numerous—and numinous—experiences of others.

A fiction of the future will embrace schizophrenia in the Jamesonian sense. It will not worry so much about creating a complete whole, about capturing all of life in one sentence, as one review commented about Ducks, Newburyport. Instead, it will likely be much more pared down, staccato, aimless but not adrift. I see Tao Lin, a writer whose work is often pinned with the label of alt-lit, as a paragon of this style.

[3] His largely autobiographical novels—many of the digital conversations are pulled straight from Lin’s inboxes—have a spare style, and dryly following the interactions of millennial characters adrift in modernity. The characters in Taipei, his most popular novel, almost always interact through the mediation of either technology (Facebook Messenger, GChat, etc.) or drugs (usually downers or hallucinogens, but occasionally stimulants and alcohol). Much of the book takes place alone in apartments, or walking down streets, or inside of Whole Foods. The characters are practically devoid of interiority, and often don’t know how to express the right emotions or what to do with their faces when talking to other people. Their lives are remarkably ordinary, as Woolf would like them to be, but a modern sort of ordinary, and depicted in a more engaging way than that of Ellmann’s speaker.


Like Tao Lin, Sally Rooney writes with a tone particularly apt for the modern novel. Her sharp, ironic wit provides a self-mockery and gentle laceration that betrays a sympathetic disapproval toward her characters. Her self-consciousness and self-awareness and, above all, her playfulness, make Rooney a good writer for the present moment. In terms of form, however, her writing lacks innovation, and even Woolf may have found her too aligned with the old, nineteenth-century style.

Abroad, Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai and newly minted Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk push further in terms of formal innovation than any English speakers I have come across. While my familiarity with their respective works is limited, those I have read have been more exciting than anything written recently in the English-speaking world. In the stories of The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai adapts the tradition of the seemingly endless sentence to greater effect, allowing the reader to swim through his prose—and his character’s minds—without losing sight of the external world. Further, and more incredibly, I’m still unsure if it’s a novel or a short-story collection. Tokarczuk, on the other hand, expertly weaves disparate stories together in Flights, creating not so much a coherent narrative as a full, and at times harrowing, depiction of modernity as seen through the lens of travel. Both writers are exemplars of the novel’s still limitless potential.

While the æsthetics of modernism no longer apply to fiction being written today, its guiding ethos, as described by Virginia Woolf, remains the foundation for novelistic experimentation. Life is still “a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” But this envelope does not look quite the same as it did in the 1920s. Truly revolutionary and exciting novels cannot look like the flowery exteriors of nineteenth century romances, and they cannot look like the stream-of-consciousness interiors of modernism. They must embrace the extended mind, incorporating the technological connectivity that we all experience as part of our daily lives, while also maintaining a sense of the fragmentation that this causes. Today’s novel must be written with an awareness of the postmodernist schizophrenia that makes novels of the late twentieth century so exciting: our experience of unassimilable immediacy must be addressed.

Likewise, revolutionary novels must go further than the experimentations of the postmodernists and into new realms. The directionless banality of alt-lit is one avenue for this; the radical new forms seen abroad are another. In both cases, the novel’s success rides on the author’s sense of playfulness. Producing Serious Literature need not be done with a stodgy sense of self-importance, and should be seen for what it is: a radical form of play that can give us new ways of thinking about the world around us. Regardless, I hope the novels of the future have more sentence breaks.


1. Incidentally, the famous Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann is Lucy Ellmann’s father. ^

2. An example: In one scene in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom accidentally predicts which horse will win the Ascot Gold Cup. The horse’s name functions on numerous levels: Bloom means to tell somebody to throw away a newspaper, while the other character takes that as a suggestion to bet on the horse named Throwaway, in a throwaway reference by Joyce to the actual winner of the horse race on the day the novel takes place, a reference that continues to be thrown around throughout the novel. Ellmann, on the other hand, mostly sticks to relatively shallow wordplay and the occasional wry aside. ^

3. While alt-lit tends to fall slightly outside of the mainstream, it recently got some high-profile coverage: Paparazzi photos have been showing Kendall Jenner reading books by the likes of Chelsea Hodson and Darcie Wilder, writers sometimes affixed with that label. ^

4. Tao Lin’s forthcoming novel, Leave Society, promises to be different from his earlier ones; maybe this new style will be even more fit for the challenges of capturing the modern mentality. ^