Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash
A few weeks ago, the iconic and legendary critic Parul Sehgal (whom I stan more than any other) published an essay seemingly about the prevalence of trauma as an organizing principle in contemporary literature and film. At the top of the essay, she ponders who might stand in for the literary avatar of our moment in the spirit of Woolf’s Mrs. Brown:
[…] Self-entranced, withholding, giving off a fragrance of unspecified damage. Stalled, confusing to others, prone to sudden silences and jumpy responsiveness. Something gnaws at her, keeps her solitary and opaque, until there’s a sudden rip in her composure and her history comes spilling out, in confession or in flashback.
Dress this story up or down: on the page and on the screen, one plot—the trauma plot—has arrived to rule them all. Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?).
Her summary of the vibe is kind of striking too:
Trauma came to be accepted as a totalizing identity. Its status has been little affected by the robust debates within trauma theory or, for that matter, by critics who argue that the evidence of van der Kolk’s theory of traumatic memory remains weak, and his claims uncorroborated by empirical studies (even his own)[….] The claim that trauma’s imprint is a timeless feature of our species, that it etches itself on the human brain in a distinct way, ignores how trauma has been evolving since the days of railway spine; traumatic flashbacks were reported only after the invention of film. Are the words that come to our lips when we speak of our suffering ever purely our own?
I think you should read the whole essay—she grapples with some really interesting and important ideas, and while I don’t know that I come away agreeing with her in totality, I did appreciate wrestling with her ideas and provocations. I think also in the essay, she is sometimes very fair and even-handed, and toward the end of the piece, makes some key concessions. But also, she is very bullish! In a way I enjoyed because I love it when critics stir the pot.
But also, I found parts of the essay itself strangely opaque and muddled, and, somewhat ironically, it had the charge of a consciousness addled by something. I guess what I mean is that the essay itself took on many of the characteristics of a narrative about trauma, or a narrative under the influence of trauma: the discursive roaming, the feints, the bits of self-deception discovered almost by accident and folded into the inquiry at the heart of the essay. Which I do not say to discredit any of the claims or to imply that the author is traumatized. I bring it up only to highlight, to Sehgal’s point, the ubiquity of the form.
Though I suppose that this line of thinking is the very thing that Sehgal and others are so irritated by. The idea that an ambivalent and multifarious expression of a complicated set of experiences could be neatly subsumed into a diagnosis and summarized by armchair psychologists. The essay alludes to trauma as a totalizing identity, the tricky and at times nefarious way that a person gets reduced to the fungible tokens of identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, class, and on. It’s a crude and blunt machinery, annoying in its pervasiveness, everything a consequence of identity, obliterating free will or agency.
I agree. Very boring. Very bad. I am sympathetic to Sehgal’s argument. When I was in undergrad and on Tumblr, the cool thing to do as a Black writer was to disavow race and to want to write “real fiction” about “real things” and not give in to that race stuff. Everywhere I looked, I saw black and brown people acting like they didn’t have cultures or histories or races. We were over that. We wanted to write stories about people. You know. Meaning white. Or meaning un-raced, I guess. But then, something curious happened. I first noticed it in 2013 or 2014, when I began to take my writing seriously.
Suddenly, it was not only cool but somehow NECESSARY to write from a place of identity-based authority. If Obama’s first term was all about pretending no one had a race, then his second term and beyond became deeply, DEEPLY about as a person of identity, I have x,y, and z to say. All these people who had been saying, Ugh, immigrant fiction or Ugh, identity fiction were suddenly saying, Well, as an immigrant of color and Well, as a person of color, etc. By 2015, we were all writing about our identities with this pious, authoritative tone, as though getting called a porch monkey by pimple-faced white teenagers made me an expert on race in America.
That’s no shade. I think that such writing has its place. And, as always, people can do what they want. It’s never because of one book or one writer. You can’t lay these kinds of broad, cultural shifts at the feet of one person or another just because they come to typify (often only in our own heads) certain parts of the contemporary moment we don’t like. And, also, like, sometimes people need to see themselves reflected or represented in the broader cultural conversation before they feel empowered enough to tell their own stories. It seems mean-spirited to try to make fun of that. But on the other hand. There is something kind of insidious, no, about the increased expectation that an author is to turn themselves inside out and slather their personal histories across the page. Identity used to mean a particularized set of experiences unique to one person. My identity. My self. Who I am. But now, identity means one’s belonging to an affinity group based on some shared trait. Identity used to mean something loose and changeful. We grow, we change, we find out things about ourselves. And now it means something hard and permanent. Unyielding. Determining. The immutable parts of your life.
We’re at a curious moment, probably not a very unique one, but curious to me just the same. A moment in which the first and primary lens through which we experience, interpret, and evaluate art is the lens of this harder, immutable social identity. Sometimes, before we even know what something is about, we want to know who made it and if they had the proper ethnic and social bona fides. Before we can evaluate whether or not something is allowed, we run a quick analysis, trying to determine how and where identity fits in. Of course this mostly takes place on Twitter, where it is easy to feel that it’s a real thing about the real world. But consider that black aunties loved Green Book and Hidden Figures and The Help and how else to explain why Tyler Perry has the career he has. I sometimes make this mistake, that the discourse on Twitter and the internet in general is the same as what’s out there in meat space.
This happened to me recently. My best friend in the world is like me: queer, black, and from Alabama. They’re nonbinary. They told me that they were excited to see the new Fantastic Beasts movie. And I thought, well, but, JK Rowling is cancelled. What could they mean by this. So I said, Isn’t she cancelled? And they said, Is she? Oh. Alright. Meaning of course that they were still going to watch the movie and were excited by it. I sometimes totally forget that, unlike me, my friend gets on Twitter to look at porn and engage OnlyFans creators, and then they go and mind their business. They aren’t sucking up all this discourse. They watch Harry Potter movies without a trace of worry or trepidation. It’s just a movie to them.
Literature is not immune to this fixation on biography and identity. Far from it. So much of the contemporary cultural response to literature is predicated on turning that literature into biography. A recent review of Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel To Paradise, in The New York Times, opens:
Can an Asian American woman write a great American novel? Ought a great American novel range from New York to Hawaii, skipping the Midwest? Can it cross from realism to dystopia? And — most important of all, perhaps — can it center on gay men?
Another, less flattering review, further parses questions of identity and what they might mean re: Yanagihara’s gaze:
God forbid that only gay men should write gay men — let a hundred flowers bloom. But if a white author were to write a novel with Asian American protagonists who, while resistant to identifying as Asian American, nonetheless inhabited an unmistakably Asian American milieu, it might occur to us to ask why.
These questions, to me, aren’t very interesting because they have so little to do with what makes To Paradise a total aesthetic failure. Yanagihara’s novel is a chimera comprising two novellas and a novel proper that each take place in a different epoch—1893, 1993, and 2093. The composition of the book seems to make an argument both about time’s relentless forward motion and about the amalgamated magpie-like quality of what we call history, which is really just the story of time’s passing. It is tempting to look at the range of dates and think that quite a lot of time goes by in this novel, but Yanagihara is not actually interested in raw temporal displacement. Much of the novel’s chronological footprint is eaten up in the white spaces between each of the three sections. We focus quite keenly on a handful of moments in a handful of days in just a few lives. But around these moments orbit dense networks of memories, associations, recollections, and letters, so that while the central thread of the novel is ultimately very thin, there is, like a row of handbags or shoes on display, the illusion of fullness.
The novel is stuffed to the point of breaking with characters, settings, epochs, plagues, the terrors of autocracy, and long tracts of exposition delivered in the form of letters both digital and analog, so much so that it feels kind of like a Victor Hugo novel by way of Donna Tartt. There are flecks of lovely storytelling littered throughout. The trouble is, it gets awfully lonely in the novel, waiting for something beautiful or moving to happen. And, usually, right on cue, just when you’re about to close the book, Yanagihara kills a character, sometimes inventing one right on the spot just to get a little blood on the page, as though she were a vengeful God. The book is less To Paradise and more To Where, Exactly?
But sure, let’s fixate on identity. I guess. For the last half-decade, writers, critics, and readers have been wrestling over what to make of Yanagihara’s affinity and fixation on brutalizing gay men in her fiction. I personally don’t care. If the book is good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad. I don’t really think she owes her readers anything in terms of affinity between her identity and her characters. But I do think she has a tendency, on display in A Little Life more than in To Paradise, of torturing characters for the sake of her own facile arguments about the nature of suffering. I mean, who cares.
But To Paradise does have its own bonkers identity politics. Hanya Yanagihara’s desire to create a narrative space in which queer love does not have to be explained in a historical setting but also to obviate the need to include those pesky black people and their distracting questions of race and historical accuracy leads her to create an alternate American timeline. The novel opens in 1893 in the so-called Free States where white queers marry with abandon and make their little families so long as the rules of polite society (meaning caste and class) are respected.
The world Yanagihara creates is so white that even the butlers are white. The characters discuss how Negroes aren’t citizens and can never be lest they rend the very social fabric on which their peaceful lives rest. I don’t even know how to begin to get my head around the chain of decisions that led Yanagihara to this Gay Racial Utopia, but there you have it. The novel as a whole is peculiarly hostile to black people—the main black character comes in the last, 2090s-set section of the novel, and he exists mostly as a manifestation of American empire to be resented and seethed over. To Paradise was described in a Slate review as being “mostly about class” but what one finds in this weird and dumpy novel is a palpable racial anxiety manifesting as class anxiety. How curious to read characters so openly longing to be white with nary any self-awareness in 2022. It’s almost as though in lieu of the trauma plot beloved and loathed by so many in A Little Life, Yanagihara had no funneling, clarifying sieve through which to run her darker impulses. Perhaps this is a case for the trauma plot. It provides a structure. An emotional support trauma plot.
Anyway. This is not a review of To Paradise. Other, smarter, better writers have that one covered.
In some ways, book reviewers, critics, book club hosts, readers, and even the writers themselves, are engaged in a long war against the idea of fiction itself, involving the reverse-engineering and geolocation of various hurts and harms in the psychology of the writer. We are, at least in America, a nation trained in the arts of literary analysis, bullshitting our way through papers in middle school and high school in which we articulate the meaning of spheres in The Scarlet Letter or explaining what the peals mean in Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and what this can tell us about the authors.
There does sometimes seem to be an oppositional relationship between authors and their readers. As though every book were some kind of extensive fact-finding mission whose chief aim is solely to reveal and unmask the author and their deceptions. There have been moments when I’ve been asked, not if a story of mine is based on actual people or events in my life, but which parts, the underlying assumption being that surely some of it comes from actual life. There was a moment recently when a friend expressed a feeling of betrayal that I had taken some features of his for a story. He said something like Nothing in that story is real. It’s nothing like how I am. And I said, Right. Because it’s not you. And he said But people will think it is real. People read fiction as real now. This friend is a writer. Of nonfiction. We both knew that there was nothing real in the portrayal of the character outside of a few glancing details. Anyone who knows him knows that the character is nothing like him. Has nothing at all to do with him, in fact. He knows it. I know it. Everyone who matters knows it. But he felt that other people would be apt to read too deeply into the story and would think that he was one way instead of another. And I can understand that. I can understand his feeling of betrayal. I apologized. We moved on.
But I have been thinking about that lately. The way that people read fiction these days, on the hunt. One of my creative writing teachers used to describe the kind of attention he wanted us to bring to workshop stories as reading like a prosecutor. This strikes me as a form of paranoid reading in which the reader approaches a text from the defensive supposition that the author is out to deceive and beguile and misdirect. You look for holes in the author’s defense through which the poorly disguised light of biography shines. I think it’s very boring, personally. I have said this before in other essays and in interviews, but I don’t find biography very interesting. I don’t find resonance between an author’s life and their work interesting either. I simply do not care if a character is someone I know or is based on someone I know. That sort of thing stopped being interesting to me when I began to write stories and realized how mundane the alchemizing of real life into fiction is. And how ubiquitous. And yet, in the imagination of many readers, countless readers, there’s this notion that writers are secretive and are carrying out mysterious experiments on the fabric of reality in our little dens and caves and workshops.
The fact is that, yes, some fiction is biographical. Some fiction is not. But most things in fiction do come out of life one way or another. Is this interesting? Is it striking? Turning something that happened to you into art? Is that more interesting than the art itself? Something happening to someone is the most boring and common thing in the world. Things happen to all of us. We all have stories we tell about what was done to us and by whom. Stories we tell to ourselves. And to few, select others. All of life is made of such stories, no? So then why so interested in biography.
But I digress.
To return to the matter of the trauma plot. I do agree with some of what Sehgal says in her characterizing of the trauma plot as totalizing and endlessly recursive while also being weirdly aloof and coy. And she does concede that trauma does or can operate this way:
I hear grumbling. Isn’t it unfair to blame trauma narratives for portraying what trauma does: annihilate the self, freeze the imagination, force stasis and repetition? It’s true that our experiences and our cultural scripts can’t be neatly divided; we will interpret one through the other. And yet survivor narratives and research suggest greater diversity than our script allows.
When I was in graduate school, many of the stories that were up for workshop were narrated in the first-person by cold, detached narrators who spent many pages trying desperately not to look at what to me seemed to be traumatic events. That is, they operated in this way that when something destabilizing happens to you that you cannot look at it or describe it and are stunned into dazed wandering through your life. The dissociated fugue narrator. What is so frustrating about such narrators is that they do not permit anything else into the narrative. The stories go on for pages with terse, prickly descriptions of ordinary objects and events, and we are left to try to piece together what the narrator’s whole deal is. And then, at the end, there is some final, resonant image in which all is illuminated or some kind of headlong rush of description in which all is revealed.
The other kind of traumatized narrator is the recursive, backward-oriented narrator. If the dissociated fugue narrator exists in a continuous stasis, unable to look back or forward, the recursive narrator spends their time treading water and exposition. Flashbacks unfurl beneath the narrator’s feet to explain everything about them. Can’t go to the grocery store because one time a mean racist was mean to me there. Can’t get a dog because one time a mean racist called me a dog. Can’t talk to my friends because one time a mean racist was my friend. You get the idea. Or else, the long flashbacks about intergenerational violence and poverty, and the like. For the recursive narrator, everything in a madeleine of torture.
But that kind of is the way it is sometimes, no?
I don’t know what it is but since I became friends with other writers and moved to New York, they all want to eat raw seafood. Like, a lot. But the thing is, I can’t really eat seafood. Not because of dietary reasons, but because of the fact that I was once raped in a house that smelled very strongly of shrimp. And not just that, but that was a summer in which everyone in my family was eating shrimp. Every night for dinner was shrimp. Everywhere I went was the smell of shrimp. And this guy, my aunt’s boyfriend, was molesting me. And no one would do anything. And it was just shrimp, shrimp, shrimp. And now I can’t eat shrimp because it reminds me too much of being raped and of that summer. But here I am in trendy hand roll places or out at sushi restaurants with friends, people I love, who love me, and here in front of me is shrimp or other raw fish. Which I can’t eat, except I do eat, because I don’t want to have to explain about being raped. And just like that, I am living two moments simultaneously. The one in which I am in New York, with my friends, and the one which I am in Alabama, in the dead of night, running home on bare feet over broken glass and pine needles trying to get to safety. Except the shrimp. It’s the one thing I can’t make myself eat, no matter what. The other fish, I can gulp down and try not to smell. I can get through it. But shrimp is a real no-go zone for me. I try to smile and say, “Oh you can have mine. Please.” But then there’s always the do you not like shrimp? And then it's like, do you ruin the whole night with your trauma or do you just smile through it and make something up. And then, of course, the whole next day, I am sick to my stomach and can’t get out of bed because, obviously, I can still smell the fish and I am still thinking about that summer, about the pine needles and the wet ground under my feet, about the glass I had to pick out of my soles in the bathroom when I had finally gotten home, about the way he’d shown me his gun before he raped me, so I’d be afraid, too afraid to run. And I’m in bed and can’t get out of bed and spend my days, guess what, in a fucking fugue. All because I ate the raw fish and smiled through it. Because I didn’t feel I could say anything about the trauma. And on.
Trauma does sometimes feel very recursive. It points backward. In novels and in fiction, what often happens is that people want to capture the simultaneity of it. The two rolls of film opening up and running past each other, displaying their counternarratives about who you are and what you need. So the text takes on this quality. Flashbacks. Superimpositions. You can’t express yourself externally, so it turns inward and runs beneath what you’re saying and doing. I get it. Is this interesting? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s very interesting. I also didn’t think A Little Life was very interesting. I liked the sweaters in that novel. I enjoyed the lifestyle magazine aspect to it. But where most people found Jude’s suffering very intense and very emotional, I thought it was just kind of dull. I had been through many of the things that Jude went through at similar ages. It didn’t trigger me. It lacked any real kind of visceral imagination. It was just like reading a list of bad things imagined to have happened to a person with no real sense of what was going in that person’s life. Some people consider this a strength, the absence of interiority and explanation. And maybe it is. But I do know that producing a litany of traumatic events doesn’t actually recreate the sense trauma on the page.
The only experiential parts of A Little Life are the scenes in which people are folding sweaters and remembering tender, small moments. Or eating. Everything else just has the blasé aridity of filling out spreadsheets. And maybe that is interesting to people. They’ve never seen a traumatized person approach their pain with such detachment, etc. But, I don’t know, it all felt rather tedious. Or maybe my feelings are stunted. But I did cry at the end of The Portrait of a Lady. And at the moment of Isabelle and Ralph’s final farewell. I am often moved by literature. Moments of genuine human feeling. I think sometimes, authors try to capture trauma’s evacuating quality by leaning into plainness and aridity, and they forget that people do have feelings. Even traumatized people. Even if they can’t access them, they do have feelings. Maybe what bothers Sehgal and others is the distinct feeling of convenience. Like, oh you’re traumatized so you don’t need things to happen to the character because they’re just vibing and describing cooly, sure, Jan. And yeah, there is a way in which such a paranoid reading makes sense. Often, things I don’t like in fiction feel very convenient, like you can tell that the author has reached the absolute limit of their technical ability and just do not have the skill or the insight to find their way out, so they pivot to something convenient.
Trauma does have a host of narrative and expository tools at its disposal. It does provide an out for a floundering writer. And it does, or, can suggest itself, as though it were an epiphany or a revelation. There have been moments in my own writing life where I’ve been stuck on a character, and felt an unlocking sensation at the thought of it, Oh, they must be traumatized. That’s why they’re so withholding. But usually, this can be fixed by simply giving the character something to do. Some means of surprising themselves or others in a scene. And then building on that. Alternate routes exist.
Also to Sehgal’s point, there is a kind of flashback that is just explanatory, what she describes when she says, “Certainly the filmmakers of classical Hollywood cinema were quite able to bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments. In contrast, characters are now created in order to be dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma.”
Such flashbacks offer no modulation of image or feeling. The past drops down in an almost expository block and slots into place and explains why a character is the way they are. It has nothing experiential in it except to mildly shock a reader, to bait them over to the character’s side. Such tactics feel cheap, exploitative. But what I would also say is that sometimes, things feel cheap to us because we ourselves suspect that we are the cheap ones. That we would never stoop so low as to flog our trauma for style points or to get a reader to feel something or know something. That we are above it. Sometimes, the reflexive shame of surviving a trauma leads us to judge others harshly, for failing to meet our own standards of expression. I know I’m guilty of that personally. Particularly when it comes to fiction that deals directly with race and poverty.
To be clear, a lot of it is cheesy. I do believe that. But sometimes, I feel that I am being particularly harsh with a text because I am envious of its directness, its direct handling of material that to me feels hard and difficult to get my hands around. But then, I mean, some of it is quite bad, no?
It is true, yes, that there are novels today that deal in the diaspora and in personal traumas that easily and boldly recycle familiar images and tropes. Ideas. The noble grandmother fleeing troubling circumstances, only to encounter progressive racism. Or, the my parents rejected me because I am gay or, I grew up poor and nobody in my elite school liked me novel. Or the I am a mysterious and attractive white woman living in a contemporary city and I have been hollowed by bourgeois values and I don’t know what is up or down and in the last third of the book, you will discover a harrowing but vaguely described incident that makes my actions seem both understandable and strange. I have read these novels and stories. I have seen these movies. I understand both the appeal and the fatigue.
But what Sehgal seems to really be tired of doesn’t even seem to be trauma. Toward the end of the essay, what she ends up arguing against is the quick-dry, ready-made orienting around the single-defining incident of a life. Or the way that authors lean on interiority to explain in facile ways their characters’ more prickly and weird actions. One of my teachers, Charles D’Ambrosio, in a fit of weary pique, said something to us like, “You guys are very smart. You are incredibly good at depth. I think you need more surface. If I could make you write less smart, I would.”
Now that seems like a contradiction. Like, why would a writing teacher want his students to write less smart. To write with less depth. But I understood immediately what he meant. That there was too much psychology in our work. That we were writing reams of exposition and backstory trying to explain and justify our characters rather than attending to the basic surface facts of their existence in the world that we were creating. We were making characters from the inside out. Designing little humans to act out the depression and fear and, now, trauma of their pasts, and by doing so, robbing them of the associative swagger that, at its finest, approximates free will in fiction. We were mining the depths of our character’s inner lives without providing them room to surprise themselves or us.
I sense a similar vibe to Sehgal’s essay. She is bored by our psychologizing. Our meaning-making. It does feel kind of liberating to let a character just be and not want to rush in with our myriad explanations. She says, “Stories rebel against the constriction of the trauma plot with skepticism, comedy, critique, fantasy, and a prickly awareness of the genre and audience expectations.” So true, bestie. I get that. I too am tired of convenient, expected reactions to long-established facts of oppression and traumatic experience.
Like, whomst among us is not sick of stories about overcoming and what not. I also enjoyed the part of the essay where she points out, “findings that the vast majority of people recover well from traumatic events and that post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress.” In other words, whither the stories of triumph and wry detachment in the face of horrible suffering, so sick of all these tears, bestie. And, like, same. Yeah.
But also, expecting people to laugh off their pain and shrug off historical wrongs is just as boring as expecting them to rend their garments and beat their chests in agony. Yeah, it seems to be freedom, the ability to be irreverent and make jokes and swagger around with bravado in the face of trauma, while the audience knows that there is secret pain present, but, like, is that interesting? Is it interesting to say, this trauma plot is so expected, I wish someone would be vulgar. Can vulgarity and profanity in the face of the sacred be interesting in a world where we have Tik Tok?
I don’t mean that in the sense that Tik Tok is degrading us spiritually. I mean it in the sense that Tik Tok is a reference engine. We are exposing people to hundreds and thousands of references a day. By the time you arrive at something sacred, you’ve already seen like, fifty insulting memes about that thing. The juice of profanity in the face of sacredness is all used up. There’s no heat left in rhetorical irreverence. In being antic and manic in the face of something sobering. That’s why trauma as an aesthetic, as a vibe, as a filter is on the rise. Because we already laughed at all of the things our parents cared about. We grew up with South Park making horrible jokes about the Holocaust and slavery and African poverty. Now laughing in the face of something important has all the countercultural energy of getting your nose pierced to rebel against your parents. Taking things seriously is the new dead baby joke. Piety is BACK.
But also, just on its face, like, I don’t always know how to be irreverent about the fact that not that many generations ago, my ancestors were prohibited from learning to read under threat of death for fear that they might accidentally find out that they were slaves and here I am typing about wanting a deranged straight top to break my body in half for a living. I don’t know how to be funny about that all of the time, and when I go to the page, it’s hard to dream up something funny and stylistically interesting about the ongoing murder of my people in the streets while people tweet about hamburgers and whether or not white people wash their legs. Like, yeah, I can understand how the extremity of that juxtaposition might make one laugh or want to bash their head against a wall, and I can understand how a critic who consumes mediocre art about horrible things might be more interested in the laughter, but sometimes I just don’t got it. Sometimes, there’s nothing for it but to be serious and somber and direct and to reach for those images of grandmothers fleeing atrocities. Sometimes, it can be so embarrassing to be so furious about the historical evils of America. Like, we all get it, can you please just go shuffle your anger off stage and do something interesting with it. I understand. Like. Art. You know. It demands more of us. And I want to give it. I do. But sometimes, all I mean is that sometimes, man, fuck, like, shit is terrible and it’s okay to say that. And to dress it up and be cliche and boring because sometimes you get tired of being so, I don’t know. I guess what I mean is that didacticism has its purpose and sometimes all we have is the didactic.
Is it true that we’re all on Twitter talking about our trauma, and the word has ceased to have any real, stable meaning? Like, yeah, totally. Psychologizing infiltrated fiction long ago, but now we’re seeing it creep even more deeply into mainstream discourse. We saw this previously, obvi, with the rise of self-help and diet culture. We are always optimizing, in this civilization of ours. But now, therapy speak has cohered into an idiom all its own. It’s everywhere—Twitter, Tik Tok, group texts, Instagram stories. We are bombarded with a rush of softening language to describe our interior and social collapses.
It’s kind of funny to me because I feel like what first drew writers to what she calls the trauma plot was the freedom it offered from other forms of handy explanation and psychologizing in fiction. Trauma, with its obliterative and annihilating force, could derange and deform the comforting narratives of life. It opened a way into fragmentary, associative storytelling. Trauma made fiction look more like life with its randomized assortments of thoughts and images. But now, we have the accusation that trauma is somehow an ordering mechanism. That it marshals narrative into a couple of distinct forms. The recursive and the static present. Which, very funny and ironic, to me personally. But here we are.
I think what it comes down to is that, yes, people do seem to be writing fiction not only about trauma but under the influence of trauma. And this has cohered into a voice, a tone, a way of sounding on the page. And like much of contemporary society, once the algorithm of corporate publishing finds a useful token, it prints more of them. The seeming abundance of the trauma narrative, the seeming ubiquity of it, is kind of annoying, yeah. But also, the tendency to read a trauma narrative into everything is itself kind of a traumatized response.
The fact is that the contemporary moment never belongs to a single person or group or single ideas or single conceptions of the world we’re looking at. The contemporary is vast. Beyond summation. Any attempt to describe it is inherently flawed. We knows this. Or we should know this. If the trauma plot feels particularly prevalent right now, perhaps it is because the person doing the looking is thinking about trauma for their own reasons. For all we know, in fifty years, critics will look back and be like, “Wow, people really stopped caring about setting in the 2020s” or “Wow, people spent a lot of time talking about cat people.”
Also, the idea that novels of the past aren’t themselves filled with this so-called trauma plot is kind of silly, no? Like, A Farewell to Arms is a trauma plot. As is Rabbit, Run. As is most post-war American fiction. As is Ann Petry’s The Street. As is most of Bellow and Malamud. Bruno Schulz. Virginia Woolf—To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, especially. Camus’s The Stranger. Daddy Sebald himself partook.
For months, I have been reading Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, and one of the most striking elements to the books is the inheritance of primal shocks. Through one family and its three branches, Zola traces the inheritance certain psychologies and the ways that these psychologies play out in the broader world. But what is most striking is that the psychologies often result from the primitive jolt of violence done to the progenitor of the family. Her pain, psychic, emotional, financial, cascades down through the generations and her descendants, affecting their fortunes, yes, but also the very fabric of their constitutions. It’s an extensive exploration of the toll of intergenerational trauma in French society. Also, capitalism, but that is perhaps obvious. The list goes on. Fiction is, I think, always kind of about the shock of human experience. The shock of being alive. But I agree, like, where explanation takes over for experience, it’s a tedious and sorrowful read.
The trauma plot strikes me as a name we might give to fiction in which there is simply no there there, you know? Like, fiction that gropes toward or gestures at some shadowy region of the human experience because it has nothing really interesting to say about being alive. And, yeah, one can get by with some style and giving a character a dead ethnic parent or homophobia to deal with. You can. That is true. The bar seems tantalizingly low at the moment. But. Crucially. To read the work of writers like Garth Greenwell and Kiese Laymon and Alexander Chee and Laura van den Berg and Kaitlyn Greenidge and Donald Antrim and Pam Zhang and Katie Kitamura and Nicole Krauss and Rebecca Curtis and Daniel Alarcón, and to reduce it to trauma or the trauma plot seems to me a willfully hostile act. A willful reduction. A key misread. Lowering the bar and then accusing people of being manipulative artists when they clear it is silly.
In other words, if your reading is paranoid, everything kind of looks like shit, even brilliant art. You can read mercilessly and with cold detachment and be an aloof prosecutor, but then at least acknowledge your frame. Otherwise, you’re simply projecting a paranoid reading across contemporary literature and saying See, see! I got them!
Yeah, there is shitty writing. There are bad books. I too am weary of mysterious, vaporous narrators and the ponderous, screeching machinery of history used to make boring fiction feel important. I shan’t be reading the slavery novels. I simply shan’t. Nor the descriptions grandmothers’ kitchens and their Southern cornbread. I have a Southern grandmother and I remember what her cornbread is like. I am full up on mediocre prose and copious black pain. But I know that about myself. I can acknowledge that about myself and my frame. It doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with the state of black literature. It just means that I have a preference. A taste. A frame. And the existence of a preference does not create a crisis in a contemporary art form.
The trauma plot, like all the other generalizations about the fitness and longevity of narrative forms, will fade. It will be replaced by something else, some other operating logic that we project outward to comprehend the vast and unruly world in which we live.
But like all frames, it’s interchangeable. Temporary. Says more about us than the thing we’re trying to describe.
The way this essay both displays the reality of trauma on the writing process and describes the way such writing can go astray helped me to better understand my feelings of failure and vulnerability around my own writing. Thank you.
Beautifully put. I enjoyed the original essay but its a pleasure to read such a nuanced and well worded response, and I think the feeling that "bad writing in any genre or plot device is bad" is spot on, it's the artlessness that offends us rather than the subject matter. The shortcuts apparently taken to character development or pathos.
I also on some level related to your last few paragraphs. There is a lot of Irish literature about poverty, exile, domestic, institutional and religious sexual and physical abuse and I know it's powerful and well written work but I also know those things from being immersed in that Ireland and I've no interest in revisiting it in my reading.