Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fiction and the Economic Crisis

So, we're in the middle of a deepening economic crisis, with the Dow losing 45% in the last 15 months, and with around 3 million jobs lost in the last five months. Personally, my own industry is, as an article on the industry stated yesterday, "running off a cliff." While the pain isn't hitting everyone, the economists are scared. The consensus seems to be that we might at least stop the slide downward by year's end, though the job losses will continue to mount in the meantime, making the prospect of a recovery even further in the future. Some think it may well be a decade before we get to the same level of growth we were seeing before this whole crisis hit.

Crisis is always interesting from an artistic perspective. What will the American fiction of the next few years look like? What sort of country will it describe? First, there will be a lot less of it published. With the big publishing houses shuttering divisions, and book stores struggling to keep their doors open, there will be fewer new books. These changes--this crisis--are subjects for another conversation.

The books being written now could very well describe a country in turmoil, lost in a mix of hope and pessimism. Just when things looked up, like the country might be restored and the outlook brighter, greed at every level has driven us to this precipice. And if it's not us falling over that edge, it's the 43,000 workers at GM who will lose their jobs this year, the 10,000 at Boeing. Suddenly, we look at our credit card bills in horror. What was once the normal way of operating now has proved to be incredibly reckless. Our 401(k)s? Don't even look at them. And add a few more years to your planned retirement age. And the mortgage? Even if you're making your payments, knowing that your house has lost 20% of its value makes you question the reasonableness of the purchase.

Thinking about losing your home, though, is as frightening as the prospect of losing your job. Our identities are wrapped up in these things. How lost is a person who has lost either, or both?
How would such a crisis shift his/her perspective? In what way would he overcome?

It is hard to argue against the powerful notion of the American Dream because it is so much a part of our psyche. But we know it fails at times. We know that hard work and the desire for more doesn't save us from ruin. Alternatively, it seems like the country has developed a sense of entitlement. As if we deserve good things to come our way. And if they don't, by God, someone had better step in and make things right. It's at every level. The bank who expects not to suffer when the risks they've been taking have led them to near-collapse. And it's the home buyer who bought well out of his/her price range with a questionable loan who now wants the government to step in and stop the bank from foreclosing.

All of these things are bound to manifest themselves in the fiction we read in the next few years. Maybe these novels will moralize, tells where we went wrong--as if we don't know. Maybe they will offer hope, they will show us an American Spirit that is truer and more noble than the capitalist American Dream. Or maybe they will show a state of ruin in which we will stay and in which we had damn well better find our way, or perish.

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