Nami Mun and the “MFA Book”: Short Stories as Novels

While I was initially skeptical of “Miles From Nowhere,” based solely on the marketing (it seems like too many publishers are finding new novelists whose books replay the very familiar “tough immigrant childhood” story, except with some new twist…i.e. 1980s New York, as opposed to 1900s New York), I quickly fell in love with this book.

There’s little that will surprise you in the plot, of course, as Penguin Books has ensured that their author fits into a distinct category of novel: this is a book meant to be read and then discussed in book circles, with readers saying things like, “This is so terrible that someone could go through these circumstances, etc.” And, obviously, this is why I was so wary of reading the book to begin with. Publishers aren’t necessarily looking for new and interesting novels from emerging authors anymore; they’re looking for “tough circumstance” books, stories that–even though they might label themselves as fiction–bare a striking resemblance to the author bio (Korean immigrant? worked as an Avon lady? homeless?). This practice is changing the way we read (we’re no longer reading for big ideas, or even cultural criticism, but as a kind of middle-class guilt for not having terrible childhoods/addictions/emigrations ourselves), but it’s also changing and dictating who the new and emerging authors will be and what they may write about.

Subject matter and publisher marketing strategies aside, though (because Mun isn’t to blame for this, of course), “Miles From Nowhere” is a quick, engaging, and often beautiful reading experience. The prose is both rich and gritty, both emotional and (at times) stripped of emotion. I hope that Mun chooses to step outside the “immigrant experience” subject matter for her next book, because there were shades of Euginedes’ “Virgin Suicides” here…and that’s not an exaggeration. Mun is good.

My only other complaint for Mun, though, is that she falls into the trap of so many other emerging writers in her choice of plot structure. This is an MFA book, no doubt about it. A collection of short stories which share the same protagonist, likely written throughout several grad school years for a thesis project, then published separately as the writer built her reputation, and finally collected together and published as a “novel” (because that’s more marketable than “short story collection”) even though it reads as a collection, not a novel. This practice infuriates me; if you want to write a novel, write a NOVEL. Have the courage to write a book that is not so easily broken apart and published separately. Have the courage to write a book that might fail, rather than writing something that is praised critically as a novel for the sole reason that…well…we all understand how these things work, and it’s easier and more prudent to write short stories and then just call them a novel.

In short, this isn’t a novel. It’s a collection. And it (obviously) grates on me when writers and publishers think we won’t know the difference, or hope that we’ll ignore it.

But–as with the very best of all first books–“Miles From Nowhere” definitely succeeds in making you excited for Nami Mun’s future.

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