Passion, Talent, Luck: Novels of Expertise

One highlight of my experience of last year’s AWP conference in Seattle was the panel “Nerd Novels: Exploring Worlds of Knowledge in Fiction.” Among the panelists was Michael Byers, author of Percival’s Planet, who spoke in fascinating terms on the distinction (and overlap) between novels of manners and novels of expertise—fiction based on how people behave versus fiction based on what people know; the drama of society versus the drama of work. Obviously these are far from mutually exclusive, and for me one of the most fun and interesting legacies of Byers’s observation has been noticing the mix of “manners” and “expertise” in each successful work of fiction I’ve encountered since.

I was drawn to the panel at AWP 2015 largely because I love novels (and short fiction) based on expertise. At a narrative level, it is simply compelling to read about someone who is good at their job (or hobby, or...). This is partly because, when well-executed, fictional expertise is nonfictionally educational—a sort of complex mental-emotional heir to the “special delivery” segment of Mr. Rogers episodes when you, thinking you were only tuning in for a trolley ride to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, ended up learning how crayons or peanut butter or merry-go-round horses are made. The reader comes out the other side of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay knowing what feels like (though it of course can't be) everything about the Golden Age of American comic books, about the creative and technical process of putting an issue together. Ditto for Paul Harding’s Tinkers and clock repair, or for Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever and…well, anything; Darwinism, polar exploration; Linnaean taxonomy. (I love Andrea Barrett.) In this way fiction of expertise (which I would argue could include anything with a setting significantly removed, in time or space, from the reader’s experience) is the antidote to what I find to be the tranquilizing phenomenon of fiction about fiction writers. With, I’m sure, exceptions that prove the rule, a successful novel of expertise has to come from a place of knowledge, curiosity, and/or passion on the author’s part. Having those ingredients in place can only bode well for the work itself; when did an excellent work of fiction ever spring from the author's apathy?

This ties in to the other major draw of fiction of expertise, for me. Any character with expertise in a given field must either have passion for their work, or else a problematic and looming lack of passion. Both situations have huge potential for the narrative. Passion and/or expertise pave a natural road to high stakes for the character, who automatically begins the story invested, vulnerable, with everything to lose. Even experts fail. Expertise is the variable that makes even apathy eventful, a kind of active failure. If it’s compelling to read about someone with a talent for their job or hobby, it often even more so to read about them stumbling, that talent betraying them. Identity, legacy, and relationships all get wrapped up in expertise and its frustration—this sounds like basic stuff, but like any element of fiction it can be made specific and universal in countless ways, both successful and unsuccessful. (A character struggling to break into a field, having one or two but not all three of the trifecta of passion, talent, and luck, can also be enormously gripping. This subject is Barrett’s greatest strength, I think—the thwarted naturalist Alec Carrière in “Birds With No Feet” haunts me regularly between readings.)

I think what makes fiction of expertise wonderful is that it appeals to so many parts of our brains at once. We’re compelled by ambition or its problematized lack; we gasp to see a rising star or reigning giant stumble; and we learn a trade, or (more likely, just as fascinating) we at least feel as though we have. Like “fictional biography,” this is a subgenre I’ve been loving for decades and for which I was happy to learn a name. Now I find it fun and extremely useful, both as a reader and a writer, to pinpoint characters’ fields of expertise (and their failures) and to think about how they serve the narrative.