In Search of the Great Miami Novel

Surely there's more to local literature than crime and exile

The short answer? "It wasn't easy." Kaplan is quick to credit the fair's co-founders, independent-bookstore owners such as Raquel Roque of Downtown Book Center, as well as Eduardo Padrón of host Miami-Dade College. But most important was his belief that a literary core was already coalescing in Miami. It just needed to be nurtured.

"The first few years I would try to get an author to come down to the book fair -- or even for a reading here at the store -- I would call up a publishing house and their publicist would say, 'Well, we have this new nonprescription-drug book out. We'll try and get the writer down.'" He shakes his head and laughs ruefully: "Their image of Miami was still of the geriatric set."

From behind the Books & Books cash register, however, Kaplan saw a different Miami. "Yes, Jane Fonda's workout book did well, but we sold huge amounts of [Russell Banks's 1985 novel] Continental Drift and J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. And those were the kind of books being read anywhere. There was a sophisticated audience here."

Carl Hiaasen (top) and Ivonne Lamazares (bottom) offer two wildly variant -- and equally penetrating -- literary takes on Miami
Carl Hiaasen (top) and Ivonne Lamazares (bottom) offer two wildly variant -- and equally penetrating -- literary takes on Miami
Neither tan nor rested, Brian Antoni is nonetheless ready to translate the American Riviera to the page
Jonathan Postal
Neither tan nor rested, Brian Antoni is nonetheless ready to translate the American Riviera to the page

As the decade progressed and the book fair expanded in size, so did Miami's literary community. Both Florida International University and the University of Miami established MFA programs that have earned widespread respect and drawn marquee names as instructors. As their graduates published and made their own marks, they attracted authors to the city at large. Some writers found themselves lured to the area, whether they chose to mine it for material (like the since departed Alexander Stuart and the recently arrived Edwidge Danticat) or just enjoyed the weather, like Anne Rice and Thomas Harris.

Two decades on from Books & Books' opening and the book fair's launch, Miami has even spawned its own internationally known literary brands -- the narrative of exile, and the South Florida crime novel, as this region has handily superseded Los Angeles as the preeminent sunny place for shady people.

Yet peruse a broad survey of Miami's modern fiction and an odd truth emerges. These two categories aren't simply what Miami has become famous for; with a few exceptions, they're all Miami's literary scene has produced. If, as Joan Didion once wrote, "we tell ourselves stories in order to survive," what does this say about Miamians? Are crime and exile the sum total of our collective cultural experience?

Kaplan seems disconcerted by the notion. Leaning back in his chair, he begins drumming his fingers on the table and thinking aloud, running through a list of local notables. Certainly you're not discounting the inventiveness of John Dufresne? No, wait, he writes about Louisiana. How about Russell Banks? No, he's a New Englander who dropped by for a visit -- and Continental Drift was written eighteen years ago.

Eventually Kaplan runs out of steam. "It's natural there would be fiction about immigration and exile," he offers tentatively. "It's natural there would be mysteries because of all the clichéd reasons -- reality is stranger than fiction here. But in terms of Miami as place, where are the other experiences? Where are the social novels about Miami -- like Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities or even better, A Man in Full? You're right, they aren't here. So the question is: Where is the Great Miami Novel?"

Be careful when you repeat that question to Les Standiford, director of FIU's creative-writing program and author of the John Deal mystery series. "In a hundred years we'll be writing books about drawing-room manners," he snaps dismissively, "but right now this is a wide-open, wild and woolly town. Anybody who's writing about this place and who we are would rightfully be talking about crime and punishment.... Imagine trying to put out New Times every week in Kansas City -- what the hell would you be writing about?"

So the crime novel is the Great Miami Novel?

"The whole idea that genre fiction is not as good as literary fiction --" Standiford trails off with a perturbed sigh. "Look, determining whether a book is good by the so-called genre in which it's written is usually self-serving. It's put forward by people who wouldn't know a plot if it bit them in the butt."

Memo to Standiford's students: Beware emulating Raymond Carver or any other plumbers of the long dark nights of the soul.

"You often get that defense: 'Nothing happens in my book; that's what literary novels are supposed to be.' Well, I would suggest you read The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick. Every truly great piece of literature is not only wonderfully written, but also a terrific story."

As far as Standiford is concerned, the Great Miami Novel is already here, complete with all the trenchant social commentary Tom Wolfe would admire: It's Street 8, the late Douglas Fairbairn's 1977 look at an ascendant el exilio colliding with old-school Miami. Due for reissue next year (with a new introduction from Standiford), Street 8 embroils an Anglo used-car dealer in an anti-Castro assassination plot, limning Fairbairn's vision of a Miami future in which homegrown terrorists and a Tammany Hall-style electoral machine remake the political landscape.

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