By Ekta R. Garg
November 12, 2020
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Release date: September 8, 2020
Genre: Mainstream fiction
Fredrik Backman has had the career most writers dream about. His first book hit The New York Times bestseller list, and most of his other works have sat on the coveted list as well. Although his career got off to a slow start—A Man Called Ove was rejected several times before it got published, and even after it came out, it took a little while for it to pick up steam and fans—now a Fredrik Backman book is a celebration.
I read an article just yesterday about the value of “gentle reads”—books that don’t center on explosions or a blowout court case or superheroes who have to save the world. Instead gentle reads books focus on the little things in life; for example, when a new person who is tight-lipped about his/her past moves to a small town, everyone in town wants to know more about the new resident. Moreover, the arrival of the newcomer often triggers new conflicts or brings back (or maybe even resolves) old ones.
I think that’s what makes Backman’s books so appealing. He’s writing with a universality that he anchors in unusual situations. Beartown was about two rival hockey teams in two small Swedish towns, but it was really about how two communities place all of their love and hopes and dreams—and, yes, even fears—in the one shot they have at greatness.
These communities know they’ll never be able to compete with the big cities. Yet they also know they have this amazing thing—their hockey teams—and they’re going to throw all of their support and energy behind their boys. The book challenges just how far that support will go when one of their stars does the unthinkable.
As a short story author, I want to become an author of novels. I want people to read my work, to share it, and to look forward to each and every book I produce. I’m querying a novel now, in fact, and the full manuscript is with a literary agent. In the meantime, I’ve begun working on a second novel and I can already feel the challenge of doing what I did with the first: writing a story I love.
So many more elements have begun to creep into my head about the writing process, which has, in turn, made me spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of author I want to be known as eventually. After all, not everyone can write a blockbuster series about a boy wizard who saves the world or about a landmark trial in a deeply racist town where a white man defends a black man on rape charges. These books will always be a part of our cultural canon, and they had big things to say.
Do my stories need to say big things to be loved? I don’t think so. Backman doesn’t write big, sweeping epic volumes, yet every time I finish one of his novels I get impatient to read the next one. I wish I could spend more time with Ove or Britt-Marie or Jack and Jim from this newest book, Anxious People. I think I’d enjoy becoming friends with any of them and just knowing them for many years and living out our quiet lives.
Because, really, on a planet of almost 8 billion people, the majority of us will lead quiet lives. Only a small percentage will be star athletes or world-renowned humanitarians. Most of us, whether we live in small towns or large cities, will go on with our day-to-day affairs and connect with those around us and enjoy our families and work to put food on the table and pay our bills.
Doesn’t it make sense, then, to write stories about those people? To write for those people? The ones who are just the “regulars”?
Backman does this brilliantly, and he proves it with this latest work. The title, as I noted last week, says it all. The book is about people with an undercurrent of fears that propels them toward specific actions and choices. In this story, we see how those choices bring the characters together and how they find their commonalities. This is a work of fiction, so, of course, those circumstances will have a level of extraordinariness about them. Once we get past the failed bank robbery, though, or the fact that all the hostages protect the thief—once we get to the heart of the matter—it’s easy to see that any of the characters could be any one of us.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write like Fredrik Backman, and that’s a good thing. His talent and skill are his own; his viewpoint of the world belongs to him. It’s a gift for all of us to receive that viewpoint in the form of his books. My writing brain doesn’t work like his does, so I don’t think I could write like him even if I tried.
While I can’t help feeling a little envious of his success, I also celebrate it. I celebrate it, because more and more I think I want to be like Fredrik Backman when I grow up as a writer. More and more, I think I want to be a writer who focuses on the small matters of life that have the biggest impact on characters and their loved ones.
Seeing that Backman has experienced so much success is heartening, and when I talk about success I don’t mean the bestseller lists or the hefty publishing contracts (although those are wonderful.) I mean reaching readers across the country—maybe even the world one day?—with my books and helping them feel better about whatever life challenges they might be experiencing because they read about my characters experiencing too.
All in all reading books like Anxious People is a gift, and a motivator, for me to keep writing.