Part one of a series
Every few months, it seems, someone declares that fiction is dead. The most recent example is Lee Siegel’s article in The New York Observer.
My friend and former MFA classmate Carolyn Kellogg does a thorough job of debunking Siegel’s evidence and logic, so I’ll leave that part alone. Obviously, fiction is alive and well. But I can’t help wondering: why are people so eager to write it off?
A cynic might argue that declaring fiction dead spawns several outraged blog posts (such as this one) and therefore serves to drum up publicity. But it seems to me there’s more at work here…generating controversy is easy, and attempts to do so often become lazy or repetitive. Most of these recent attempts to bury fiction seem sincere, and there always seems to be some new angle.
Siegel’s proposes “The ascendancy of nonfiction” as one reason fiction has become “culturally irrelevant.” He writes, “The most interesting, perceptive and provocative writers of our moment write narrative nonfiction,” citing Janet Malcolm’s narrative essay “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” as more exquisitely structured and intriguing than a contemporary novel. “Such existential urgency and intensity,” Siegel writes, “were the feelings with which people used to respond to novels by Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud—the list goes on and on.”
So, Reason #1 People Like To Declare Fiction Dead: “It Has Been Usurped.”
Fiction has been around for a long time, and it makes sense that people wish to see it overthrown. Surely, something new and exciting is around the corner—whatever it is, it will shine more brightly if its predecessor is gone. Narrative nonfiction isn’t new, of course, but, as Siegel enthusiastically notes, it has become exponentially popular among readers and critics. There was a time not long ago when nobody had any idea what “narrative/Creative Nonfiction” was.
I’m really not sure how one measures “existential urgency and intensity,” but I’d like to offer two novels as counterproof:
1. Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, a timely novel about identity and identity theft in the digital age. As far as intensity is concerned, I invite you to read the first chapter.
Spoiler alert: a dude’s hand gets sawed off, a young man named Miles drives to the Arctic to find his mysterious twin brother, and a high school teacher elopes with his student. The part about the high school teacher dating his student is also timely, if you think about it. Your move, narrative nonfiction.
2. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a novel about ethics and submission on a mass scale, set in a mysterious British boarding school. It’s a hard novel to discuss without giving away too much, but it’s incredibly and deceptively “richly layered,” and written with an elegant, slow-burning fury. There are nonfiction books which are just as brilliantly structured and devastating, but as a work of fiction, Never Let Me Go has a unique and different feel to it.
I’d love to go on and explain how, for example, Karen Russell’s fantastic landscapes explore the human heart in ways nonfiction simply cannot. Or how Kelly Link’s manically weird stories challenge our expectations (of genre, of character, of setting) in ways nonfiction cannot. But I don’t want to make it seem like I’m favoring fiction over nonfiction. To paraphrase Carolyn’s response to Siegel, there’s room on the public’s bookshelf for both.
One fact Siegel overlooks is that the distinction between “nonfiction” and “fiction” can be blurry. I could list several books which are problematic to label, but Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts springs to mind
When comparing fiction to nonfiction, it’s interesting that Siegel doesn’t include sales (or numbers of any kind, really) in his argument. If his argument is that fiction is truly “culturally irrelevant,” there are four books I’d hold up as counterexamples: The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, and The Golden Compass. While these books are not strictly literary fiction (although The Golden Compass, as part of an epic fantasy retelling of Paradise Lost, comes close), I think it’s amazing that children and teens are putting aside their Xbox 360s or whatever to pick up novels–the seventh Harry Potter book is 784 pages long, by the way.
I can’t find numbers to support this, but I’m also pretty sure that Await Your Reply and Never Let Me Go sold many copies. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. Which is pretty impressive in a nation where, according to an oft-cited 2004 NEA study, literary literacy is below 50% and dropping.
My post next week will touch on Siegel’s idea of “creative mischief.” I’ll explain Reason #2 People Like To Declare Fiction Dead: People Hate MFA Programs.