Commentary: Don’t despair — fiction lives


Put down that dragon tattoo girl. Stop catching up with Bree Tanner. You don’t need any help from Kathryn Stockett. Forget about the latest from Scott Turow or David Mitchell or Charlaine Harris or Paul Auster or Rick Riordan or Stephen King. Novels are over. Fiction is dead.

Here we go again.

Every few years someone declares fiction dead, despite all evidence to the contrary. This time, it’s Lee Siegel in the New York Observer, reacting to the New Yorker’s recent issue announcing the 20 best American novelists younger than 40.

Siegel flogs a tired horse, arguing that fiction is less central to the culture than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and not as good. It’s hard to figure out what’s more problematic: how poorly Siegel’s argument is made, or how many things he gets wrong.

So for fun, let’s see if I can resuscitate poor old fiction by addressing Siegel’s points, one at a time.

1. Siegel: “Fiction has become culturally irrelevant.” People buy books, read books, spent much of this week camping out to see “Twilight: Eclipse,” a movie based on a book. They camp out in bookstores too, when certain novels are sold at midnight. Maybe these people are not part of our culture?

2. Siegel: “With the exception of a few ambitious — and obsessively competitive — fiction writers and their agents and editors, no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided.” This doesn’t make sense. Legions of readers still turn to fiction for “private clarity”; this isn’t limited to agents and writers. And what exactly is the connection between “private and public” clarity, anyway?

3. Siegel: “Exhibit A in the argument that fiction is now a marginal enterprise: Everybody complains that the New Yorker list is inbred, house-approved, a mere PR ploy for the magazine, but no one does anything about it. … Where are the counter lists to the New Yorker’s 20? … Isn’t such sharp dissent what the Web was supposed to empower?” Since Siegel’s Internet appears to be down, here are some alternate lists on the Web: 400 Under the Age of 1 (from HTML Giant), 10 Over 80 (from Ward 6), 20 Under 40 From 40 Years Ago and 20 More Under 40 (from the Millions), 20 Under 40 in Britain (by the Telegraph), One Over 40 (Steve Almond in the Rumpus) and Over 40 Over 40 (from The Big Other). There has also been a lively conversation on Twitter.

4. Siegel: “The practice of fiction is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession.” These are synonyms. From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary: “vocation: a particular occupation, business or profession; calling” and “profession: a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science.”

5. Siegel: “It is only when an artistic genre becomes small and static enough to scrutinize that a compensating abundance of commentary on that genre springs into existence.” This would mean that there hasn’t been a rock song worth listening to since Lester Bangs died in 1982, and that filmmaking ended with the 1965 publication of Pauline Kael’s “I Lost It at the Movies.”

6. Siegel doesn’t like James Wood’s book “How Fiction Works.” I don’t much, either, but one critic’s poorly conceived manifesto is hardly enough to prove that fiction is dead.

7. Siegel: “The most interesting, perceptive and provocative writers of our moment write narrative nonfiction.” This may be true. I think we agree.

8. Siegel argues that today’s nonfiction generates “existential urgency and intensity [with] the feelings with which people used to respond to novels …” Just because nonfiction generates intense feelings doesn’t mean fiction can’t as well. Love of reading is love of reading, and if Siegel and I feel fondly toward nonfiction, there is still plenty of fiction love (at least from me).

9. The quote about nonfiction continues “… feelings with which people used to respond to novels by Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud …” But Mailer’s best work was always his nonfiction, not his fiction; “Harlot’s Ghost” and “Ancient Evenings” are a far cry from “The Armies of the Night” and “The Executioner’s Song.”

10. In the postwar decades, Siegel writes, “[s]o-called commercial fiction was just as relevant to people’s lives as so-called literary fiction.” He lists some marvelous books that were, he believes, “as primal as the bard singing around the pre-Homeric fire” (I think that’s good). But now “everything literary is also furtively commercial” (I think that’s bad) and “nothing is popular” (also bad), “except for the explicitly commercial fiction that the literary crowd refuses (or is unable) to write.” This is a circular argument based on sweeping generalizations about commerce, relevance and quality.

11. Siegel writes that the work of the magazine’s nonfiction staff is the “best argument against the New Yorker’s self-promoting, vulgar list” of 20 novelists younger than 40. That makes sense only if you believe good nonfiction equals bad fiction. Um, no.

12. Fiction is, Siegel writes, “a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers.” Although this might be argued, Siegel hasn’t argued it. He touches on relevance, popularity, an obsessive literary establishment, the quality fiction of decades past — but he doesn’t address the content of today’s novels at all. At this point, he’s just tossing insults.

13. Siegel concludes that fiction is dead because nonfiction is alive. I would argue that readers energized by one form will not abandon another; it would take a small heart not to love them both.

Fiction lives! It lives!