Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fiction's For Fools?

A dean of American novelists just announced publicly that reading fiction is for fools. What has the response been from his peers? Nothing so far. According to a June 24 Financial Times interview, Philip Roth now reads history and biography instead of fiction. Asked why, he says "I don't know. I wised up."

Can we ascribe Roth's statement to his well-known eccentricity? Unfortunately, no. Roth speaks for the general readership , as increasing numbers of readers have turned to non-fiction. The utility of spending one's time reading facts can't be disputed in the Information Age. That humanity believes we have little need for the humanities these days cannot be in serious doubt either.

Considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, Philip Roth might be expected to stand as a partisan for the value of reading fiction. One could inquire, again somewhat flippantly, whether Roth has nothing left to learn from Melville, Woolf, Tolstoy. I'd argue that Roth has not absorbed the full richness of Cervantes, or of the greatest of Cervantes' heirs.

Nor have any of us, whether readers or writers. But why stop trying?

Readers are turning away from fiction for good reasons, many of them having to do with writers. With some exceptions, contemporary writers have not made available the best of Quixote's infinite possibilities to readers. How might they do that? Through passionate essays that confront greatness and make it our own, and through the creation of ambitious new novels that benefit from that confrontation.

Instead, as society shunts them aside, novelists and other artists seem to have accepted a peripheral, decorative function. Roth's old friend Milan Kundera refuses that position. He considers art vital to our humanity, and continues to publish impassioned essays on the inexhaustible depths of Kafka, Cervantes, and Broch, as well as on more contemporary writers such as Cesaire, Chamoiseau, and Marquez. I've never read essays by an American novelist with as much vitality and insight into the novel as Kundera's, as Vargas Llosa's, as Calvino's, as Woolf's.

Mightn't it behoove every novelist, when readership is dwindling, to extol the virtues of our medium strenuously, with greater boldness and vigor than ever? What was the last contemporary essay or novel you read that made you think "The ambition of this amazes me. This person has taken on Melville, or Joyce, or Woolf. This is an attempt at a masterpiece."

Joshua Cohen's WIT has some of that hubris. We know Jonathan Franzen has it, and have learned that Jennifer Egan has it. David Foster Wallace had it. Grace Krilanovich has it in ORANGE EATS CREEPS, though she expresses it less overtly, with more subtlety than some. There are other examples. But show me the novelist who reads brilliantly, and I'll show you the form's best defender, and potentially one of its greatest writers.

Is there anything less productive than a leading novelist pronouncing useless all of imaginative fiction? Perhaps only our failure to refute him thoroughly, emphatically, ceaselessly.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't know if this pertains, but it seems to me fiction is the ability to seam things together like no other; for example, the recent movie LARY CROWN with seems like a mental jigsaw puzzled sticked together. To me, you can stitch an arm, leg to a tree. Or a one size fit all Sears suite as opposed to a custom fitted Italian suite . Have you ever worn a silk Italian suite ? What to feel nearly naked in public?

    Anyways, It is clear LARY CROWN is bits and pieces of Pretty Woman and BIG. This has been the pattern in the corporate, take no risk, Transformers to made to make more money buy the sea of plastic shit that follows.

    Hey , who needs fiction when you have addictions and a cubical world? We have Doctors who will buy your brain time while it starves from the lack of high quality substance and art.

  3. I love this comment, KRAD - especially "buy your brain time." That's great.

  4. a 78 yr old man who's read tons, literally, of fiction, stops. stops because he says he's "wised up."

    of course you never stop learning, never stop wising up,.. but maybe at the age of 78 (or much younger even) it's kind of smart to stop the wisdom-hunting and to go after some pleasure, some enjoyment...

    (who can blame, for example, old man Marshall for going after Ana Nicole??)

    also, in that same interview Roth says

    "I look at old newspapers. I get pleasure from doing that."

    and, really, i think Roth saying this is better for the "sport" of fiction than if he got up on a soapbox bemoaning literature's downfall,...

  5. Can I deny an old man the pleasure he gets from looking at old newspapers?

    What I suggest here isn't getting on soapboxes and bemoaning the downfall of literature - that's not Kundera's approach either - he lauds contemporary standouts, as I have in my somewhat humble way, and continue to do.

    Now, if looking at old newspapers is better for Roth's "sport," then I can't discourage that either. Anything that will improve his writing should be hastily administered.

    Clearly, though, citing Cervantes, the grand master of humor, strikes us as stuffy now because it's "literature." Maybe we can think of the Quixote as really early episodes of South Park, where Cartman is Sancho... never mind.

  6. My last message got clipped ? Anyways,

    Fiction / not fiction all a matter of degrees... I also read Non Fiction ( Magellan see over the edge of the world )

    What I've found is that we tend to embellish the Romance, and the Romance of war, but fail to set home the horror and pain.

    To me , the most powerful thing in life is the ability to stretch my imagination / ability to empathize as far as possible . The core of this is feelings which is pretty abstract and requires allot of delicate thinking .

    Psychologist have repeatedly noticed that we can communicate, but what is communication where we don't say what we mean or mean what we say< To really get these, you really need to be in touch, and that requires delicate thinking.

    THe best fiction zeroes in on feeling / form over content.. We get caught up in the details of life and loose sight of our emotional roots.

    Are you familiar with Dan Pink?