It was with a familiar kind of despair that I picked up the Times Book Review last week and discovered what might be a record low for the amount of fiction and poetry reviewed in an issue--two works of fiction, one poetry, and scads of nonfiction. Maybe I'm blowing smoke out my ass, but I think this tendency began in the Charles McGrath era--McGrath doesn't really care much for literary fiction, and considered nonfiction to be the arena of "important" books, and this was reflected in his choice of books to review--and seems to have been maintained in his absence. (I should disclose that my own relative pooh-poohing by the NYTBR has indeed contributed to my disappointment with it--all my stuff has been reviewed either in Books In Brief or not at all.)
There's an argument to be made that nonfiction--books of knowledge of things, works of journalism, collections of facts, of information--addresses more immediately, more clearly, and more thoroughly than fiction, the problems and delights of our age. Novels and stories, when they tap into the zeitgeist, usually do so subtly, insidiously, and often apologetically; nonfiction, meanwhile, is there to take the bull by the horns. It serves a social and intellectual purpose. Its usefulness is obvious.
But, looking back, it's novels that taught me much of what I know. Not facts--those I learned from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I read voraciously throughout my childhood, and from various Time-Life books (the one on weather's the one I remember best), and from Asimov on Numbers, and from Omni magazine. No, I mean that novels taught me how to live--how other people live, or how they might live; why people do things; the crazy things they do. Novels alterted me to the types of erudition I should seek in order to become a fuller person. They didn't teach me history, but they told me what history is--how people from then and there are different from, yet exactly the same as, people from here and now. In the void left by the childhood religion that failed to satisfy me, fiction taught me an ethics I could live by. It taught me about sex and death (actually, put both in Stephen King's column). From Ayn Rand, I learned to be an idealist; and from Tolstoy and Chekhov I learned not to be the kind of idealist in Ayn Rand novels.
Nonfiction made me a more informed person, and there's no denying the importance of that. But fiction made me a larger person, a more understanding person, a kinder and more decent person. Fiction helped me to understand, or at least try to understand, others' motivations. It stripped away the childish tendency to rush to judgement. It allowed me to lay down my armor and face the world with my most vulnerable self.
Of course...I turned out to be a novelist. So duh. But I think it's the same for many readers. The trouble is that fiction doesn't pay dividends right away--the best stuff sinks in slowly and deeply. And this is not a valuable quality in a publishing environment that considers a three-month-old book dead and gone.
As for the NYTBR, what're you gonna do? As this blog has often said, the novel's cultural cachet is at low ebb--you can hardly blame 'em. Can something so big, slow, and dorky ever recover its place in our easily distracted world? As far as I'm concerned, the point is moot--I'll keep on doing it no matter how passe. But I'd sure like to see fiction back on top in my lifetime.