Monday, May 26, 2008

Is Fiction Important?

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.


myles said...

I read a fair bit of non-fiction (mostly biography, some history) and I enjoy it. It gives me lots of facts and names and themes. I organise them into nice straight lines and march them about on my desk in a top-hatted, pinstriped Republic of Important Information. They are The Things I Should Know.

But the chief benefit of all that information is that it is the framework, or the map reference (or something...) of the really, truly important stuff: what I learn from novels. Fiction shows me what to do with all those non-fiction facts. It teaches me about people (not names, but real human people) and what they think and feel and why they do stupid things or nice things or nothing at all. History will never tell you what it was really like to be, for example, a 19th century Russian aristocrat, but Tolstoy might. The point has been made before (James Wood again?) that non-fiction is what did happen, but fiction is what might happen.

Fiction is hugely important, I think. It's one of the best things we've got. My local newspapers all but ignore it, too, but people are still buying it and talking about it.

myles said...

Oh, and those Time-Life books are great. Is that the series with titles like "Man and Space" and "Time" and "Evolution"? I used to spend hours inside those books when I was at school. Those were facts with lab coats and horn-rimmed spectacles.

Writer Reading said...

I think of nonfiction not so much in terms of history and hard science, but in terms of theories and applications of philosophy and psychology that can teach much of the same things that you describe novels teaching. Where novels differ, however, for me, is providing the writer's vision placed in a unique structure, with unique descriptions, story lines, imagery and word choices. For me, novels in many ways express the psychology, philosophy and culture of the particular writer. And in that sense, I love biographies of writers. By better understanding the writer's struggles, context and personality, I can better understand their fiction. But that may be unique to the way I think and the particular professional path I've chosen in life. I love novels, but with a different slant than yours. And I can't imagine a world without them.

Kirsten said...

A world without novels, no way! How boring that would be.

Novels and fiction breathe life into facts. Facts may indicate a physical or scientific truth, but fiction and poetry reveal an emotional truth we also need for a fuller experience of life. And narrative helps us make sense of the world and feel wonder in a way an article of facts doesn't.

Fiction engages our imagination which in turn develops our compassion and curiosity, good qualities to cultivate in a complex world.

Anonymous said...

Needless to say, these were the kinds of answers I was hoping for...and wr, I'm in agreement with you as well as the others...I didn't even get started on the filter of the writer's personality as an important element of fiction...but in many ways I think it's what defines the medium.

Yeah, myles, those are the ones--Man And Space was another big one for me...

bigscarygiraffe said...

I'll throw my hat in the ring with an addendum of poetry!, poetry!

puc said...

Yes, I believe fiction is important, but for different reasons. I think it’s a fiction that we read fiction to improve ourselves, to learn anything at all. We read for pleasure, and for catharsis. The age of fiction is at an end because the age of the individual is over. Kosinski knew this – from the Paris Review interview, 1972, about the future of the written word, Jerzy Kosinski described reading novels as an unusual, masochistic act. Also consider Plato: "So it follows that were a man who was clever enough to be able to assume all kinds of forms and to represent everything in the world to come in person to our community and want to show off his compositions, we'd treat him as an object of reverence and awe, and as a source of pleasure, and we'd prostrate ourselves before him; but we'd tell him that not only is there no one like him in our community, it is also not permitted for anyone like him to live among us, and we'd send him elsewhere, once we had anointed his head with myrrh and given him a chaplet of wool." (III, 398a)
Is a writer or reader of fiction better than a ditch digger who is functionally illiterate? What’s too bad is not that we’ve lost fiction, but that we’ve lost the blue collar jobs out which grows a desire to read fiction. It’s an old story.

rmellis said...

I think the loss of blue-collar jobs = less interest in fiction formula is a *bit* wonky. I think fiction appeals to every kind of person -- just not to every individual person. But, hooboy, I might write a class post soon.

Sure, reading fiction is a pleasure -- but for me, it's the kind of pleasure that comes from satisfying my curiosity about other people, other lives, other minds, new ways of seeing the familiar, etc. Saying that pleasure and learning are different things is false. They are often the same thing, unless you're talking about a very narrow kind of learning, that is, information gathering. Which we're not.

Anonymous said...

Everyone in my life -- my husband, my kids, my friends, my co-workers -- they all read stories (and yes, sometimes they're in the form of Archie comics you buy at Safeway, and sometimes they're reading the six millionth in a series called Dragon Slayers Academy, but every once in a while somebody mistakenly picks up Lord Jim, thinking it might be sort of like Patrick O'Brien, adventures on the high seas, and even though it isn't exactly that, they get lulled into reading Conrad and liking it.)

We had two kids from Uganda stay with us for a couple of days last week. I asked one of them what he liked to read and he looked at me seriously and said, "stories." That's my report from the trenches: stories aren't going anywhere and nobody reads the NYT book review anyway.

Fiction is necessary because it's fun, and it gives pleasure, and that's that, dude.

As for fact and non-fiction -- pretty much every factual thing I know, which is pretty much all the history I know -- comes from novels. That's what Leon Uris and Chaim Potok and Mary Renault were for when I was let loose in the library every Monday. They were the Time-Life books that sometimes, if you were lucky, had a little sex in them. Or at least a good food description.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we ought to put a disclaimer up on the masthead: WARNING: WE'RE A SNOOTY BUNCH OF ELITISTS WITH TOO MUCH TIME ON OUR HANDS WHO THINK WE'RE BETTER THAN YOU. Then, with that out of the way, we can relax, loosen our ascots, and get back to the hard work of using our insider cred to get all of our friends into MFA programs.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping you could get to work and use some of that major cred to get me a big fat grant to stay home and write instead of having to drag myself out of bed every morning and find something that's unripped and relatively clean to put on so I can slog into work with everyone on the train who's.... oh my god! They're all reading NOVELS! (I swear it's true. Nobody's reading nonfiction on the Richmond line of the BART train into San Francisco.)

That's why I work, you know. So I can read stories on the train and write some of my own when I can get a seat. And so I can read your blog when I get to work, in total silence, with my door closed, which is a lot better than trying to read it at home with my crappy internet connection and my kids all yelling about how they want a snack.

Pale Ramón said...

The bottom line for me is that I can exercise my imagination more reading fiction than nonfiction.

John said...

What's reviewed in the NYTBR aside, most of the nonfiction I'm attracted to does provide information and fact-based analysis, etc., but I'm attracted to it because of its narrative trajectory, its digressions, its inconsistencies, the human hand that shows itself in the placement or dismissal of facts, the pace of unfurling. I'm thinking about Simon Winchester's book about Krakatoa, and I'm also thinking about Stephen J. Gould among others. In a lot of nonfiction, you get at human motivation and emotion, too. And there are always ethical and ideological underpinnings. You can't just say that nonfiction is books of knowledge of things, works of journalism, collections of facts, etc...maybe they approach the objective, but there is no pure objectivity where the human is not present.

This discussion is getting me to think about the big market for memoir, which is story telling the claims truth in something that really happened (v. fiction, which might claim truth but in something that didn't really happen). I wonder about what I perceive as an increasing skepticism about fiction as a vehicle for making claims about the world, about motivation, about emotion, about the human condition.

Anonymous said...

john, I agree, popular nonfiction at its best, at least by my standards, uses narrative as a delivery vehicle for information, often to stunning effect. Your mention of Gould reminded me of Oliver Sacks and John McPhee, writers I love (Rhian can take or leave McPhee though) nearly as much as I love my favorite novelists. As for the discredited memoir pulling the novel down with it--is that what you're suggesting?--I shudder to think.

bloglily, you want to feed our kids while you're at it? I am right now girding myself for the food-begging onslaught, now only 40 minutes away.

John said...

JLR, yeah, you understood me. I think that nonfiction and fiction appear to be dichotomous (the words alone set that up), but like most things that appear to be so, they're not really. There was a false opposition between fiction and nonfiction set up in some of the posts.

The real question for me is why fiction for many people is less able to shed light on the human condition than memoir or biography or history. When thinking about this kind of stuff, I always remember how entering civil service a long time ago in countries like Japan and China was dependent on passing exams in classical literature and philosophy. In other words, the ability to work for the civic good was intimately related to narrative, aesthetics, and rhetoric, all of which are associated more with fiction today.

As for the discredited memoir, yes, I am thinking in the direction you stated. There seems to be an untroubled belief that what really happened has more to say about the human condition and is more credible than that which is only imagined. I sometimes wonder if this marketed truth through the "true story" implies that the imagined story can't get at truth as well--or at all.

As for what pale ramon says, I am sometimes just the opposite: in reading fiction, I exercise my imagination less because I am enjoying how the writer might be exercising his/her imagination. In reading nonfiction, I exercise my imagination more because I imagine motivation, emotion, drive in words that might purport the objective and the factual.

Elizabeth said...

I think memoir, biography, history, reality TV, even... blogging... *appear* to be a direct line to "truth" because it's simply counterintuitive to expect truth from fiction (unless you've been taught expressly that this is one of the purposes of art to begin with, or you're one of those readers who managed to figure it out on your own).

Try explaining to a seventh grader that reading Emma will get him closer to the truth of 19th C. England than will a history book. Not that he gives a good goddamn about 19th C. England.

I think the sudden popularity of memoir is simply a demographic swell. The boomers, now all of a certain age, are trying their hand at reflection. It's like scrapbooking. I think it will pass.

That, or maybe backlash against the move away from the individual. Honestly, though, I don't think we're that attuned to ourselves.


john said...

Eek...sorry jrlennon. I put your initials in the wrong order accidentally in my last post. Or maybe I put them in that order to match the monogram on your ascot.

As ever, thanks for a good initial post.

Anonymous said...

jrl, yes, I'm happy to hurl rice crispie treats at the young 'uns. As long as they're reading a story while they eat up.

Warren Adler said...

Few things have had more impact on our lives than our "fictions," from Homer, through the writers of tales that we call the Bible, through Shakespeare, and the genius of thousands of storytellers like Proust, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Joyce, Trollope, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and countless others (I cannot resist naming a few of my favorites).

These narrative creations have defined the soul of mankind since time immemorial and provided unparalleled insight into the human condition. The arc of life itself from birth to death, and perhaps beyond, is, in itself, a story. We are all characters in an ever unfolding story, and fiction, in a mysterious way, synthesizes and explores who and what we are.

puc said...

JR: I'm surprised at yr response. I don't care at all about the MFA debate, nor was I trying to make any kind of class statement. Marx considered teachers and students part of the proletariat. (As far as reading for “pleasure” goes, I was thinking of Longinus.) But anyway, my thought on why fiction is important is this (and I should have limited my first comment to this): Literature is freedom, freedom from all cultural constraints and restraints. I understand what Adler is saying, and what you are saying. It’s not that I totally disagree, but if you try to get somebody to do something because it’s “good for them,” or “they’ll learn something from it,” I think you get resistance (from the young, anyway). Whereas if you can show them the liberating ingredient, the pleasure from being able to entertain yourself, regardless of whatever else you may have to do to make a living, when and if it comes to that, then maybe they’ll take the plunge. Again, I hope I don’t provoke another sarcastic response with this, and I always like Adler’s comments, but his last sounds like something from a graduation speech. The kids can’t wait to get out. I had listed a few of my favorites earlier too, but deleted them, thinking “who cares?” Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Ring Lardner, Jack London. But like Adler said, who will read them now or tomorrow?

puc said...

Sorry, but I also wanted to add -freedom from socio-economic ties and constraints, which exist at all class levels!

John said...

puc, how is literature "freedom from all cultural constraints and restraints"? Are you still talking about Longinus here--specifically, On the Sublime? If yes, Longinus isn't talking about pleasure exclusively.

Anyway, some people argue that language (literature and other texts) reinforces mores and ideology and cultural values, so I'd be interested in understanding what you mean.

And socio-economic contraints? You mean that if you read someone like, say, Edith Wharton or Henry James or Bret Easton Ellis, you have the freedom to circulate in exclusive, moneyed circles through their language?

Anonymous said...

puc, at the end of your first comment, you seemed to be suggesting that I was pulling some kind of class rank, or something. "Is a writer or reader of fiction better than a ditch digger who is functionally illiterate?" Where the hell is that coming from? Of course I'm not "better," none of us are. Furthermore, though there are people who cannot read, the vast majority of working class people can and do, sometimes voraciously. And yeah, I do think that, if you're illiterate, you are missing out on one of life's great pleasures. Which is why I, you know, SUPPORT LITERACY.

I must confess to being highly sensitive to these kinds of jabs, as if I were born with a silver spoon in my mouth and exist in a rarefied world of intellectual irrelevance. I'm not running for office here, but I've done blue collar work, and it bored the living hell out of me, and that's one of the reasons I chose to go for broke with my creative interests.

Honestly, I have no idea what you're talking about when you refer to our losing the blue-collar jobs that result in a desire to read fiction. In my experience, unskilled manual labor results in physical exhaustion, not hunger for enlightenment.

Forgive my perhaps excessive touchiness here, but there are two themes that crop up in these comments fairly frequently, and they are:

1) You are elitists.
2) Fiction is dead.

And both are, in my view, full of shit. Particularly the last one. Forgive me if I've misinterpreted you, but you appeared to be floating both of those old saws at once.

max said...

Dreiser's Sister Carrie; Farrell's Studs Lonigan. Great characters.
For me, the last great character created in American fiction was Rabbit Angstrom. I couldn't put up with the prose pyrotechnics of "Rabbit, Run," and I didn't bother with "Redux." But I gave "Rabbit Is Rich" a chance, and by the second page I was hooked. The prose was direct, easy to follow, the character was solid. I mean, a distinct man was looking out the window of his car dealership, thinking.
Updike sustained the level throughout "Rich" and into "Rabbit at Rest"; he never falters, because the character remains a real one. I'm talking authenticity, and for that alone I had feeling for Rabbit. Is he an admirable man? No; he often acts despicably. He's very unlike the public image Updike presents, but I think Updike was channeling a part of his nature into Rabbit. How else could he have created him?
As for the sex issue -- the sex scenes in "Rich" can be used to teach abstinence. I was disgusted by them, but I had bought into the character, and this was part of what you get with Rabbit.
(Addenda: Updike's "S" should be ranked in the 20 Truly Bad Books written by a major novelist; I'm not generally a fan of his. But those last two Rabbit books -- wonderful. We need more books like those. But I sure don't know who will write them.)

Anonymous said...

I never thought of skipping the first couple Rabbits and going to the last two...perhaps I'll give it a shot.

You shoulda put this on the Updike thread!

Warren Adler said...

Point taken, Puc. There is a valedictory element to my comment. But thanks for the response.

Anonymous said...

"The short story is dead."

"The short story, sir, shall be at your funeral."

stephanie said...

Without fiction, I would die.