The neverending death of fiction

Lee Siegel has been stirring the minor storm in a tea cup which raised its head above the parapet again in genre recently: is fiction dead?   (It was enough for the Observer to get excited about.) In an article entitled ‘Where Have All the Mailers Gone?‘ in the New York Observer he opines that fiction is dead (long live fiction?) and that non-fiction is the only type of writing telling the story of the world, concluding:

For about a million reasons, fiction has now become a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers. For better or for worse, the greatest storytellers of our time are the nonfiction writers.

At this point I strongly disagree, Mr Siegel.The greatest story tellers of our time are not necessariy non-fiction; rather have you considered that your favoured non-genre fiction writers are not reacting to the world in the same way as Mailer or Singer? That they may not be really getting under the skin of the age in the same way, that they cannot experience the existential crisis in the same way?

William Gibson’s most recent novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, respond brilliantly the sense of ennui, and more frankly, “fuck, the world didn’t end in 2000”. Neal Stephenson’s dense books which create the Baroque Cycle explore the architecture of the last ten years (and I suspect are already dated in their outlook). For sheer exuberance and experimentation, China Miéville’s, Neil Gaiman’s or Jeff Vandermeer’s novels all offer insights and views into the contemporary world. The latter three are fantasticaly knowledgeable in various genres and create eminently readable books which can also be perfectly self-referential and self-reflexive. He writes:

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

He seems quite willing to ignore the swathes of commentary on ‘popular’ fiction whilst merrily reducing his own favoured few into a  small enough group to determine as unworthy or unreadable.

The New Yorker ’20 under 40′ list, to which he refers, is a small list and should be argued against. I read about it in the Observer last week and took some notes an authors who sounded interesting but it strikes as being only part ofthe mix like the Granta New Writers list. It might be a starting point if there is an author who counds interesting but is in no way an arbiter of a reader’s habits (or at least the sensible reader who dips in and out).

In the Huffington Post,  Jason Pinter’s ‘Death of the Literati‘ responded:

The Literati have been dividing literary culture for years, decrying popular fiction, dismissing authors, genres and authors exploring new media. And by doing so they have journeyed far, far away from the realm of relevancy.

He continues that the Literati are dying and I’m not sure on this point. I think that the Western Canon, the tradition derived from Modernism,  is running to the end of its course. Harold Bloom, Lee Siegel and to an extent Robert McCrum’s positions are becoming isolated from the cut and thrust of fiction and seem to forget that Modernism was born from cultural crisis. Eliot realised that literature at the time could not comprehend a post First World War world or express it. In his fractured newness, he was heavily reliant on the past. The same was true for John Masefield and JRR Tolkien who used a different tradition but in a more reader friendly version. Perhaps we have reached a similar cultural impasse and something new is going to come along.

I come to that having re-read Harold Bloom’s now notorious/famous piece on Stephen King’s receiving of the ‘distinguished contribution’ award where he derides him as “a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind” (Source: Boston Globe) and wailing that the award was tarnished somehow. Yet he ignores the simple fact that Roth, Bellow and Mailer responded to one world, King to quite another. For the latter, the response was more to the youth cultures of the 1950s and 1960s, but the former had the war to initially contend and deal with. Different starting points lead to different conclusions.

A couple of years ago, Jason Sanford wrote a piece in the New York Review of Science Fiction called ‘Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment’s Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction’ about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’m not going to go back into the argument regarding the book but Matthew Cheney was incensed and argued on his blog that the artificial distinction between the genre and ‘literature’ is just that artificial (and Jeffrey Ford’s comment reminds us that it is a tired distinction.) It demonstrates though that the same yearning for some kind if exclusivity or wonderfully fabulous hot-tub experience where we all get along together (it’ll never happen and would be highly boring if it did).

What Mr Siegel should really be asking is who is responding to the age? Which writers are trying to make sense of the post-millennial , post-financial crash world? The impetus for so-called Canon has gone and been changed. It probably doesn’t even exist any more outside of being an occasionally useful sign post. Things change, things stay the same. Perhaps we need to remember Frank Kermode’s opening statement in his essay, The Life and Death of the Novel, :

The special fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying; and the main reason for this is that the most intelligent novelists and readers are always conscious of the gap, consisting of absurdity, that grows between the world as it seems to be and the world proposed in novels.

I acknowledge that we need critics like Siegel and Pinter arguing over books but some times the circularity and repetition of arguments needs to be remembered. As Carolyn Kellog has it, Fiction is Dead. Again?, where she points out that it is rare reader who will not enjoy both fiction and non-fiction. I think we might be be in a lull at the moment and that writing will appear, but for the moment can we just enjoy the one’s we have?

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