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Saving Literary Fiction (Post-Frey), Part 2

In the last installment, I talked about the novel as the Sick Man of Entertainment.

The truth is, prognosticators have been dressed and ready to go to fiction's funeral for a long timeprognosticators have been dressed and ready to go to fiction's funeral for a long time; in 1961, John O'Hara wrote that he "was infuriated by that piece last Sunday about fiction not selling." And don't people reach these sorts of doom verdicts every day, about all types of resilient stuff? (Remember, way back in '04, when the world decided that "reality" TV shows would bump off "scripted programming?" And then Lost, CSI, and Desperate Housewives changed the assumptions of coffee-break doomsaying.)

Still, now there are a few surprising prosecutors, making a pretty convincing case against the Novel. That creaky laureate V. S. Naipaul told the Times that fiction is of ''no account'' when measured against "the larger global political situation." And a novelist as literate and respected as Rick Moody wrote that comic books (comic books!?) are "currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is." I'm not even sure what that even means, but — ouch!

In 1989 Tom Wolfe prescribed his remedy for what he thought afflicted fiction ("... At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of [reporter-novelists] to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping, etc., etc..."). We don't need more reporter novelists. (One Wolfe in the fold is quite enough, thanks.)We don't need more reporter novelists. (One Wolfe in the fold is quite enough, thanks.) But his point isn't entirely unpersuasive. Like Dreiser — like Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Balzac — Wolfe wanted to get all of society between his finger and thumb. But while the Dreiserish concerns of drama and comprehensiveness may be the more potent half of the equation commercially, they're still just half of it.

A good writer knows that, if her style and perceptions are really cooking, she can bring anything off. It's okay, of course, for novelists to depict bland, average families living bland, average lives, in bland, average towns. But it isn't okay when those novelists don't outshine their bland average subjects. When a writer's style and perceptions don't add up to more than her workaday material — if she doesn't wade out from the shallow end of her gifts — what's the point? What is the point of becoming one's boring subject?What is the point of becoming one's boring subject?

This is really important. For fiction to do what it can do better than non-fiction books — better than reality TV, video games, and comic books, for that matter — it can't give up its attention to psychological detail and subtlety — the pervading receptivity that Wolfe would call navel-gazing. Big stories that excite up the American subject, and writers who bring in the satisfactions of drama through style, that sensitivity to the aesthetic faculties that Flaubert called "an absolute manner of seeing things" — that's what's needed. Narratives, as James said, "on which nothing is lost." Call it full-dress fiction.

In this, Shakespeare is a model. The comedies follow their set conventions, but the tragedies? Hamlet is the most introspective hero in history — perhaps the best example of a thinking mind in the literature — and yet this bloody play teems with action, with swordfights, suicide, a pirate ship, a graveyard fight, a ghost, and murder. Really, did you ever notice how much on-screen murder goes down in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, and King Lear? Because what can get readers into the consciousness of a character — or spotlight the essentials of a society's concerns — like real trouble can? What helps make the experience of life appear more real than seeing it at the sharpest of edges?What helps make the experience of life appear more real than seeing it at the sharpest of edges?

Recently, people have been running to non-fiction to get that which readers once ran to literature for: the news and emotional weather. Maybe the Million Little Pieces of the world are so popular because no one ever writes memoirs about PTA chairwomen; what memoirists do, and often get in trouble for, is bring interesting lives to light. That's how you win an audience. The increasingly common, trivial novel (the sort taught in the expanding universe of grad programs) does a disservice to fiction. The non-reader, the semi-occasional reader who tries fiction once, will happen upon a book that offers none of the pleasures that attend today's non-fiction, and she won't come back.

But full-dress fiction can offer more straightforward joys than, say, Blink can, or — more to the point — even non-fiction narrative reportage like The Perfect Storm can. Though such books may be written with expertise, invention, or even beauty, they struggle to arrive at what Martin Amis calls moral imagination, or moral artistry. A writer of non-fiction can't set up the true facts of "real-life" in a way that achieves Amis's "moral point." Likewise, there are facts that a reporter can never know about her subjects — their thoughts at crucial moments, say; their deepest motivations — facts that expand narratives out into art. Only a novel can add this. Only fiction can tease out the key minutiae that, in non-fiction, remain hidden. Only fiction can tease out the key minutiae that, in non-fiction, remain hidden.

And, when memoir contrives to do this — when a non-fiction writer compresses narrative time, say, or even fudges his facts — then it's just fiction sneaked in under a costume that, as we've learned recently, is bound to fray under scrutiny. Updike's graceful Dreiser/James variation aside, the most successful stories have tried to wed these disparate strains. Look at Nielsen Bookscan's list of perennial best-sellers. It's crammed with full-dress fiction: The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, A Farewell to Arms, Slaughterhouse-Five, To Kill a Mockingbird. You can argue with the quality of one or more of these books, but not with the similarity of their mission. All of these novels attempt — with varying emphases on story or style — to get at the gist of society, to explain the world to itself. And Harper Lee outsells Stephen King.

All it takes is a few successes to revive a season (see the ABC TV examples above). The recent literary novels that have managed unquestionably to do well, commercially and critically, in this killing climate are, each in its way, full-dress fiction, too: the earlier-mentioned On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Franzen's The Corrections, Kevin Baker's Paradise Alley, Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

For every The Corrections, we have three "true stories" about, say, boys abandoned to kook therapists and pedophilia. How can a fiction of bland aspirations compete? And yet, so many novels are content to plod along efficiently but never try to take off flying.

÷ ÷ ÷

Darin Strauss is the author of the international bestseller Chang and Eng, the New York Times Notable Book The Real McCoy, and the national bestseller More Than It Hurts You. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he teaches writing at New York University.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Chang and Eng Used Trade Paper $3.50

  2. More Than It Hurts You
    Used Hardcover $5.50
  3. Half a Life
    Used Hardcover $7.95

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a Life

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