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Fiction is dead. Again? [updated]

June 23, 2010 | 12:05 pm

Hearse_silver

Put down that dragon tattoo girl. Stop catching up with Bree Tanner. You don't need any help from Kathryn Stockett, or to chew your fingernails through a hunger game. Forget about the latest from Scott Turow or David Mitchell or Charlaine Harris or Paul Auster or Rick Riordan or Stephen King. Novels are over. Fiction is dead.

Here we go again.

Every few years someone finds a platform to declare fiction dead, despite all evidence to the contrary. This time around, it's Lee Siegel, writing in The Observer. Siegel's piece flogs a tired horse, that fiction is less central to our culture than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and not as good. It's hard to figure out which is more problematic: how poorly Siegel's argument is made, or how many things he gets wrong in the process.

So for fun, let's see if I can resuscitate poor old fiction by addressing Siegel's points, one at a time, as he lays them out.

1. Siegel: "Fiction has become culturally irrelevant." People buy books, read books, are right now camping on sidewalks to see "Twilight: Eclipse," a movie based on a book, and they camp out in bookstores too, when a novel they're eager for is sold at midnight. Maybe these people are not part of our culture?

2. Siegel: "With the exception of a few ambitious -- and obsessively competitive -- fiction writers and their agents and editors, no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided." So on the one hand we have obsessive, competitive authors and agents. On the other, "ineffable private and public clarity." This doesn't make sense -- the ambitious literary establishment may go to books for many reasons, but how does clarity connect to their obsessiveness? And while there are no doubt legions of readers who turn to fiction for "private clarity," they certainly aren't limited to agents and writers. And what exactly is the connection between "private and public" clarity -- are these two the same thing? Are they even related?

3. Siegel: "Exhibit A in the argument that fiction is now a marginal enterprise: Everybody complains that The New Yorker list is inbred, house-approved, a mere PR ploy for the magazine, but no one does anything about it. If fiction were really alive, if it were still the vibrant experience it used to be, then an artistic affront like the '20 Under 40' junior pantheon would be something against which literary people would deploy all their creative energies....Where are the counterlists to The New Yorker's 20? Where is the mischief in the little literary magazines, the fiction-publishing monthlies like Harper's and The Atlantic, the countless online sites devoted to contemporary fiction? Isn't such sharp dissent what the Web was supposed to empower?" Since Mr. Siegel's Internet seems to be broken, here we go: HTML Giant's 400 Under the Age of 1, Ward 6's 10 Over 80, the Millions' 20 Under 40 from 40 Years Ago and 20 More Under 40, the Telegraph's 20 Under 40 in Britain, Steve Almond's One Over 40 in The Rumpus, The Big Other's 40 Over 40 and a lively conversation on Twitter.

This is going to take a while. Let's continue after the jump.

4. Siegel: "The practice of fiction is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession." These are synonyms. From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (my 1967 edition was my parents'): "vocation: a particular occupation, business or profession; calling" and "profession: a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science." Do writers want to find the vocation-profession sweet spot and both follow their calling and make a living? Probably. Has this prevented them from responding to the New Yorker's list, as Siegel claims? No.

5. Siegel: "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." If writing critically about an art form indicates that it is in its decline, that means there hasn't been a rock song worth listening to since critic Lester Bangs died in 1982, and that filmmaking ended with the 1965 publication of Pauline Kael's "I Lost It At the Movies."

6. Siegel doesn't like critic James B. Woods' book "How Fiction Works." I don't much, either, but  one critic's poorly conceived manifesto is hardly enough to prove that fiction is dead.

7. Siegel: "The most interesting, perceptive and provocative writers of our moment write narrative nonfiction." This may be true. I think we agree.

8. Siegel goes on to say that today's nonfiction generates "existential urgency and intensity [with] the feelings with which people used to respond to novels..." Just because nonfiction may generate intense feelings doesn't mean that those feelings have been taken away from fiction. It's like a parent saying, "Sorry, son, now that your little sister is born, all our love is going to her" -- love for reading is love for reading, and if Siegel and I are both feeling fondly toward nonfiction, there is still plenty of fiction love (at least from me).

9. That quote about fiction continues "...feelings with which people used to respond to novels by Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud..." Fiction and nonfiction are both so lovable that Siegel has confused Mailer with a novelist on a par with John Updike and Saul Bellow. But Norman Mailer's best work was always his nonfiction, not his fiction; "Harlot's Ghost" and "Ancient Evenings" are a far cry from "Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song."

10. In the postwar decades, Siegel writes, "So-called commercial fiction was just as relevant to people's lives as so-called literary fiction." He lists some marvelous books of the period that he says were categorized as commercial fiction, which were "as primal as the bard singing around the pre-Homeric fire" (I think that's good). But now "everything literary is also furtively commercial" (I think that's bad) and "nothing is popular" (also bad), "except for the explicitly commercial fiction that the literary crowd refuses (or is unable) to write." From what I can tell, he started out saying postwar commercial fiction was good because it was relevant to people's lives, and he ends by saying contemporary literary writers both are "furtively commercial" yet not writing commercial fiction. Issues of popularity, commercialism and literariness are all jumbled up. And he conflates the idea of relevance to an individual's life -- the intensity of response to a piece of writing -- to relevance with the culture as a whole.

11. Siegel writes that the work of the magazine's own nonfiction staff is the "best argument against The New Yorker's self-promoting, vulgar list" of 20 novelists under 40. That makes sense only if you believe good nonfiction equals bad fiction. Um, no.

12. Fiction is, Siegel writes, "a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers." While this might be argued, Siegel hasn't argued it. He touched on relevance, on popularity, on an obsessive literary establishment, on the quality nonfiction of decades past -- but he didn't address the content of today's novels at all. At this point, he's just tossing insults.

13. Siegel concludes that fiction is dead because nonfiction is alive. I would argue that readers energized by one form will not abandon another; it would take a small heart not to love them both.

Fiction lives! It lives!

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

[Updated at 4:10pm Wednesday: In an earlier version of this post, "I Lost It At the Movies" was said to have been released in 1955.] 

Photo: A hearse in Vancouver. Credit: mulmatsherm via Flickr.

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