Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Premature Obituaries

I found this in the archives. I think I wrote it, but I'm not sure. If I did, I agree with myself. If I didn't, I agree with whoever did. It sounds like me, though.
Writing premature obituaries of this and that–Culture, The Novel, Literary Fiction–has long been a cottage industry among the intelligentsia. Tom Wolfe, in his 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” thundered, “If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious"–i.e., stop confecting their precious little Po-Mo baubles and become two-fisted literary reporters–"the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain, but also seized the high ground of literature itself.[1]” Well, that never happened, because journalists write journalism, not literature. (That whole diatribe said more about Wolfe's own insecurities as a writer than about the state of American fiction.) Then some years later, at the launch of one of his own books, V. S. Naipaul portentously announced, “The novel is dead,” conveying his disillusionment with modern writing not his own.[2] And, just to prove once again that there's nothing new under the sun, John Barth, in his epistolary novel Letters, cited a 1758 letter in which Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela, a 600-page sentimental romance widely regarded as the first fully-realized novel in English, expressed his concerns about the death of the novel.[3] And so it goes. Most recently, Lee Siegel, in an article in the New York Observer ("Where Have All the Mailers Gone?"), declared, "Fiction has become culturally irrelevant." Siegel mourns the halcyon days of the '50s, when giants like Mailer, Hemingway, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Mary McCarthy, and other American neo-Balzacs, bestrode the earth like colossi, but says nothing of their present-day successors Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Cormac MacCarthy, James Hynes, and Jonathan Lethem, to name but a few. And what of Dan Brown, Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, J. K. Rowling, et al., who are all over the place, seemingly more culturally relevant than ever? Indeed, all appearances are that the novel is thriving. Of course, Siegel is thinking primarily of literary fiction; like the laborious copying of illuminated manuscripts in the medieval monasteries, literary writing in his eyes is that rarefied thing–a vocation. But these days, he says, "the practice is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession, and professions are not characterized by creative mischief." They are characterized by paychecks, however, no small consideration for impoverished literary artists, however mischievous. Anyway, I'd argue that literary fiction as a genre hasn't been truly popular since the days of Dickens' serialized novels, which played the role of mass popular entertainment that would later devolve to TV soaps and the movies. But to proclaim literary fiction, or the novel, dead, or–worse–culturally irrelevant, is mere posturing.


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