Today, we have guest blogger Adam Reger’s take:
Robert asked me to speak to the larger question of why people feel the need, every couple months, to declare fiction dead. But the specific impetus is Lee Siegel’s recent New York Observer screed, so that seems a good enough jumping-off point. Sifting through the mess of this piece, two main answers to Robert’s question occur to me.
Also, though, I’m using the Siegel piece as my reference point because I’m not sure I’ve ever bothered to read one of these tirades before, at least not in full. They’ve always seemed needlessly negative, irrational, shrill, and depressingly unconstructive, which is about how I found Mr. Siegel’s piece. I’m not going to spend any time taking down the piece because a former classmate, Carolyn Kellogg, has already done this, surpassingly well, here.
But I will point out a classic rhetorical error that Mr. Siegel makes, and that Ms. Kellogg calls him on, because I think it’s at the heart of the first part of the broader trend. Because non-fiction is rising in popularity, Siegel argues, fiction must be on the way out. While the argument makes some sense—people have only so much reading time and available cash, and there are only so many readers out there—it’s a fallacy to assume that the two modes can’t co-exist, or that this trend goes only one way and is irreversible.
I’d guess that this kernel of logic, plus a healthy fear for one’s livelihood as a writer, is at the heart of most declarations of fiction’s morbidity. Mr. Siegel doesn’t mention films, television, or video games. But any time I myself have wondered if I’ve made a terrible choice in committing myself to writing fiction, it’s these other modes of entertainment, more profitable and so much less demanding of the consumer’s patience and mental energies, that have unnerved me. For that matter, I’ve more than a few times failed even to crack whatever book I was reading on a given day because I’d come home to find an appealing Netflix selection in the mail, or there was a crucial NBA Finals game on that night, or whatever. The fear of competition is for real.
And so, the reasoning goes, fiction must be on the way out. Its cut of the entertainment pie will continue shrinking; eventually, it will dwindle to nothing. I don’t buy the logic, personally, but I can sympathize with this reflex: spotting a trend, we quite naturally take it to its direst conclusion. (It’s a very different realm, but these fiction-is-dead declarations remind me a little of the articles and books that occasionally pop up declaring that America is over. Sometimes they hail China or India as the world’s new superpowers, but their main thrust is generally that America is in bad decline. If we could pinpoint why exactly Americans have such an appetite for this kind of prognostication, we’d probably also understand the basic impulse behind foreseeing the end of fiction. There does seem to be a propensity for fiction writers to declare fiction dead, rather than targeting poetry or interpretive dance. Could the impulse be nothing more than a form of self-obsession? I don’t think I’d bet against it.)
The second reason, to my mind, is even more prosaic. Fiction’s not dying, but it is changing. I have little doubt that some overtired copy editor gave Siegel’s piece the title “Where Have All the Mailers Gone?” but that title is revealing. Mourning the absence of a Norman Mailer from the literary scene to me implies also missing a bygone literary scene where a few big magazines—The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic—published big-name writers, and that’s what you talked about as a reader. Ditto a small number of big-name book publishers.
It was probably far easier to keep track of what was happening at the top of the literary food chain—but also far more difficult to get there, to gain access to that handful of big magazines. There’s been a significant shift in this area: there still exists a pyramid of literary outlets, but the base is far wider, the slope upward less severe. If you’re only reading The New Yorker, it’s no wonder you’d complain about the lack of a response to its “20 under 40” list, oblivious to the half-dozen or so that have appeared on the internet and elsewhere. It’s no wonder, in fact, that you’d miss nearly all of the vitality and community whose absence you’re bemoaning.
There’s a parallel between literature and news in the age of the internet: increasingly, we’re able to decide where to get ours. This isn’t new, exactly—people have always been able to forgo ABC’s Nightly News in favor of Rush Limbaugh, and the same with Ploughshares over The Atlantic—but the internet has accelerated the process. It’s not only possible but easy for an avid reader to subsist on a diet of Pank, Annalemma, Juked, etc. etc., without feeling even the slightest obligation to read the Jonathan Franzen story in The New Yorker.
I’d submit that this is good news for fiction, far better than it is for the world of news media. Whereas most writers create stories for the love of it, because on some level they need to, most news stories exist mainly because a reporter was paid to write them. If the new world order is writing and html coding and desktop publishing (and distribution) carried out above all as labors of love, I’d say fiction is in fine shape. Whatever the hell Lee Siegel was trying to say by declaring fiction “no longer a vocation” but rather “a profession,” it’s telling that he seems to think that fiction will die without a dedicated class of professional (perhaps I should say “vocational”) artists devoting themselves to it. Story and self-expression through language remain with us because they serve basic needs. If you really want to foster a sense of vitality and urgency, you could do worse than to force fiction into the avocation corner, where those who practice it are those who can’t imagine not writing.
But with reference to the question at hand, it’s no wonder these developments should present as the death of fiction: for people tuned in to the same handful of outlets where they got their Updike and Roth for several decades, fiction—and especially its vitality, the “mischievous” spirit Siegel mourns—must look like it’s disappearing. But that’s not the same as dying.
Adam Reger earned his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008. He has published fiction in Pear Noir!, White Whale Review, Juked, and New Orleans Review. His blog shines a powder-blue spotlight on issues such as literary tattoos, Freemasons, and recordings of people laughing.