Thanks to Jason Kottke, the mystery of the McDonald’s drive-through has been well aired, much debated, and, no, not yet solved.
Today, another mystery. It’s not so concrete, but it is, for anthropological purposes, a worthy puzzle because it may well be proof that fundamental cultural change is taking place.
Here’s the mystery: fiction, specifically the novel and the short story, is losing its authority in our culture. It may also be true that non fiction is rising in its authority. The mystery, most compactly, most mysteriously: why is non fiction eclipsing fiction?
A contrarian would say that this is old news, that the “decline of fiction” is merely a belated recognition the facts of the matter. Literary fiction has been in eclipse for some time now. But it was so preferred to television and films as a cultural form that the elites conspired to give it a “free pass.” Writers were lionized. Best sellers were touted. Reviews were featured. It didn’t much matter that every literary novel was outsold by lots of romance novels. Literary fiction demanded special treatment. It was given an elevated status. (And this is why Jonathan Franzen objected to being included on the Oprah list. It was treatment not special or elevated enough.)
But let’s say that is a contemporary development. What are the factors that encourage the decline of literary fiction? There are many factors and I am looking forward to any and all explanations.
Here’s mine. Literary fiction succeeded too well. It helped to create a world that turned on it.
In the avant garde view, the author is a little like that Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men. He (or she) is a creature who answers to higher loyalties, contends with forces that ordinary people would prefer not to think about, serves as a heroic figure protecting a middle class Guanatamo from the Cuba beyond. Oh, ok so the comparison is odd but I like it because the actual contrast is as telling as the formal similarity: the novelist wishes to escape the very middle class standards Jack Nicholson struggles to defend. (Hey, I am in California as I write this, and it’s having an effect, apparently.)
The novelist had a simple charge. He was to take up what Trilling called the “adversary intention” and this meant
detaching the reader from the habits of thought and feeling that the larger culture imposes, of giving him a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture the produced him.
And halleluiah, it worked. The novelist so loosened “the habits of thought and feeling that the large culture imposes” that we became as a culture newly productive of every kind of social difference. Many creatures, not just adversarial ones, emerged in the world. A veritable plenitude was unleashed. Every imaginable creature of social life sprang forth.
Bad luck for the novelist, at least the one animated by an adversarial intention. Fiction may be suffering eclipse because it needs a tidy bourgeois society, something to push off against. Without this “larger culture,” the novelist cannot play the heroic figure who identifies its dishonesties and excavates the deeper authenticities to which lives should be devoted instead. No, when the alternative world is lots and lots of diversities and the middle class world continues to dwindle, the heroic novelist’s own favorite way of seeing the world is put in peril.
It’s just not fair. In fact, it’s a little like patricide. The culture created by the novelist has turned on him (or her). The adversarial novelist claimed to hate the smug, self righteous, self satisfied creatures of the middle. But now it turns out you can’t have a margin unless you have a centre. You cant be an iconoclast unless you have a tradition. Bad luck, old chums. There are, of course, Middle Eastern societies that could surely use your heroic contemplations. But I am certain you are not nearly so heroic as that.
Donadio, Rachel. 2005. Truth is Stronger Than Fiction. New York Times, August 7, 2005.
Trilling, Lionel. 1965. Preface. Beyond Culture: Essays on literature and learning. New York: Penguin Books, p. 12