Puzzle1: fiction bows to non fiction


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

8 thoughts on “Puzzle1: fiction bows to non fiction

  1. Michelle

    I think, at least for me, the reason why I find fiction so difficult to get into is because the writing doesn’t match how I think anymore. I grew up watching tv and films, and playing on the internet, and I think my brain has been has been wired differently because of it. And it’s really hard to adjust yourself to these long stories with long sentences that seem to go on forever. The novel will probably continue to decline in our culture, which is a shame, but it’s true, at least until someone grabs hold of it and shapes it differently and makes it more relevant for today.

  2. Michelle

    I think, at least for me, the reason why I find fiction so difficult to get into is because the writing doesn’t match how I think anymore. I grew up watching tv and films, and playing on the internet, and I think my brain has been has been wired differently because of it. And it’s really hard to adjust yourself to these long stories with long sentences that seem to go on forever. The novel will probably continue to decline in our culture, which is a shame, but it’s true, at least until someone grabs hold of it and shapes it differently and makes it more relevant for today.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    I think Harry Potter may provide evidence for your theory, Grant. In those books, Potter and his friends are being indoctrinated into the mainstream of one culture while pushing off the values of another. There is Good and Evil in both cultures, which is always a plus for a novel. Potter lives in a world of Clarity.

    Of course, I only read the first two books, so I could be wrong. And, while these books are touted as “children’s novels,” they may be the only fiction many adults still read.

  4. JohnO

    I’ll add my two cents. Here is where I think you’ve gone a little astray (pardon my lowly stature of criticism). Essentially, you’ve stated that the tension the writer envisions is o longer there. The culture in which to critique has been destroyed. Atleast that is what I think you’re saying. But, a re-definition of the cutlure – that the novelist produces – only creates a new mainstream culture. It is Hegel’s triad all over, the cycle of post-modernism. Therefore there will always be a mainstream, right?

    I think the novel has dropped off because of the intense fractioning of society. Granted there will always be stories (like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, just to mention the recent) that will always grab a good hold of the mainstream. However, our current culture does *not* have a unifying moment. Well, ok we do, 9/11, but no one (to my knowledge) has risen to analyze the event in a fictional arena. Many of the great literary fictions of times past revolved around the unifying aspects of mainstream. “In the olden days” mainstream acounted for a much larger percentage of the people than it does today. There are many mainstreams today, you’ve got a sports crowd, an mtv crowd, the geeks, and so on. And the fractionalizing of society, coupled with the ability to stay inside those groups (causing a polarizing effect), creates a lot of mainstreams. So many we can’t track on a chart. Therefroe I don’t think fiction has gone under, just that fiction won’t be on the best-seller list. Because crowd A won’t buy crowd B’s fictional work, because it can’t influence them. Just like B won’t buy A’s. Again could be totally wrong, just my 2 cents. You’re the pro 🙂

  5. Matt

    There’s no longer a single “mainstream” culture for literary fiction writers to engage with. Now that we live in a world with many different mainstreams, they’ve found themselves isolated, engaging only with one another, and hence watching their audience diminish in size.

    Neal Stephenson tells of being at a gathering of other writers, and them being astonished that he makes his entire living from writing, and doesn’t have to pay the bills by teaching. But then, he’s one of those genre writers that “literary” types enjoy looking down their noses at. 🙂

  6. anti-oedipus

    first of all, there IS a single mainstream culture, it is called consumer-culture, adorno called it “culture-industry”. with a strict definition of the novel, we are looking at a 1700s english-french identity. they are learning to become capitalists, feeling new forms of alienation, “Robinson Crusoe” & “Love in Excess”, the content of these works is still bigbucks for today’s culture-industry, hasnt changed really ever since the industry was created around it. We are Taylorized consumers. tv and radios, etc. give us the same content, different media. when brockman talks about “3rd gen.” its not just bs, he’s literally talking about the cruel and rhetorical manner in which bigbusiness battle for markets. We can have our theories about “paradigm shifts” or whatever else, but that’s only in our armchair and we might as well throw all our theories back at Festinger (who is pointing his finger at us marketers too.)
    it is the luxury of 500 years of capitalism that we get to peek into the consumer’s conscious. the fox has for himself a rabbit farm and yet the hare still taste best.

  7. Jim Dingwall

    Grant, I like the way you phrased the mystery – as a potential shift in “authority” between fiction and non-fiction. If indeed there is a shift – and I think you are right about such a movement – then I dare say the fate of the publishing world depends on these musings so I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.

    The possibility that fiction has been too successful for its own good is appealing. But maybe something else is afoot. Fiction writers who once held a mirror up to society, now only want to look at themselves in the mirror. In other words, the authors themselves are doing an equally good job abandoned their audience(s).

    Let me back track a bit. To achieve its authority among readers, fiction must accomplish two things:

    1. It must be interesting enough to make us turn the pages. This could be done by suspending our disbelief by either telling a whopping good story or through a tour de force of writing skill or a combination of both. The author must make reading the book more interesting than doing anything else.
    2. It must tell us (or attempt to tell us) something new (nouvelle/novel) about how the world works. This newness comes in the form of a unique character, plot, interpretation or perspective on something – it’s why we say: “That’s a novel idea,” or a “novel way of looking at things.”

    Contemporary literary fiction is failing miserably in both areas.

    When we recall historic works of fiction – great or small — we remember the authority that sheer imagination made real. Fiction delivered an interesting experience: memorable characters, ingenious plots and sub-plots all tethered to a reality that was both recognizable and different at the same time. Yes, the reader might think, “I recognize this world, but it looks different through the author’s eyes. I must read more….” That used to be the main selling proposition of authoritative fiction. Dickens laid London before us, Wharton spread out the gilded age on a silver platter, Tolstoy put us in the heart of Russia, Joyce gave us a Homeric and mythic vision of Dublin, and Scott Fitzgerald gave us the bittersweet hope of the Jazz age with a great Gatsby. “Here, read this. You’ll never look at the world quite the same again.” That was fiction’s brand promise, its strength and where it has traditionally derived its authority.

    Then, as the 20th century evolved, something awful happened. High-end literature became smaller, more self-centered and fiction started to get really uninteresting. The pages became harder to turn. Novels became “texts” and fiction became non-stories that only an academic could love. The adversarial mandate (to use Trilling’s phraseology) kept giving us anti-heroes galore, all of them pushing against the bourgeois centre as you say, but their voices started to sound tinny, forced, myopic, more and more self-centred not culture-centred and finally we ended up with Holden Caulfield. For sure there was the occasional Yossarian who spoke for us all when he said: “That’s some catch that Catch-22” but it was a rear-guard action. By the seventies, novelists, one after another, lowered their eyes from the distant horizon, looked down and discovered their navels, gazed at them contentedly for a while, and then finally bent all the way over and let their heads disappear right up their own fundament.

    Something else was happening too. By definition, fiction and non-fiction should be at opposite ends of the writing spectrum, but the distinguishing characteristics of the two modes of writing starting blurring before our eyes, getting watered down and muddied to the point where as Gertrude Stein once observed about Oakland California, “There is no there, there.” And I would say much the same about contemporary literary fiction. There is no fiction there anymore.

    We are moving towards fictionless fiction. That’s where the author steps in and becomes the novel’s main character. “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” is all about a real life adventure of its author, David Eggers. Imagination in fiction is getting crowded out by reality or remembered reality (Umberto Eco’s latest fictional efforts fit this category. Bret Easton Ellis plays himself in his latest novel.) Fiction writers have always drawn upon their past for inspiration. But now, it’s a marketing device, like the strategic use of product placement. And it seems kind of lazy too. The once omniscient voice of authorial thunder is reduced now to a narcissistic whine of self-aggrandizement or self-loathing. Hardly the stuff of authority.

    Elsewhere in the literary fiction dump we hear some authors muttering about the dysfunction of human relations (Franzen, Atwood, and Oates all come to mind). It’s an easy pitch I suppose – Austen and Tolstoy and Flaubert all made it work – But more and more today, dysfunctional people, families and whole societies are regarded as nothing new. In fact, it’s the new normal for mainstream literary fiction. Irony of ironies. We’ve become what we hate.

    All of these various trends on the literary front give good meat to your argument that fiction is indeed losing its authority. I think, however, that it’s not just that fiction has become a victim of its own success by disbanding and dispersing the middle class, but also because fiction writers have turned away from the audience, followed the quantum mechanics of plenitude to its logical, singular conclusion and announced with a great flourish: “Look no further, the world is all about me.”

    Meanwhile, down the road, at the other end of the writing spectrum, things are cooking. Non-fiction is ascending, taking up the cudgel of authority, playing to its own strengths and beating fiction at its own game. And, in so doing, gaining reader acceptance, authority, top-of-mind recognition and market share.

    Non-fiction’s traditional job has always been to tell us about new things and how the world works. That’s always been its primary raison d’etre. Today, we’re awash in people who do it well – academics, professional scientists, business writers, good essayists, journalists and journal writers, and bloggers, doing just that. Gladwell, Ferguson, Levitt & Dubner, (dare I mention the proprietor of this Blog) Dantos, the Gopniks, Sendaris … holy moly … the list seems endless. They’re all converging on reality like tour guides at Universal Studios pointing out this and that, and don’t miss that thing over there, and all the while they keep the line going forward, saying “We’re moving, we’re moving….”

    The ascendancy of interesting and entertaining fiction-like non-fiction writing is happening in business and cultural writing right across the board because the qualities of fiction we loved so much –larger than life characters, adventure, the comedy & drama of life as it is – are now being discovered, nurtured into words and delivered up for our delectation by non-fiction writers. Want a real spin-tingling adventure of corporate intrigue, greed and financial derring-do? Read a good book on Enron like, “Conspiracy of Fools” by journalist, Kurt Eichenwald. It’s in the non-fiction department.

    Meanwhile, the cheesy side of non-fiction has acquired its own authority. The celebrity magazines, instant biographies, do-it-yourself books and inspirational testimonials are doing a booming trade. What’s their secret?

    They’re serving transformation and plenitude on a plate. It’s something for everyone. Non fiction is getting its authority either by beating fiction at its own game by being interesting and new, or through its ability to perform its transformational magic in a hundred different ways. We can get gossip, inspiration or instructions about changing our lives, chicken soup for our tarnished souls, or appease our inner dummy with a yellow and black book guaranteed to erase our ignorance of (you fill in the blank). We can eavesdrop on the cultural plenitude around us and be the first on our block to understand it.

    People used to turn to fiction to find larger-than-life characters. Today we’ve transferred our attention to fiction-like celebrities, sports figures, business tycoons and weirdo global residents like Michael Jackson or Paris Hilton. Who could have made them up? Why do their realities so intrigue us? Maybe it’s because we can watch them in real time, so unselfconsciously (just like in a novel), succeed or fail, surmount odds and triumph or go down to a crippling defeat, only to rise again like Martha or Michael from the ashes.

    Fiction can’t compete against the transformative brand promise that non-fiction is claiming as its own to either chronicle or perform for its readers. It all makes fiction seem so tired. We stumble down a barely discernable plot path; the helpless, bored reader yawning through the dismal lives of dispirited people whose names we immediately forget (if we ever learn them at all), and who are trying to cobble their inner selves together with bailing wire and spiritual duct tape.

    In the end, these people limp off the last page of the book with their tragic personality flaws still intact, unrecognized and largely uninteresting. As readers, our last thought as we close the tome (tomb?) is to wonder why the hero didn’t just shoot himself in the end. But secretly, we know why. It’s because the hero’s already dead in a fictional world that seems to be headed in the same general direction.

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