A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible, partly (here we get into cause and effect) because most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric “ephemera,” and often pretty nasty ephemera at that. I do not, you may be pleased to read, propose to parade before you a list of those exercises in evanescence, self-parody, and general ickiness that constitute so much that congregates under the label of American fiction these days. Instead, I’d like to step back and make some observations on the place of fiction in our culture today, A.D. 2012. It is very different from the place it occupied in the 19th century, or even the place it occupied up through the middle of the last century.
We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.
I know that I am not alone in this feeling. Indeed, whenever I mention the contemporary novel to friends, the reaction tends to alternate between bemusement and distaste. The bemusement comes from those who are at a loss to think of any current American novels I might wish to talk about. “I’ll check my bookshelves when I get home,” one well-read wag with a large private library wrote me, “to see if I have any contemporary American novels.” Those expressing distaste, on the other hand, do have the novels on their shelves, but they have made the mistake of having read them, or at least read in them.
This might be the appropriate moment to issue a disclaimer. I do not deny that there are good novels written today. I think, for example, of the spare, deeply felt novels of Marilynne Robinson, especially Gilead, her quiet masterpiece from a few years back. It might even be argued (I merely raise this as a possibility) that there are as many good novels being written today as in the past. It is sobering to reflect that between 1837—when Victoria ascended the throne and Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published—and 1901—the year of Victoria’s death—some 7,000 authors published more than 60,000 novels in England. How much of that vast literary cataract has stood the test of time? How can we hope that our perfervid literary output will escape the exigent discriminations visited upon all prior periods? Jonathan Franzen. Bret Easton Ellis. Jay McInerney. Dave Eggers. Toni Morrison. Feel free to extend the list: Criticism is not prophecy, nevertheless I predict those and many other glittering darlings of the moment will be forgotten as surely as those 59,967 novels from the Victorian period whose names, for us, are writ in water.
There is, however, another question, or rather set of questions, that I want to broach. And let me underscore the interrogative nature of what I am suggesting: When I say that there are a set of questions I would like to discuss, I do not mean that I have a satchel full of answers to which I have surreptitiously affixed question marks for rhetorical effect. I mean, rather, that I have sensed a change in the relation of literature to life and that this change, however we might best describe it, has had and will likely continue to have a profound effect on how we understand the significance of fiction. In any event, I’d like to bracket, as the phenomenologists say, the issue of how good American fiction now is and concentrate instead on what I have been calling in my own mind the “traction of fiction.” Whatever we think about the literary accomplishments of a Toni Morrison or a Jay McInerney, I think that most of us would agree that, today, fiction exercises a different, and less vital, claim on our attention than it once did. Such, anyway, has been my observation.
And I would go further. It’s not just contemporary fiction that is suffering from this form of existential depreciation: The same thing, I believe, is happening, perhaps to a lesser extent, with the fiction of the past. The novel plays a different and a diminished role in our cultural life as compared with even the quite recent past.