Sunday, August 21, 2005


Shakespeare, originally uploaded by Sleepy Hollow.

Fiction has been getting hammered lately. Not only have fiction reviews been cut back in the New York Times Book Review and other places of note, The Atlantic Monthly (one of the few venues that offer the starving writer a living wage) has eliminated short stories altogether from its monthly pages. Instead of inclusion in the rich stew of politics and social commentary, reviews, and well, life, it's been given its own annual issue. Does the word "ghettoization" comes to mind? (Is it even a word?)

So things are bad. Publisher's are whining about their losses. Surveys are saying people have pretty much stopped reading altogether. And writers are whining that no one's buying our novels or if they are, the advances aren't what they used to be.

Then just when I think it can't get any worse, I open the New York Times Magazine and find that V.S. Naipaul closed the gate on the artform that has served him so well and which he in turn has served. With typical crankiness, he proclaimed that novels are no longer relevent, and he doesn't intend to write them anymore. Didn't Ian McEwan write something similar after 9/11 only to prove himself wrong by producing the strikingly relevent Saturday? For a week or so I planned writing up a column listing the 5 reasons why the two literary masters are wrong and your humble waitress is right (the novel is not only relevent, it's more necessary than ever.) However, as I often do, I got distracted while serving the coffee, and never got around to it.

But what really got to me was when a blogger came out in a post called "Unrelated" and said rather sternly that life was not a novel, and maturity demanded that we stop auditioning for various roles, and live a life that's more like creative non-fiction. Like a memoir maybe? Have you ever read those things? They can be entertaining as hell, but folks, they're one side of the story. And most often it's a highly skewed self-justifying side. Give me an honest novel that respects all of its characters equally any day! Which is my point: just because novelists make things up doesn't mean they're not true. At best, a novel taps into the deepest truths of who we are and what we know. When that becomes irrelevent, then the human race is in some serious trouble.

So much as I love this particular blog, I have to take exception with this post. I think a life that doesn't allow for an occasional change of costume is a stagnant one indeed. And not a very true one.

But don't listen to me. Listen to Will.

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."

Or as Bob Dylan said:

"If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying."


Perfect Virgo said...

"Excuse me young lady..." (raps coin on table) "My coffee cup's empty! You've been swanning around quoting the Bard all morning while studiously ignoring me..."

"OK, I'm off to change my costume. I'll come back as someone different and then you'll notice me. Yes, then you'll notice me."

(Calls out over shoulder as he leaves the cafe) "Dylan always did write better lyrics than Shakespeare and he wears way cooler shades!"

rdl said...

If it's one think i hate is opinionated people that think theirs is the only opinion. So according to this fashion police author creative non-fiction is the only thing that is relevant. Is she going to let her kids read fiction or do they have to read the encylopedia. Fiction is where i learned about history (civil war- Gone with the Wind.)And about other peoples and places - Exodus and The Pearl. by Pearl s Buck.
yea what is creative non-fiction? biograpy, auto-biography, reality tv. so everyone has to write and read the same thing, even if that's not their cup of tea. maybe she should go live in a communist country where they tell you everything that you can do. and what is v.s Naipal gonna burn his books now?(like Fahrenheit).
Got to go make the coffee. What happened to the Sunday Optimest report? this got my blood boiling on a sun. morning. this is my longest comment ever, sorry. maybe i should just made it a post over at my place.

Mental multivitamin said...

You rather missed the point of that passage. It began:

"We are not characters in our own lives. This isn't a novel."

It wasn't a meditation on the merits of fiction or creative non-fiction. It was a treatise about growing up, giving up an ever-changing round of "character explorations" for some wisdom and maturity.

And to redl: If you spent *any* time at M-mv you'd know we value both fiction and non-fiction, and that, of course, the children read fiction. Each of our monthly "On the nightstand entries..." includes a blend of fiction and non-fiction.

Your "longest comment ever," rdl, was probably not the best use of your time since it so entirely missed the point.

A recent meditation on fiction and literature:

Mental multivitamin said...

My remarks were addressed to "rdl," not "redl." Sorry 'bout that.

And as I reread that commenter's remarks again, I realize that I shouldn't have bothered. It is rather hard to reason with someone who can type "maybe she should go live in a communist country where they tell you everything that you can do. and what is v.s Naipal gonna burn his books now?(like Fahrenheit)" as a a reply.

By the way, Naipul was featured in our most recent "On the nightstand..." entries, and Fahrenheir 451 was one of our first RDAs.

But let's move me to a communist country on the basis of the misreading of one subhead in an entry. (Yes, it wasn't a post, but a subhead in one.)

I'm off to pack my bags... (*wry grin*), and to wonder at how a treatise that adults cease auditioning for roles in their own lives and just get on with the business of living them came to be read as Family M-mv denounciing fiction.

It's almost funny.

Patry Francis said...

To M-mv: I don't think I missed the point at all. As a regular reader of your blog, I know you love and support the reading of fiction. The paragraph in my post that deals with your blog specifically addresses the "life is not a novel" supposition. All I wanted to say is that I think my life IS more like a novel than creative non-fiction and to present an argument that it doesn't necessarily make me immature or a failure as an adult.

It was in no way intented to denigrate your blog or your opinion--just to present an opposing viewpoint. In any case, I'm sorry if it offended. The point of my blog--and hopefully my life--is to build bridges of friendship, not walls of misunderstanding.

p.v.: I'll be on the lookout for a Virgo in a new costume.

rdl said...

didn't mean to condemn you(i have not read yr blog ) was agreeing with what patry said re: what appeared to be yr. take on fiction. sorry i will never post before coffee and before reading more of someones blog.
and patry sorry for taking up yr. comments section here with this controversy.

Mental multivitamin said...


What a lovely reply.

Truth be told, I think I responded more to your commenter's remarks (specifically, rdl) than to your own entry... which, as you point out, did tackle my own intended argument, point for point.

I haven't the time to craft this well, but I offer this: I think fiction can be "better," certainly "truer" than life is. Middlemarch, for example, sheds more wise light on marriage, scholarship, longing, and ambition than any one life typically could.

Writers of fiction (and poets, for that matter), when they craft well, distill the essence of what it is to be human and pour it into their cast of characters. In real life, we are rarely so well gifted as our fictional counterparts.

When I was arguing "enough with the costumes -- live, durn it!" I was making a blog-plea that we focus on creatively living what's real (non-fiction) for us.

Perhaps I spend too much time with the 19 to 33 year-old-set. (*wry grin*) So many I meet are one day this, the next that, and the day after that still another thing. It just seems to me that this donning and shedding is the hard work of one's teens, not adulthood.

Then again, maybe I grew up too quickly.

Best regards.


gulnaz said...

I love fiction! Actually i have noticed that a good novel writes about the lies which a society tells in a way no non-fiction tome on sociology etc ever does. the way a good author etches his character places him in context of time and space, you learn so much from non-fiction. that's what i think.
btw, thanks for the bob-dylan quote!

Patry Francis said...

In the end, I think the misunderstanding may have been my fault by responding to V.S. Naipaul's essay on the death of fiction, and M-MVs blog post--which was really about the meaning of maturity and how it is defined--in the same post.

M-MV's comments on Middlemarch as well as Gulnaz's reasons for why she loves the form more eloquently convey the reason we need fiction than I could say.

Maybe my next blog post will deal with how we define maturity in a youth obsessed (and some might say, immature) culture. It's definitely a blogworthy topic. If anyone cares to join me, it might be fun to explore the different and common themes that emerge.

If I do, my first point will be that maturity is the ability to disagree respectfully--and maybe even to discover that our areas of agreement are far greater and more significant than our differences. Which I believe we have.

Perfect Virgo said...

I will be very happy to join in your debate on the "definition of maturity in a youth obsessed culture," Patry. Seems you may open a big subject there. Hope you noticed I'm wearing my sensible-Virgo hat today <:)

I loved your reference to "bridges of friendship." You have certainly built one here my friend and I'm sure you are equally successful in real life.

When you've finished serving coffee today, hang up that apron and I'll treat you to a lemonade!

Patry Francis said...

P.V., my good friend, I am looking forward to your perspective--and also to that glass of lemonade, though we may have to drink it on separate continents.

gulnaz said...

btw, i am reading middlemarch currently and its a wonderful book, though strangely i had never heard it much mentioned before unlike jane eyre, emma, pride and prejudice, heathcliffe etc.

Melly said...

What a fiery and excellent post and fascinating and thrilling debate in the comments.

Back to the point of the dying fiction. I'm not sure fiction is dying, it's the medium that may be.

Anonymous said...

Great post. The comments only add to it.

SFP said...

"As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater importance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic." --Rebecca West

See for the full quote.

1000 black lines said...

great post. i may quote this often through out the day: "a novel taps into the deepest truths of who we are and what we know"

Patry Francis said...

Danyel: Great to see you here. Any friend of Dylan's is a friend of mine.

Melly and Easy: Glad you enjoyed the debate--and also glad it ended in respectful dialogue. Though I may occasionally breathe fire, I'm a pacifist at heart.

Gulnaz: Isn't Middlemarch wonderful? You and M-MV just reminded me I'm due to re-read it.

humanity critic: Love to see new "faces" here. Can I offer you tea?

sfp: great quote and well worth the time to go to your blog for the expanded version. Thanks!

Mx: I so love it when people quote me!

Patry Francis said...

finnegan: very interesting comments by Valery. Thanks for bringing him to the discussion. I can see how he might have postulated that in 1964, but in 2005, it seems as if all our new powers and technological wonders have just given us all a global case of A.D.D.

Patry Francis said...

finnegan, you are so right when you say that in many ways, blogging proves Valery's point. It is a new and uniquely democratic art form. It also may be, at this moment in time, my most favored form of reading.

Maybe what I see as a distraction from my "real work," is in fact the work I need to do.

Dave said...

Fiction is being ghettoized? It was probably only a matter of time - happened to poetry a long time ago.

I should add that I bear part of the blame: I generally deprive myself of the pleasure of reading novels because I have little self-control - they tend to throw my sleep schedule completely off-whack. I could read more short fiction, though. I have this notion that I should read mainly nonfiction when I'm not reading poetry, 'cause a poet has an obligation to learn as much about as many things as possible. But as you say, there's a lot to learn from fiction, too.

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