Although Michael Collins describes his ambitions perhaps somewhat more boldly than most, these remarks illustrate a common enough view of the ultimate purpose of fiction:
"After I was shortlisted for the Booker, I learned that no one reads literary fiction any more". . ."That's because the action--the novel's crises--are all in a character's head, not in on-page action. So I got to thinking about using crime to critique American society, perhaps a dismemberment murder mystery to echo the dismantling of the U.S. middle class."
Never mind the distinction between "literary fiction" and genre fiction. As far as I can tell, Collins himself has never written the kind of literary fiction he describes, but clearly he thinks of his work as serious nevertheless; even if he did prefer fiction in which the "action" is "all in a character's head," this doesn't preclude the larger goal of critiquing society. Indeed, writers of literary fiction are more likely to think in such terms than those who work in the genres, where in many cases--especially science fiction or detective/crime fiction--some sort of implict examination of "society" is built into the very nature of the genre, almost hard to avoid.
Those listening to Collins make this remark did not seem to object to the idea that writers might want to "critique society," merely to Collins's further theories about "the peculiar suitability" of the United States to this kind of crime fiction: "Europeans, he said, tend to visit only coastal America, and have no idea of the bizarre religious beliefs and brooding violence exhibited by the mad inhabitants of the territory between New York City and San Francisco." What the author of this Macleans article calls "Collins' naked ambition and political paranoia" apparently did not appeal to this audience, but they surely would not have taken exception to a writer's claim to be "critiquing" society, since the notion that this is what fiction does, at some fundamental level, is very widespread.
This kind of social commentary, if not exactly political propoganda, is certainly "political" in that it values social or cultural change as the potentially most salutary benefit of writing and reading fiction. Like satire, it seeks "correction" of the flaws and mistaken beliefs it portrays. Such a conception of literature's relevance to its readers views political change and the consideration of essentially political issues to be the most important, if not the only, way for literature to be serious in the first place. Aesthetic achievement is not dismissed altogether, but it becomes at best a trick used by the skillful writer to draw the reader's attention to those sociopolitical concerns that are really what have motivated the writer to begin with.
How many works of literature from the past have survived because what they provide is deemed to be social commentary, offering insight into the cultural mechanisms and assumptions of a particular time and place? Hardly any. It is sometimes said that, for example, Dickens gives us this kind of window onto the social landscape of his time, but to the extent this is true--and it is partly true--it is a consequence of Dickens's much broader aesthetic ambition to build a whole fictional world, related to the concrete realities of Victorian England, but thoroughly transformed, out of the socially determined materials he had to work with. (And he had no other materials; he lived in Victorian England and not somewhere else.) Works of literature, especially fiction, can always be used by the cultural historian as the source from which to dredge up "information." But a novel or poem or play that can only be used as such a source has already been judged no longer worth reading.
As I mentioned earlier, it hardly seems necessary to insist that a genre like crime fiction should seek to "critique" society. Given the various conventions of the genre--the focus on law enforcement (or on the attempt more broadly to redress lawless acts), the inherent need to "investigate" a particular social mileu, the search for an explanation, to the extent it can be found, for what motivates people to violate social and cultural norms--a critique of sorts will almost always arise from a crime or detective novel. The hard part for a crime novelist (at least it seems to me) is to find suitable ways of making this intrinsic kind of commentary aesthetically satisfying as the subject of a work of fiction. Literary novelists have on the one hand an easier job--they don't have to fulfill these generic expectations (at least not these particular ones) and ought to be less constrained in the attempt to find aesthetically satisfying forms--and an even harder one--to find such forms absent the inherent interest-value these embedded conventions additionally provide. Perhaps this makes it all the more tempting simply to fall back on "commentary" as fiction's ultimate justification.
It is not, I hope, simply contrarian to suggest, on the eve of a very important American election, that politics is not the most important, certainly not the only important, endeavor with which a serious-minded person might want to occupy him/herself. Nor is it necessary that he/she engage in social commentary in order to be discharging the duties supposedly assigned to the writer of fiction. If this were the case, it would be much easier, and ultimately more useful, to forego fiction altogether and write political speeches or make documentary films. (There seems to be more money in the latter as well.) It may or may not be true that "no one reads literary fiction any more," although I myself think such a claim is asinine. There are, in sheer numbers, way more readers of serious fiction than there "used to be," given the vast increases in population just over the past half-century. Probably the percentage of serious readers within these populations isn't significantly lower, either. Even if fewer people do want to read "literary fiction," it's precisely because it has increasingly become reduced to an attempt to "critique American society," through the combined efforts of certain so-called literary journalists, by academics, and by the editors of prominent book reviews.
Given a choice between such lugubrious stuff--at least in the way it is presented--and more artfully done "entertainment," some readers have understandably gone for the latter. (One wonders how popular Michael Collins will be among such readers.) As well: If I have to choose between the social critic and the artist, my vote goes to the artist.
(Link provided by Sarah Weinman.)