In Rachel Donadio's August 7 New York Times article on the purported eclipse of fiction by nonfiction, she asserts that "the novel isn't dead; it just isn't as central to the culture as it once was."
The article itself really proceeds from this assumption--that novels used to be "central to the culture" but are not so now. My immediate response to this rather peculiar notion is to ask just when this fiction-friendly era occurred. It must have been before my time; for as long as I've been reading novels, in fact, I've also been reading essays and articles similar to this one announcing that the novel is passe, that fiction no longer engages with society at large, that film or television or some other medium has stolen fiction's audience, that, indeed, readers prefer nonfiction because, as Cullen Murphy puts it, "certain traits that used to be standard in fiction, like a strong sense of plot and memorable characters in the service of important and morally charged subject matter, are today as reliably found in narrative nonfiction as they are in literary fiction." At what point in the recent past did fiction really have the "cultural currency" Adrienne Miller thinks it's lost? When have we not been, in Philip Gourevitch's words, "living in a newsy time"?
The deck is stacked even more heavily against the efficacy of fiction when Donadio declares that fiction is losing out to nonfiction at the task of "illuminating today's world most vividly." Statements like this (as well as Murphy's rehearsal of those hardy conventions fiction has abandoned) really do seem to indicate that in the minds of certain editors and journalists, at least, fiction is still associated with social realism and the well-constructed narrative. Or at least that it's currently failing to live up to these established responsibilites, thus allowing nonfiction to take over the job of "making sense of a complicated and fractious world." But has it ever really been the role of fiction, of literature more generally, to "make sense" of the world, fractious or not? Doesn't literature help us to understand that the world is a complicated place, not always amenable to straightforward description and simple explanation? Can't it "illuminate" reality not by claiming to represent "today's world" but by delineating smaller pieces of it, or even by simply illustrating the power of human imagination and letting the "world" take care of itself?
If the editors of publications like Atlantic Monthly, Esquire (or, as far as I'm concerned, The New Yorker) want to deemphasize fiction in favor of "long-form narrative reporting," I say they should just go ahead and do it without any fol-de-rol about how they still respect fiction and might get back to it later. None of these publications has done very much for the cause of fiction, anyway, at least not recently. Most of what they publish is safe and pre-digested, altogether reflective of the condescending attitude toward the value of fiction on display in Donadio's article. Serious fiction will survive their disdain for the merely literary, even while it's dismissed by those who can find "important and morally charged subject matter" only in "topical" nonfiction. In fact, without their leaden sensibilities determining what gets published and what doesn't, it might even flourish.