Brock Clarke does an effective job of undermining the assumptions about "realism" embraced by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Rachel Donadio:
. . .as Wolfe makes clear, a writer needs to be big and strong because a real writer is more warrior than artist: “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.” According to Wolfe, once we have mounted our steeds, we should turn to journalists for our riding lessons: “The answer is not to leave the rude beast, the material, also known as the life around us, to the journalists, but to do what journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it to terms.” Or, if there aren’t any journalists on hand, we (meaning literary novelists—that is what I mean, and that is what Wolfe means as well) should look to writers of popular fiction, who “have one enormous advantage over their more literary confreres. They are not only willing to wrestle the beast; they actually love the battle.”
The hilarity here is high (one imagines Wolfe in his famous white suit wrestling and defeating a beast—any beast will do—and one feels sorry for the poor beast, too, who no doubt entered the wrestling match thinking he was about to do battle with a mere writer of literary fiction and not Tom Wolfe), but to be fair, the metaphors of the hunt, the battle, are merely goofy and shouldn’t concern us overmuch, except that we’re still using them, and we’re also still repeating Wolfe’s dire warning from seventeen years ago: “If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious, the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain, but also seized the high ground of literature itself.”
The question of whether or not journalists have “seized the high ground of literature itself” aside, that verb—“seized”—is a significant one, in part because Donadio uses a similar verb in her essay. Her essay’s first sentence, for instance, aligns itself with V. S. Naipaul in claiming that “nonfiction is better suited than fiction to capture the complexities of today’s world” (emphasis mine). Later in the essay, Donadio repeats that “To date, no work of fiction has perfectly captured our historical moment” (emphasis mine). What we’re meant to learn through Donadio’s use of capture is that literature at its best doesn’t evoke its subjects, or create them, or transform them, or render them, or distort them, or reinvent them, but rather captures them, as though they were enemy soldiers or Wolfe’s beast. This is not so—in fact, the idea that fiction can or should “capture our historical moment” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what fiction can do to and with the world, and what the world does to it. But it is a useful misunderstanding, and we should be grateful for it, and for Donadio’s use of the word capture, too, because if, as both Donadio and Wolfe claim, one of nonfiction’s unique capacities is to capture our historical moment (I have doubts that this is so, but so many nonfiction writers insist upon it that I’m just going to go ahead and agree with them), then Donadio’s use of capture lets us know precisely how far afield the tools and goals of nonfiction have led some novelists, and it also lets us see how important fiction is to our world and our imperfect understanding of it, even (especially) if fiction is never able to capture anything. Nor should we expect it to; nor should we want it to, except insofar as we’d like to live in a world simple enough to be captured.
Clarke correctly maintains that the call for writers to "capture" their times is really a plea for simplicity, for easy answers and for a brand of fiction that differs from nonfiction only in that novelists are able to use their "imaginations" to make up stuff in a way forbidden to journalists. This attitude toward the role of fiction results in the kind of cartoonish simplicity to be found in Wolfe's own novels, but this is just one method of, in Donadio's words, "illuminating today’s world most vividly," which is presumably what journalists like Donadio want to get from the fiction they deign to read.
Which makes it all the more mystifying to me that Clarke goes on to asset that "Wolfe believes in width (as when he casts his wide net and hauls in the names of New York’s neighborhoods and nationalities), but a novel is a novel not because it spreads wide, but because it goes deep, just as a novel is a novel not because it captures our troubled times, but because it illuminates and imagines the specific aspects of the trouble."
I just can't see that there's that much difference between capturing "troubled times" and imagining "the specific aspects of the trouble." I'm not even sure what the latter means. Unfortunately, Clarke's subsequent discussion of Heidi Julavits's The Effect of Living Backwards doesn't do much to clarify. Julavits "creates a stylized, surreal, but not unrecognizable version of our own world, a world which evokes our own world’s confusions and contradictions without attempting to be a replica of our world." This is fine, but if the author's ultimate goal is still to provide "a vantage point from which we can look at our moment," as Clarke puts it later, what does it matter if the novel otherwise pretends to be a "replica" or is instead "stylized" and "surreal"? Ultimately, in both cases it is the "trouble" that is being brought to the reading's attention, not the novel's own formal and stylistic features, nor even the specifically aesthetic implications of the fictional world being evoked. The focus is on the sociological, not the literary.
And then there's that familiar assertion that what distinguishes fiction as a form is that it "goes deep." At the risk of repeating myself too often on this subject (see this post, or this one), I will again say that, while it is true that some novels have explored human consciousness in very interesting ways, and that fiction generally provides an opportunity for this sort of exploration more readily than film or narrative nonfiction, this approach is one among many available to fiction writers and in no way defines fiction as a literary genre. It's an approach that long ago ossified into convention, and most literary fiction that continues to adopt it, and most critics who defend it, strike me as, frankly, just plain boring. Furthermore, I don't understand at all what relevance "going deep" has to Clarke's broader argument. Apparently, The Effect of Living Backwards is a first-person narrative, so it's ability to even go deep at all is inherently limited--to the narrator's understanding of her own mental processes. We are restricted to the narrator's point of view, which necessarily does introduce a degree of subjectivity ("uncertainty," as Clarke would have it) that we as readers must accept, but a) this kind of narrative uncertainty is a far cry from "going deep" in the stream-of-consciousness mode, and b) providing us with a "vantage point" on the confusions of post-9/11 American society still doesn't seem to me qualitatively different from attempting to render our "historical moment" in more straightforwardly objective ways. The ends are the same: to depict the times in which we live.
Clarke essentially admits as much himself in his conclusion. "Wolfe," he writes, "argues. . .that 'The future of the fiction novel would be in highly detailed realism based on reporting.' By this, Wolfe means that fiction best approaches its big subjects directly, head-on, which—to use Wolfe’s rhetoric—is the only effective, honorable way of wrestling the beast." On the other hand, "Julavits shows [that] we might better take on such massive subjects intelligently, indirectly, in ways that might not exactly comfort us but are surprising, irreverent, provocative, entertaining, and edifying." "Direct" vs. "indirect." This is a difference in tactics, not in strategy. Presumably both Tom Wolfe and Heidi Julavits (as well as Brock Clarke) agree that summoning up an era ought to be one of the novelist's objectives, it's just that Julavits's novel has more subtly "represented our era in its difficulty, in its absurdity and tragedy." Julavits has shown "that fiction doesn’t have to capture an era to engage with it."
Again, this seems to me a distinction without a difference. If your ultimate purpose as a writer is to "engage" with the sociopolitical conditions of your time, you would indeed be better off sticking to nonfiction. Or at least not claiming that in being more "indirect," you've thereby seized upon what "literature at its best" is all about.