Lee Siegel recently opined that "fiction has now become a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers. For better or for worse, the greatest storytellers of our time are the nonfiction writers":
You want to read a great story about American politics today, overflowing with sharp character portraits, and keen evocations of American places, and a ripping narrative? Read Mr. Remnick's book on Obama, because you won't find it in American fiction. Looking to immerse yourself in a fascinating tale of contemporary finance? Forget fiction. Pick up Michael Lewis' latest book-not to mention his earlier ones. Yearning for a saga of American money and class? Well, Dreiser is dead, and there sure isn't anyone to take his place, so go out and get T.J. Stiles' The First Tycoon, an epic telling of the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
No doubt if you think fiction ought to be "about American politics today," or provide a "fascinating tale of contemporary finance" or a "saga of American money and class," you might agree with Siegel's claim that contemporary fiction doesn't measure up. On the other hand, Siegel doesn't really establish that in the "Golden Age" of American fiction many writers did these things, either. He rattles off a list of names, but among them--"Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud"--I can't identify one who will be remembered for writing novels about "American politics today" or "contemporary finance." I suppose a couple of them might be said to have written loosely about "money and class," but the best ones weren't directly considering money and class but were writing fiction in which "class" was tangentially involved. (Or if they did write directly about "money and class" --Rabbit is Rich comes to mind--this work was minor at best.) Those of us who cringe at the idea of novels about contemporary finance can only be thankful that neither these writers nor most current writers find it a fit subject for fiction regarded as literary art.
Siegel's displeasure doesn't really seem to be with fiction writers, anyway. He's lamenting that there aren't enough literary critics of the old school around, critics like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, who focused not on art but on "questions of life and society that a particular novel evoked." Siegel is himself a critic of this sort, and I'm sure if he really put his mind to it he could take almost any work of fiction and, ignoring its aesthetic qualities, belabor these "questions of life and society" to death. I assume that either he no longer wants to do this (diminishing returns) or contemporary fiction really has moved away from the need to "say something" about political and social affairs. I myself come across enough works of fiction that pretty clearly haven't renounced the effort of saying something that I can't really agree there's no longer enough grist for the cultural critic's mill, but if the embrace of nonfiction by people like Lee Siegel means they will henceforth just leave fiction and fiction writers alone, I heartily endorse it.
I am left with a similar feeling about Terry Teachout's recent assertion that "Reading demands a greater investment of time than looking at a complicated painting, and the average reader is not prepared to invest that much time in a book, no matter what critics say about it. I feel the same way. I suppose I could get to the bottom of "Finnegans Wake" if I worked at it—but would it be worth the trouble?" As with Siegel, I think Teachout is both correct and deeply wrong. It is probably true that "the average reader" is not going to devote much time to "difficult" books, but literature-as-art necessarily isn't much interested in the "average reader." Average readers can no longer summon up much patience with Shakespeare, or with Dickens or Melville or Henry James, or most poetry. These writers, as well as Joyce in Finnegans Wake, assumed that most of their readers (or, with Shakespeare, their listeners) would make the effort needed to appreciate their work on its own terms or else leave it alone. I can't see there's anything untoward about this arrangement. That some readers might find the work excessively difficult certainly isn't an argument that writers ought to avoid alienating such readers.
If Terry Teachout thinks Finnegans Wake wouldn't reward his effort, so be it. Many others find its singular kind of difficulty especially rewards the attempt to "get to the bottom of" it (and it would be the attempt that matters, since no one will ever really get to the "bottom"--something that is true of all great literature). Should serious fiction ultimately have to do without Terry Teachout (or Lee Siegel) as audience members, I don't think their absence will be registered that keenly.