Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fiction: Rise or Fall?

So, fiction is back in the debate. Two views, it seems, are running concurrently about fiction, one for it and one against it.

On August 7, the U.K.'s The Guardian and the U.S.'s The New York Times ran a piece each on fiction's current status in our mindscape.

In The Guardian Jason Cowley painted a hopeful picture. He said that novels have made an invigorating comeback after the despondency that followed the 9/11 watreshed:

"Yet the evidence from the new novels I have read so far this year is quite the contrary - our writers have not allowed the extremity of 11 September and the wars that have followed to silence or defeat them; their imaginations seem far from meagre. The 'culture' is not overwhelming them. Quite the opposite, in fact, because this is, I think, perhaps the richest year for contemporary British and Commonwealth fiction since the launch of the Booker Prize in 1969, with most of our best novelists ...Having read most of these novels, as well as outstanding books from emerging writers, I would argue that the novel, so often declared dead or moribund by VS Naipaul and other cultural pessimists, is as vital now in this time of profound political crisis as it has ever been - and continues, through the popularity of reading groups and the huge influence of television programmes such as the Richard and Judy Book Club as well as the astonishing popularity of global bestsellers such as the Harry Potter books and Dan Brown's conspiracy thrillers, to be the principal artistic form of our times."

On the other hand, Rachel Donadio, sees the emergence of creative non-fiction as the substitute for the space so far claimed by fiction--short stories and novels. She has Naipaul and McEwan to buttress her argument. Naipaul said in a recent interview that "nonfiction is better suited than fiction to capturing the complexities of today's world."

The novelist Ian McEwan expressed similar sentiments when he said that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he turned to history books, and books on Islam and imperialism. ''For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters,'' McEwan said on ''The Charlie Rose Show'' in March. ''I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes, and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.''

Rache says: Magazine editors apparently share these writers' sense of things. This spring, The Atlantic Monthly announced it would stop publishing fiction regularly, except for an annual summer issue. Around the same time, the new editor of The Paris Review, Philip Gourevitch, said he wanted the literary magazine to feature more nonfiction. GQ hasn't published fiction since 2003, and is undecided about whether to resume. Esquire, once the glimmering showcase of the postwar liter-ary scene, has also scaled back in recent years.

She further argues: Which is in part why the editors of The Atlantic Monthly decided to scale back on fiction. ''In recent years we have found that a certain kind of reporting -- long-form narrative reporting -- has proved to be of enormous value . . . in making sense of a complicated and fractious world,'' Cullen Murphy, the magazine's departing editor, wrote in an e-mail message. ''Certain kinds of nonfiction writing have claimed some of the territory once claimed by fiction. Not because nonfiction writing has become 'fictional,' in the sense of taking liberties, but because 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. Some might even say 'more reliably' found.''

I tend to agree with Rachel. Personally, for every novel, I am reading at least 3 non-fiction titles these days.

For an idea, look at my current reading list:

In fiction, the last novel I read was Hari Kunzru's Transmission. And a graphic novel, Sin City.

After that I have been reading non-fiction: The Lexus and The Olive Tree; Good Muslim, Bad Muslim; Holy Wars; and Living to Tell the Tale (memoirs of Marquez).

Creative non-fiction is so germane, so no-nonsense and so gripping that at times it is difficult not to believe the cliche that truth is stranger (and stronger) than fiction. What do you say?

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