Amid all the hubbub provoked by The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, one huge fact has been hidden in plain view. Fiction has become culturally irrelevant.
A great novel, one that is for the ages, can still be written. Memorable stories, long and short, continue to be created. Without a doubt, the next male or female Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald is out there somewhere, hard at work. But with the exception of a few ambitious—and obsessively competitive—fiction writers and their agents and editors, no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided.
Exhibit A in the argument that fiction is now a marginal enterprise: Everybody complains that The New Yorker list is inbred, house-approved, a mere PR ploy for the magazine, but no one does anything about it. If fiction were really alive, if it were still the vibrant experience it used to be, then an artistic affront like the “20 Under 40” junior pantheon would be something against which literary people would deploy all their creative energies. About 150 years ago, the established taste represented by the French Academy’s annual Salon inspired the gorgeous, seminal mischief of the Salon des Refuses, a counterstatement suffused with every liberating, original quality that the Salon’s official productions lacked. Where are the counterlists to The New Yorker’s 20? Where is the mischief in the little literary magazines, the fiction-publishing monthlies such as Harper’s and The Atlantic, the countless online sites devoted to contemporary fiction? Isn’t such sharp dissent what the Web was supposed to empower?
Alas: The practice of fiction is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession, and professions are not characterized by creative mischief. Artistic vocations are about embracing more and more of the world with your will; professions are insular affairs that are all about the profession. The carefulness, the cautiousness, the professionalism that keeps contemporary fiction from being meaningful to the most intellectually engaged people is also what is stifling any kind of response to The New Yorker. After all, kick against The New Yorker’s conventional taste and you might tread on some powerful person’s overlapping interest. Literary triumph in Manhattan is now defined by publishing one or two pieces in The New Yorker each year. That is too narrow a definition of literary triumph.
Exhibit B: James Wood. May the gods bless my former New Republic colleague, and may he keep reviewing novels for another hundred years, but the very emergence of Wood signals the decline of fiction, his driving passion. Hegel was right: The owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk. It is only when an artistic genre becomes small and static enough to scrutinize that a compensating abundance of commentary on that genre springs into existence. Imagine a critic during the Golden Age—yes the Golden Age—of American fiction after World War II writing with Wood’s exquisite self-consciousness about the rules and regulations of fiction, rather than about questions of life and society that a particular novel evoked. If fiction were still urgently alive, it would not allow itself to be so easily formulated, evaluated and assigned a grade.
Exhibit C: The ascendancy of nonfiction. The most interesting, perceptive and provocative writers of our moment write narrative nonfiction. A couple of months ago, a story appeared in the pages of The New Yorker that had people talking with an intensity I had not encountered in a long time. The story was called “Iphigenia in Forest Hills,” by Janet Malcolm, and it was about a Bukharan-Jewish woman named Mazoltuv Borukhova who was accused, and eventually convicted, of hiring a hit man to murder her husband. Malcolm was frankly—defiantly, even—sympathetic to Borukhova and contemptuous of the justice system that put her away. She also constructed a riveting subplot about Borukhova’s little girl, who had been shoveled into the unforgiving bureaucratic machine of New York State’s child-guardian system. People were swept up into the complex tale Malcolm had woven as if into a richly layered novel. Did Borukhova deserve the author’s sympathy? Had justice been served? If so, was justice enough? What will happen to the little girl?
Such existential urgency and intensity were the feelings with which people used to respond to novels by Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud—the list goes on and on. Mary McCarthy’s The Group (Signet, 1964) was a best-seller, and a critical success, and a scandal, and a book read by “civilians”—i.e., not just aspiring fiction writers who read other fiction writers the way doctors read professional journals and lawyers keep up with the law reviews. But, then, in those postwar decades, there was another sign of how central fiction was to people’s lives. So-called commercial fiction was just as relevant to people’s lives as so-called literary fiction. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (Little, Brown & Co., 1971), James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (Simon & Schuster, 1967), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960), Marjorie Kellogg’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (Farrar, 1968)—these novels were all what was called commercial fiction as opposed to literary fiction, but they mattered to people. They illumined the ordinary events of ordinary lives, and they were as primal as the bard singing around the pre-Homeric fire. Now everything literary is also furtively commercial, but nothing is popular, except for the explicitly commercial fiction that the literary crowd refuses to write.
In the end, the best argument against The New Yorker’s list is the editor of The New Yorker himself. You want to read a great story about American politics today, overflowing with sharp character portraits, keen evocations of American places and a ripping narrative? Read David 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 (Knopf, 2009), an epic telling of the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
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. The proof? No one would dare rank them, presume to categorize them by age or exploit them as a marketing tool. Their writing is too relevant and alive.