Literary fictions not dead

by jbloodwell

Over at Robert Yune’s internet pad, Sal Pane rounds out the Robert-curated colloquium on the question of whether literary fiction is dead or not.

I was glad to see Sal pick up on the idea of entertainment in other media crowding fiction out. This was a point I felt strongly about, and maybe wanted to hit harder, but didn’t because it was really just an aside in the greater context of my entry in the series.

It’s made me remember a blog post I read not too long ago, arguing the issue of whether reading a book was inherently superior to playing a video game. (As these things go, I can’t pinpoint whose blog it was, much less find the link. I want to say it was the Atlantic blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose writing I like a lot (but whose spelling makes my heart hurt), but I can’t be sure of that.)

The specific argument that sticks in my mind is this hypothetical: Imagine the criticisms of books if video games—the highly evolved, textured, complex and subtle ones that are coming out now; not Duck Hunt—were the dominant medium, and the book was an upstart form. The interface is incredibly passive. A book only stimulates one part of the child’s brain; there’s no visual stimulation. There’s zero motor-skill usage in the act of reading a book. And so on. The argument didn’t even touch on the Wii and the prospect of video games that are exercise, rather than keeping kids from exercising.

The point is the suggestion that the novel is outmoded, that it’s with us by dint of long habit. For me as a writer, the question resonates because I’ve lately been questioning why and whether I ought to stick with literary fiction versus more mainstream modes; these thoughts push the question further: why not write movies, or get on the writing staff of a sitcom or a video game company?

These aren’t really settled questions for me. But any time I consider devoting my time and energies to some new medium (and it’s invariably one that pays), I find myself turning back from that cliff. My reservation is in giving up prose, the flow and rhythm of it and the selection and arrangement of details it allows. A movie can give you a scene where one character says something cruel and then bites her lip and looks away, and a flock of geese flies by overhead, and some wind rattles the wheat field, but there is a “just so”-ness to reading the same thing, all those details arranged elegantly by the writer, each one held up to our attention in a prescribed order. (Also, let’s not forget the glory of the adverb.)

That’s why I’ll keep writing fiction, and why other people will keep writing, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, blog posts, political science, self-help books, etc. etc. ad infinitum. And it’s likely why people will keep reading, even despite all their other options. In slight contradiction of what I said in my entry in Robert’s series, I don’t think the lively internet scene, of online lit mags and community-building news sites like HTML Giant or The Rumpus, is what will keep fiction alive and kicking. I liked what Sal said about the novel becoming what the short story once was, and the short story taking on the role formerly assigned to the poem. (Where this leaves the poem, though, is unclear.) It would seem to apply here: a community of people who are passionate about avant-garde and experimental fiction, flash fiction, meta-fiction, etc., is not unlike communities of people who are passionate about poetry: they’ll keep it alive, but largely within their enclave. (To re-work one strand of my earlier argument in response to the Siegel piece: it’s not surprising, or entirely his fault, that Lee Siegel doesn’t know about Pank or elimae.)

This is not to shit on the online lit mag or writing communities; God knows they’ve made being a writer, especially one fighting to get published, a less lonely prospect. But at the level where fiction is poised to fend off the movie and the video game as the time-suck of consumer choice, I think fiction does so by leveraging the pleasures of prose to tell compelling stories.