Can we love fiction once we’re no longer seeking answers?

by David Alm on December 26, 2012

I once asked my father, who had majored in English, gotten his master’s degree in English, and for years had dreams of being a full professor of English before he decided (wisely) to pursue a more stable career instead, why he no longer read novels. I was in college at the time, and just discovering the wonders of serious literature through the books of D.H. Lawrence, Don DeLillo, Henry James, Thomas Pynchon, E.M. Forester, Salman Rushdie, and a lot of other writers who had nothing more in common than their shared dedication to exploring human experience through fiction. In other words, I was high on books, all kinds of books, and it bothered me that my father — whose love of literature I had apparently inherited — had given them up. “I guess I lost the passion,” he told me.

At the time, I thought that was a sad indictment of age and the workaday life of a family man. He was only 50 or 51, which seemed old to me then (now it seems anything but), and had devoted his 30s and 40s to building a comfortable nest for his family. I appreciated that, of course, but I also thought it was a damn shame that in building this life, he’d stopped caring about something to which he’d once devoted so much time and energy, and a field he’d once been so determined to enter at the highest level — that of a college professor.

I’m older now, and I realize that it was probably much harder for him to utter those words — I guess I lost the passion — than it was for me to hear them. After all, he was the one who had to face facts: life changes, and the passions of our youth do not always stay with us throughout those changes.

That’s a bitter pill, and it gets more bitter as you age. The kind of deep, stomach-deep curiosity — about life, relationships, oneself — that motivates a young person to read novel after novel can easily be lost to far more prosaic concerns. I’d list some, but they’re different for everyone, and I’m sure you get my point.

In the past few weeks, I have read two essays on literature and writing: one about metaphors, and the other about religion in fiction. Both were excellent essays, not only well written, but rich with insight. And in reading them, I realized that I have inherited more than my father’s love of literature; I’ve inherited his loss of passion for it too. I felt like I was reading about something once-familiar that had become strange, like a town I’d lived in long ago, but had not visited in years.

This isn’t to say I don’t still feel moved by what I read. I still find myself totally absorbed in pieces of journalism — long-form articles in magazines like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, especially — as well as non-fiction books. But I’d like to find a great novel again, too, one I’ve never read before. I’d like to find myself in that old state of curiosity that I, like my father, now associate with another time. And yet, I have to wonder: is it even possible to regain the passions of youth?

 

Jeff McMahon December 26, 2012 at 10:44 pm

“I’ve always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you.” ~ Dave Eggers

David Alm December 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

That’s a great quote. I sort of feel the same way whenever I try to write fiction, though I don’t feel that way about really well-done fiction by other people. I’m sure even Dave Eggers has his favorite novelists; I wonder how he reconciles his feelings about writing fiction with his feelings about reading it.

Brandon Hopkins December 28, 2012 at 11:51 am

Eggers is absolutely right. But he seems to be overplaying just a bit the great fun of donning that clown suit and putting on a show, not to mention the satisfying challenge of getting people to forget it’s you beneath the wig and greasepaint and big red nose.

Brandon Hopkins December 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

It seems so much easier to find well written, compelling nonfiction than it is well written, compelling fiction. (But then I’m far more forgiving of mediocre nonfiction, I suppose, because I feel I still get something out of it if the information is at least accurate.) Believing in good fiction has become a bit like believing in Santa Claus…

Kundera tells a story somewhere–in Testaments Betrayed or The Curtain maybe–about how he tried to get his friend into Gombrowicz, and the friend followed his suggestion but picked up one of his lesser novels. Unimpressed, he reports back to Kundera that he’s done with Gombrowicz. Kundera pleads with him to try another–the right one!–but to no avail. “Gombrowicz has had his chance,” the friend says, “but there’s simply too many others in line for me to give him a second go.”

I often feel the same way–especially with contemporary American authors that so many people rave to me about but whose work does not leave me with a strong first impression.

Great fiction is still being written, of course, but you have to dig through the pile of mass-produced garbage, market-driven drivel, and film treatments disguised as novels to get to it. It’s a slog… But when you do find a diamond in the rough, one that brings back that rush of excitement you felt in your salad days, it’s definitely worth the effort.

Tom Cousineau December 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Have you discovered the novels of Thomas Bernhard or Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet? Like Mallarmé, I had thought that I’d “read all the books” until I came upon them.

David Batcher December 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I don’t know how to respond except to say that I haven’t lost the passion. I’ll endure a depressing six month stretch where nothing really excites me, and then I’ll pick up something like _Wolf Hall_ where, every other page, I’m asking, “How does she *do* this?” And I can still go back to a _Mason & Dixon_ and find pure joy and delight, or read something in _Infinite Jest_ or a Martis Amis novel that’s so clever it makes me feel high. I can’t prescribe anything to make it happen for anyone else- I just take it as a lucky thing that novels are still working for me.

Brian Alm December 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Well, I kind of got into novels again, though … I wrote one. (A Tide in the Affairs of Men) In doing so I learned why bad novels are bad, as others noted above, and how hard it is to write a good one — speaking only of the technical demands involved, which are fundamental. It’s a big canvas and it does take meticulous care. But then if you can get the novel to focus on ideas and the human experience, you can cover a lot that might happen along in nonfiction, if you wait long enough and don’t mind it coming as a random hodgepodge instead of a calculated and connected whole. We learn from fiction too, in the way we learn from Russian icons: not about the “facts” in it, which are fiction, but about ourselves. If I were to read a novel that did not do that, I would still lack the passion. I have to be drawn in until I realize it’s taken ahold of me and forced me to contemplate the verities.

David Alm December 28, 2012 at 6:47 am

Thanks for the comments, folks – especially you, dad. I’m glad you didn’t take offense at my using you to frame the topic!

I agree with you, David Batcher, that fiction can still bring a lot of joy and enlightenment. I have read novels recently that have had a deep impact on me and kept me riveted throughout. But it’s less common now than is used to be, perhaps because I have fewer questions than I once did, and more filters. I remember liking books in college that I’d probably roll my eyes at today.

None of this is to say that I don’t still have questions — I do, and they’re as big as they were 20 years ago. I just don’t seem to find the answers in fiction like I used to, maybe because to me, reading fiction always felt like a rehearsal for life. Now that we’re in the muck of it, and have been for a while, I find that non-fiction gives me far more satisfaction than fiction – the exception being fiction that gets into deeper realities than mere “facts.” On that I agree with my father.

Jeff McMahon December 28, 2012 at 11:11 am

That Dave Eggers quote at the top of these comments is from David Shields’s “Reality Hunger.” The NYT review of “Reality Hunger” begins like this:

Consider the state of literature at the moment. Consider the rise of the memoir, the incidences of contrived and fabricated memoirs, the rash of imputations of plagiarism in novels, the overall ill health of the mainstream novel. Consider, too, culture outside of literature: reality TV, the many shades and variations of documentary film, the rise of the curator, the rise of the D.J., sampling, appropriation, the carry-over of collage from modernism into postmodernism. Now consider that all these elements might somehow be connected, might represent different aspects of some giant whatsit that will eventually constitute the cultural face of our time in the eyes of the future. That is what David Shields proposes in “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” He further argues that what all those things have in common is that they express or fulfill a need for reality, a need that is not being met by the old and crumbling models of literature.

I just wonder if we’re all part of something that we can’t quite see clearly yet, a shift in the nature of literature that follows a shift in the nature of living, and if the novel is weakening for deeper reasons.

Brandon Hopkins December 28, 2012 at 11:46 am

There are certainly positive aspects to changes in contemporary storytelling modes: the immediacy, spontaneity, and even the shared experience that sampling and borrowing and crowdsourcing, etc., brings (and of course none of these is really new). One downside of contemporary writing that I see in both fiction and nonfiction, though, is the lack of attention to detail–in the writing, the editing, and the reading. The publishing/media world moves so fast that no one spends that much time with each book: authors, editors, readers, and critics are always rushing on to the next thing. I often have the sense that books in general (even very good ones) have largely become ephemera, like newspapers. Can we ever produce another Goethe or Shakespeare, another Joyce or Proust, when it’s so easy to forget even last year’s literary luminaries?

Jeff McMahon December 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Remember that we can see Goethe and Shakespeare as products of the technology of their time. I almost said “material conditions.” Is it impossible to imagine a future that values writers who produce beauty within the products of our time? People like Mateo Galvano?

Brandon Hopkins December 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm

You Marxist, you! … I love the piece on Galvano, and I think that Facebook and Twitter poetry and all these new forms of artistic expression are fantastic. I just doubt their durability. I can’t imagine anyone producing anything in these forms that would endure for 500+ years. And it’s not just the “material conditions” of the form but of the audience itself that makes this so.

At the dawn of the now-near-bygone age of Flash animation, there was a brilliant work of visual art called “Nose Pilot” (http://www.bored.com/nosepilot/real.html). It’s quite remarkable–and I’m happy to see that it has been re-posted on a new site after having disappeared off the Internet for a while. But how long will things like this remain available? Pen and paper, paint and canvas, the theater, sculpture–these all proved to be fairly durable media. But Facebook? Flash? Twitter? These will all be gone soon enough. And works like “Nose Pilot” and the poetic status updates of Galvano will become jetsam lost in an ocean of information.

It doesn’t really matter, of course, in the big picture. There will always be new art. But it does seem like there has been and will continue to be a historical foreshortening effect in art, and audience will more and more be relegated to a perpetual present.

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