Amidst the usual panicky, hyperbolic, and sometimes comical publishing headlines to be found throughout the blogosphere—“Is Fiction Culturally Irrelevant?” “Holly Golightly Is a Call Girl…” (for reals?); “Are Publishers More Worried about eReaders Than Readers?”—the one that caught my eye yesterday was “Where Have All the Mailers Gone?” In this piece, Lee Siegel essentially argues that fiction has no contemporary giants who push the artistic envelope, no rabblerousers who shine their penlights on dark and murky social issues, no literary prodigies able to hold their own against ascendant nonfiction writers who are telling true tales in stylish and entertaining ways (what fiction writers used to do during their glorious heyday).
This is the kind of piece that makes me think someone’s more interested in being provocative than making sense (and, really, the piece itself is somewhat incoherent). I love reading Michael Lewis’ work and thoroughly enjoy the political narratives that pass for nonfiction these days (Game Change comes readily to mind) as well as all the Gladwellian theory-of-everything books and the edge-of-your-seat adventures that routinely dot the bestseller lists. But c’mon! What about Dave Eggers? Jonathan Franzen? Jhumpa Lahiri? Joshua Ferris? Junot Diaz? What about Stieg Larsson and Alexander McCall Smith? Is Mr. Siegel really saying that to be “culturally relevant” you have to live your life in the press and stir up more controversy because of your public bouts of immaturity than your writings? (As far as I’m concerned, Norman Mailer’s art was all too often obscured by his life.)
In an age when reality is too much with us, today’s great fiction writers allow us to escape the oppressiveness of the literal while putting our life and times into digestible and often brilliantly entertaining context. What’s more culturally relevant than that?