Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Relevant much?

by Miriam

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?


  1. I agree with your assessment. I think part of the problem is that we look at writers of the past and idealize them: "Those people were tackling the big issues!" Yet many of them didn't make waves right away. The same could be true of today's writers. And of course, there's the sense that there are so many more people writing today, so it's harder for any one person to stand out without making a scene.

    I read lots of science fiction and apparently Siegel needs to start as well. It's ripe with social commentary and relevance.

  2. Call me bias but I do appreciate the authors of the past who can weave social issues into fiction. And I still deem they were better than almost the present-day writers we have. Call it the Fallacy of the Golden Past.

  3. I don’t see what’s to get worked up into a tiss about regarding social comment in fiction. The thing that I see as more concerning is the lack of authors who can tell a story. You know, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And a plot that works isn’t a bad idea either. If when writing a story, it requires topical social comment, fine. If not, fine too. If it requires that the author uses his characters to make comments that are in total opposition to his/her own viewpoint, fine also. Fiction is not real and if people take examples of social and political situations from made up stories then all we get is even more know-it-all-know-nothings interfering with the life’s of people that would rather be, and are better off, without such meddling.

    For serious issues read serious books. Read fiction for escapism. Whether there are, or are not authors making life effecting social comments in fiction; it just doesn’t matter. When an author is writing a story that needs social comment to make the story work then he/she should make it; and make it from whatever viewpoint makes the story work.

    I’m afraid the only one of the authors listed in the blog that I am familiar with is Larsson and if he made any kind of social comment it went right over my head. And I know I’ve said this before, but; what is this obsession with Larsson? An author should conquered the greatest challenge of genre writing: making the outcome of the plot unpredictable while also managing to satisfy the reader. And Larsson doesn’t do that.
    And if that’s not what an author is supposed to do….then take it up with your guy Jim as it’s his quote.

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  5. Well, cow heart is pretty tasty! But I never much appreciated pig brains, which are a hot commodity in Germany. Or were, back when I was but a humble lieutenant. Mayhaps their tastes have changed? Probably not. lyj


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