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March 10, 2003

Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating redux


In reading your posting, Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating, I realized in scanning your list of authors that I have read books by only two of them—Mssrs. Westlake and Kundera. That got me to thinking about why I don’t read more contemporary fiction.

Partly, it is a result of a shift in my taste over the years. Today, I simply prefer the mysteries of fact to those of fiction, the ungainly shape of true stories to the smoother shape of made-up stories. These true stories reach me largely via biographies and works of history (and very occasionally from the pens of “fiction writers” like Saul Bellow who seem, at least today, to be writing ultra-thinly fictionalized versions of real-life family history). This shift seems to have occurred about the time I had children—I don’t know whether that timing amounts to coincidence or causation.

Thinking back, however, I realize that since childhood I’ve preferred older fiction to contemporary fiction—by “older” I can mean writing that is a mere 10 or 20 years old at the time I read it. Truly contemporary fiction—especially if it in any way is making claims for its artistic merits—has way too much anxiety and ambition floating around in it. (Joyce Carol Oates? No thanks.) I find those qualities to be like static in a radio broadcast, preventing me from hearing the music being played.

I also find that the sheer volume of contemporary fiction writing gives me unpleasant intimations of mortality. Given my limited time and resources for reading, why not utilize the inexorable friction of history to grind away the mud and leave the diamonds? I would bet that any fiction you could actually lay your hands on that's 150 or more years old would be of markedly higher quality than whatever is on the new fiction shelf at your local bookstore. I have never read Racine, but if I had to chose between his collected works and those of Rushdie, Morrison, DeLillo, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon, I’d head for Racine every day of the week. I would certainly prefer to read everything I’ve never gotten around to reading by say, Stendahl--no matter how minor--to a “greatest hits” collection of the above contemporary writers.

In what may be a connected issue, I’ve always found it extremely irritating when writers (or artists, for that matter) are dismissed for not being sufficiently “of their time” or praised for possessing this same quality (as if they could be anything else.) Virtually every time I can detect someone as being “of” an era--at least one that I’ve actually lived through--I regard it as a sign of artistic weakness rather than strength—since to me such era-specificity almost always means incorporating a contemporary cliché in place of an original thought.

A few years ago it dawned on me, glancing through the New York Times Review of Books at tale after tale of violence, rape, child molestation, et al, that this fiction wasn't the product of the writers' personal life experience; it was what those lazy bastards had been watching on television! Perhaps today's "serious" fiction would be more compelling it it didn't spring largely from within the bowels of the media culture.



posted by Friedrich at March 10, 2003


FvB --

I found it agonizing to "keep up" with new fiction. "Keeping up" just isn't (and has never been) what I seem to want my reading to be about. What's the point (unless, like me for a while, it's part of your job)? Why not explore writing across cultures and time? There are thousands and thousands of fascinating old books out there just waiting to be looked at. Why tie yourself down to what's new?

I do know a couple of people who seem to enjoy keeping up, and who seem to happily read a fair number of newish fiction books year after year, and good for them, I guess. But books always seemed to me very different than, say, movies. A new movie is (among other things) a social event, an excuse to get out, something to do with buddies or family, a date, something your work buds will probably be at least vaguely interested in hearing about. A new book? Not likely. As experiences, books are just more private than that. And for me the fun of reading has always been following my interests. Force me to keep up, and my sense of fun goes.

I do have a bunch of theories about how having to keep up affects (and distorts) the taste and judgment of the people who cover new books. But I can feel a rant building up in me, and I think I'll try to get into that in a stand-alone posting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 11, 2003 3:13 AM

"Today, I simply prefer the mysteries of fact to those of fiction, the ungainly shape of true stories to the smoother shape of made-up stories."

Aren't you the depressive? I can't read fiction when I'm blue: can't deal with the hope of romance. Anc by romance I only mean the spirit to make stuff up.

Posted by: j.c. on March 17, 2003 4:35 PM

I've recently discovered the popular scientists (Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones). They're wonderful, they beat all the modern fiction I've come across lately. I read them over and over.

Posted by: Rob on June 14, 2003 6:35 PM

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