Hear, Hear

Robert McCrum comments in the Observer on the oft-repeated canard that fiction is dead. “Every few years,” he writes, “some bright spark pops up to tell us that the Novel Is Dead.”

The most recent pronouncement I can think of came from V.S. Naipaul (see here, for instance.) But McCrum dates these cries of doom and gloom all the way back to the 1960s, and trots out counter-evidence along the way.

McCrum seems particularly annoyed with an essay by Rachel Donadio that appeared in the New York Times (“Truth is Stronger Than Fiction“) last month. Says McCrum:

There’s not enough room here to explore the fascinating nuances of a well-argued piece, and I suppose it depends how you define your terms, but in the same issue of the NYT, the bestseller list showed that a novel, The Da Vinci Code, had been in the charts for 123 straight weeks. That, according to the NYT, is not ‘culture’, it’s ‘escape’.

Maybe. However, in the season in which McEwan’s Saturday has been breaking all previous records for serious fiction and in which the Booker Prize longlist includes important new books by Ishiguro, Barnes, Ali Smith and Salman Rushdie, the suggestion that, in the aftermath of 11 September, ‘non-fiction is better suited than fiction to capturing the complexities of today’s world’ is perverse, even baffling.

Granted, the great novel of our millennial crisis has yet to be written, but when it appears, as it surely will, the publishers who told the New York Times that ‘non-fiction dominates’ will be the first to reach for their chequebooks.

Stories, not facts (or ‘truth’, as the NYT has it) are what we turn to when we want to make sense of chaos and complexity. Fiction does not answer to a 24-hour news cycle, but when it delivers, it is the news.

I think these things are sort of cyclical, and we may have been at the bottom of the curve for a while, but things are looking up.