This is my first post to “Neither Red nor Blue,” an occasional blog on topics of the day, political and cultural.
Readers should be forewarned: my interests are varied (from media criticism to the state of college lacrosse, from dolphin behavior to country music), and this blog will reflect that eclecticism.
I hope to offer a slightly different perspective in my commentary–an independent and authentic one. I hope that what appears here reflects a philosophy of expressing views “without fear or favor of friend or foe,” to quote that marvelous newspaper tagline.
It is also my hope that “Neither Red nor Blue” will meet the Old School standards of journalistic objectivity; as late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once noted, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but no one has a right to his own facts.” I would hope that my facts will also be your facts.
Stranger than Fiction
Novelist Julia Glass had an intriguing op-ed in Friday’s New York Times, “Meanwhile, what is truth?” (found here, courtesy of the International Herald Tribune). Glass uses the recent controversy over faux memoirist James Frey to pose this question:
“Why do readers suddenly seem to prefer the so-called truth to fiction? It’s a foregone conclusion that memoirs now sell better than novels, that magazines are giving short stories the shaft. Has fiction become a dirty word?”
Glass gives a number of reasons for the decline in the interest in “the outmoded business of literary fabrication,” including this one:
“Much of contemporary entertainment slakes a thirst for the pain and abasement of others. Fiction doesn’t cut it anymore because no one really and truly suffers. In fact, this is crucial to what fiction does. Through it, you experience empathy in its purest form because what you cannot experience is blame. Blame requires at least one beating heart.”
She adds that “it feels unnatural to be carried away on the private, illusory adventure of a novel,” and “Americans want their diversions short, loud and filled with telegenic hardships.”
And yet…there is something unsatisfyingly incomplete in Glass’ argument.
What does she miss? I think readers respond to storytelling and authenticity and the popularity of Frey’s writing has as much to do with its perceived “realness” (now gone) as with “telegenic hardships.”
There is a market for authenticity—in memoirs, journalistic accounts and, yes, in novels.
Those same Americans who, according to Glass “want their diversions short, loud and filled with telegenic hardships” will turn to long novels when the author delivers a compelling and authentic story, grounded in a mix of imagination, research and (dare we say its name?) reportage.
Consider Elliot Perlman’s 628-page “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” Thomas Kelly’s 390-page “Empire Rising,” Tom Wolfe’s 752-page “Charlotte Simmons”–all three of these novels offered readers those elements. Not surprisingly, these novels, all published in 2005, were not showered with awards from the literary establishment (and two of them, Perlman’s and Kelly’s, bore the additional burden of being critically dismissed as historical fiction).
There may be something, however, to what Glass says: to the extent that American literary fiction relies on imagination (“illusory adventure”) and writing workshop tricks instead of storytelling founded deeply in a writer’s experience, why is it surprising that readers are turning elsewhere?
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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