The other day, in his excellent blog at the American Conservative, Alan Jacobs quoted the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, who recalls with nostalgia when “Fiction was king.”
Color Jacobs skeptical:
Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, released eleven years after the novel, was only partly to blame. The main problem was that Keneally’s achievement was historical, not literary. In bringing Oskar Schindler’s story to wider notice, he added to historical knowledge—even though his original intention was not knowledge alone, but also the excitement of pain and danger, the rousing of the strongest emotions the heart is capable of. Most everyone now knows the story, but not everyone has experienced the emotions.
A young man or woman, just starting out, is unlikely to share any such grandiose conception of the novel. A source of knowledge and emotional power? You’ve got to be kidding! What has changed, as Cynthia Ozick wrote in her Afterword to the 2004 reprinting of Trust, is “the nature of ambition.” The Great American Novel has been replaced by what she calls “prompt gratifications and high-velocity fame”—the Great American Blog Post! “The sworn novelists, who, despite the devourings of the hour, continue to revere the novel,” Ozick says—“these novelists remain on the scene, if not on the rise.” But the conception of the novel as “the holy vessel of imagination,” a conception that passed from the Victorians to the Modernists, had become undone by the ’seventies. What has disappeared since then are not the novelists, but the institutionalized religion of the novel:
If fiction is no longer king the reason is not, as Tom Wolfe once prophesied, that something else has superseded it as “the number one genre.” There are no more genres (a concept as square as the novel). There are mashups; there are porous boundaries between high and low, popular and serious, literature and its negation; but there are no longer any distinct kinds. Indeed, there is a creeping horror of distinctions as such. If fiction is no longer king the reason is that the faith which sustained it for so long, the belief system which led writers and readers alike to defer to its supremacy, has disappeared. What has disappeared is any confidence in the power of the word.