Throughout this past year there’s been a persistent idea percolating around the literati: could literary fiction really be dead? No for real this time?
No less an authority than Philip Roth wondered last year whether people still had the patience to read novels. Last month Lee Siegel wrote an article wondering “Where Have All the Mailers Gone?” and wrote, “fiction has become culturally irrelevant.” A few months ago, in an article titled “The Death of Fiction?,” Ted Genoways took stock of the explosion of creative writing programs coupled with the vanishing space for literary stories in magazines. Last year David Shields published REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO, which examined culture’s thirst for reality, and why current literary novels feel lifeless as a form.
Now, the idea that fiction as a whole has become culturally irrelevant is patently ridiculous when you consider that people are currently buying TWILIGHT underwear and when Avada Kedavra has been a trending topic on Twitter the last few days. The novel is far, far from dead, and Carolyn Kellogg at Jacket Copy wrote a gleeful takedown of Siegel’s article.
And let’s also acknowledge that this is not a new idea. Here’s a post from The Guardian in 2001 wondering about the end of literary fiction, and here’s one from the Times in 1992 predicting the end of the novel as we know it due to, wait for it, hypertext.
But could there be something to all of this hand-wringing this time? Sure, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson are some of the bestselling authors of all time and have created cultural tsunamis, but that’s genre fiction. What about literary fiction? Do our current literary luminaries pack the same cultural punch as their counterparts did in the past?
Major publishers are publishing fewer literary novels. Review space is almost nonexistent. The Internet has empowered the crowd at the expense of elites. Could it be real this time?
And if we are witnessing a slow decline in the impact of literary fiction, what’s behind it?
Most of all: is this something we should fear?
(If you’re wondering what makes a novel “literary,” here’s my take)