The Twilight of Fiction?

January 20, 2010

My friend Mollie Bryan shared an article this morning, “The Death of Fiction?” in which the author wonders if the death of several college literary magazines (due to budget cuts and the like) means that literary fiction has died. I don’t think it does, but I do feel I should qualify that by saying my conviction is uncertain.

Let’s set aside the question of whether the article is an analysis of all fiction, including genre fiction, or just “literary” fiction. Also let’s set aside the snotty question of whether “literary” fiction might be dying just because no one wants to read it. In truth, when you look at declining publisher sales (which predated the recession), rising illiteracy rates, and shortening attention spans, I think this affects all aspects of the fiction-writing industry. Is the art and market of fiction what it used to be? Is it really dying?

Nevertheless, my first reaction to the article was that it’s alarmist and not necessarily true. Maybe it’s just another Things Were Better in the Golden Age lament, sharing headspace with similar complaints about rock ‘n’ roll and education. Hell, things always seem better in the past. The past always seems less complicated. It benefits from the perspective of hindsight, after all. And bellyaches about the art of fiction are no different. People don’t read anymore, says my middle-of-the-night worries. In fact, all people want to do is write, just as the Mother Jones author says. They want to be seen and heard without taking the time to see and hear others. The fiction world consists of several million self-published authors and MFA/Creative Writing graduates, a handful of bestselling blockbuster authors, all the authors in the middle, and maybe a few hundred thousand readers, most of whom were raised in that Golden Age when people still read, which means that they’re mostly dying off now. Jesus, where are my pills.

I just read a description of the Golden Age, the Renaissance of pure intellect, you might say, within “The Sphinx,” by Edgar Allan Poe. In it, the narrator convalesces with a friend on the shores of the Hudson — taking a break, as I suppose all well-to-do 19th-century gentlemen men of leisure did — from a cholera outbreak in order to spend his days in such pursuits as sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music, and reading. Ah, how heavenly. What pure, wholesome activities. No interference of TV, cell phones, the Internet, video games, or other time-wasting activities. I love video games, by the way, but I’m just saying that this menu of activities sounds like life at the best summer camp ever, the way things Ought To Be. I imagine there was writing going on there, too. (That is, until a giant sphinx appeared and terrified the narrator, but that’s later in the story.)

Is, say, Stephenie Meyer the new face of fiction? What does it say when one of the most successful modern authors of vampire fiction, Twilight, says she never read Dracula? . . . Or am I being unfair? I saw the first Twilight movie recently, by the way, and it struck me neither as bad nor as good as others have said. It was competently filmed: decent actors, good setting and cinematography, good pacing. I (think I) can see why it resonated with teen girls — and yet it didn’t resonate with me. It was predictable, a little shallow, and full of more than its share of eyeroll-inducing, unwarranted angst. But then, maybe I’m just old.

In spite of all this, I still hold onto the belief that fiction is not dead, and nor is it ever going to be. Things evolve — and if you remember your science lectures, evolution does not necessarily mean improvement; it simply means change. Life changes constantly, or it’s not life. And fiction, a reflection of life, must change as well.

Prose fiction will probably not hold onto the place in our consciousness that it has in the past. There’s too much competition from other forms of story-telling such as movies and video games. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem except perhaps to those of us who write prose fiction. The forms will change. Today, prose fiction is being replaced — or at least is having to share space with — other media. In the future, those media will become obsolete as well. But what will stay the same is the need for stories. People will always hunger for fiction, in one format or another. Fiction isn’t dying. It’s transforming.

I just hope I can catch the wave. . . .

2 thoughts on “The Twilight of Fiction?

  1. Maybe, the most important for authors will be to make sure that people of younger generations, who may have shorter attention span and who may not turn instinctively to longuer fiction and classics, get informed on prose fiction using the newer media, in a way that appeal to them and makes them interested in, lets say, horror litterature in its classic form.

  2. I’m attempting to do that in my current project, an online haunted house game for my website visitors that I hope to launch soon. In it, there’s a puzzle concerning Edgar Allan Poe stories that requires the player to correctly match illustrations with his stories. It helps to know something about the stories, though. . . .