Nonfiction, fiction, and the perceived quality race

Tyler Cowen has writes on “The quality of fiction vs. the quality of non-fiction” and whether the quality of the latter has risen relative to the former. Note the word “relative;” the absolute quality of fiction, to the extent there is such a thing, could still be higher. Cowen says yes and gives some reasons why. I’m inclined to say yes too, although I still tend to read more fiction than nonfiction and still value both highly. Some reasons I’d give beyond his:

1) A lot of nonfiction seems to have adopted the narrative strategies that used to be mostly the domain of fiction—one could trace this back to Tom Wolfe and the so-called non-fiction novel, and by now such techniques have become widely disseminated. Under this, novelistic readings have essentially been co-opted. One can see this happening in memoir too. What does fiction do that is “special” if nonfiction takes narrative, character study, invented dialogue, etc.?

2) I wrote this in a blog post:

I’ve also noticed that I’ve tended to write more about nonfiction over the last month or two, and perhaps that’s partially because one can still derive something from bad nonfiction; bad fiction, on the other hand, might be a total deadweight loss of time, money, and thought.

That doesn’t speak to the relative changes of fiction versus nonfiction, but I think that people are willing to tolerate so-so nonfiction more. A bad novel is simply a waste of time. A bad nonfiction book usually has some kind of fact-based content that I might remember or use, even if that content is poorly presented or organized.

3) High-end literary fiction as championed by critics may have been bamboozled by bullshit over the last 50 years. I am fond of this potential explanation, which B.R. Myers points to in A Reader’s Manifesto. See also Lev Grossman’s Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.

High-end critics might be ignoring genre fiction where a lot of action is happening.

4) Novelists might be doing large-scale elegant variations in an effort to be different for the sake of being different, which worked really well up to about 1950 or so and has seen diminishing marginal returns since. What is a novel if it’s not novel?

5) Related to #4, a lot of contemporary “experiments” in the novel appear more gimmicks than experiments.

6) I wonder if people have simply digested the great novels from earlier, or that if we read the great novels from earlier when we’re younger and thus have too much to compare them to when we’re older to find most current fiction “great,” since current fiction is usually more evolutionary than revolutionary.

I haven’t been thinking about the quality of fiction versus nonfiction, per se, as I have about what kinds of techniques could be used in fiction that haven’t already been. Think of all the historical examples we have of things like long sentences versus short ones; lots of clauses in sentences versus few; micro-examination of one character versus macro examination of many; styles of narration beyond first-, second-, and third-person; not using paragraphs; using typographical tricks; using dialogue to convey information; and so on. I can’t think of an obvious technique to use in a novel that hasn’t already been used many times in many ways (if I could, I would be writing a novel with it). If anyone has ideas or techniques I’m missing, I’d love to hear them. Furthermore, I tend to like novels that have identifiable characters, a (relatively) small cast, dialogue that makes sense, and plot, all of which were invented a long time ago and have been refined for a very long time.

If the novel is not innovating as much and nonfiction is aping its methods, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that nonfiction is gaining.

In a related post, Andrew Sullivan says, The Golden Age Of Non-Fiction Is Now. Do we know we’re in a golden age until after it’s over? Weirdly, he pulls a comment from Cowen’s discussion thread that is similar to mine.

EDIT: An update here.

6 responses

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days now, and if you don’t mind, will add a comment here. I actually thought the original article on the subject (Tyler Cowen’s) was intended to be something of a joke, but apparently not. Of the million or so books published every year, I don’t know how you go about measuring the average quality in the first place, and then comparing the average quality of two completely different types of books seems even more ridiculous. But I guess people want to do these things.

    Here, fiction is said to have exhausted all of its possibilities, which seems to mean the different forms and gimmicks that had their heyday in the 20th century fads of modernism, post-modernism, cubism etc …, but fiction is really just story-telling, and I seriously doubt that story-telling has gotten any “better” or “worse”, in the aggregate, in its history of some tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. It seems silly to judge fiction by “books”, and of books only those deemed to be “literature” by some self-annointed cabal of cultural moguls.

    There will always be new and different ways of telling stories – fiction or non-fiction. And isn’t that so-called non-fiction really just another form of story-telling? Is there someone who believes that “history” is not fiction by definition? As wel all the pseudo-sciences and even the sciences which all seem eventually to be proven wrong in may ways over time. String theory is not a story? The big bang is not mythology?

    Still, I’m happy that non-fiction is “improving”. That’s all very good. Way to go, non-fiction. Keep trying and I’m sure you’ll reach your potential in time. As for you, fiction, you’d better step up your game. To paraphrase the great Satchel Paige, don’t look back, you novels, some non-fiction may be gaining on you.

    As a story-teller, I do try to tell stories in different ways. I’d be too bored to repeat myself too much, so I rarely write even the same kind of book twice. I’m sure my experiments are contributing to the lag dragging down fiction in general, in particular my game of last year where I used the same set of characters in a zombie story (Zombie Nights), a science fiction saga (Death Ray Butterfly), and a coming-of-age bullying story (Raisinheart). I’m just trying to do my bit to exhaust whatever possibilities remain.


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