More on fiction versus nonfiction

Most of the books I’ve been wanting to write about and not getting around to are nonfiction, and I’m not sure why this is. It might be because both good and bad nonfiction are easier to write about than good fiction. Good fiction demands attention and time, which are in chronically short supply for me and virtually everyone else. So I foolishly put off writing about good fiction and instead spread time among lesser though still interesting vessels (this post comes as a followup to Nonfiction, fiction, and the perceived quality race, which got started from the question, “The quality of fiction seems to be decreasing relative to the quality of non-fiction, or am I just biased against active fiction writers vs. dead ones?”).

I expend a lot of my time thinking about good fiction in the context of making my own novel writing better, instead of writing about what makes good fiction good on this forum. So even though I think a lot about good novels, I write about them in a different context. For instance, the last novel I finished stole from Alain de Botton’s On Love and Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem; I’ve written about both books here, but not nearly to the proportion I’ve been thinking about. Alas: the novel I wrote got the most encouraging rejections, many along the lines of “I like it but can’t sell it.” If it had sold and eventually been published, I think it would be much easier for me to write about novels I care deeply about.

Even so, there are a bunch of novels—a couple by Michel Houellebecq, Elmore Leonard’s latest, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, more about Robertson Davies—I mean to write about, but but they’re outnumbered by nonfiction. This might seem strange, coming from a person in English graduate school, where we study nonfiction all the time, and when we study fiction, it’s often more like studying nonfiction than we care to admit.

I also simply don’t read as much fiction as I used to; I wonder if fiction is most useful to the young (who are trying to figure out who they are and how the social world works) and the old (who are trying to figure out what this crazy thing they just did actually means). A lot of people in the middle don’t appear to derive as much immediate benefit from reading fiction, although I have no data on this idea.

Finally, I can often read nonfiction much faster than fiction. This isn’t a change, but it is true: nonfiction often telegraphs where it’s going, which makes skipping large sections easier. Being able to read faster also indicates that too many books are too long, as Cowen has argued in various places, but it nonetheless means I very seldom have to invest as much in deep, close reading. I wish more nonfiction books rose to the level of deep, close reading, but few do, relative to good fiction.

J.K. Rowling, sexism, and literary merit

Colleen Lindsay’s The Swivet is worth reading, and from it comes an article about women in science fiction and fantasy that uses Harry Potter as a launching pad to argue that sexism animates some attacks on Harry Potter and female science fiction and fantasy authors more generally. I don’t think it motivates Bloom’s criticism of Harry Potter, and it certainly doesn’t motivate mine. The first two novels, which I read, weren’t all very good because they were cliché-laden and deprived of magic sentences. Why they’re so much more popular than the rest of the voluminous fantasy pile is unclear, and I attribute it to the vagaries and mysteries of books and place. Alas, some attackers of Rowling are fools, like at least one Harvard student:

Writing in the university paper, the Harvard Crimson, student Adam Goldenberg rips into Rowling as “a flash in the pan”, “a petty pop culture personality” who “tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models”. Furthermore, “writing bedtime stories is lame”.

One can, however, reach the right conclusion—that Harry Potter isn’t very good—using faulty reasoning, and just because someone uses faulty reasoning doesn’t mean their conclusion is incorrect in and of itself. If the article wanted to make a larger point not by citing Harry Potter, but one of the less-known female fantasy writers it deals with in the fourth paragraph—none of whom I know well enough to comment on.

I suppose that, being male, my argument could somehow be latent sexism emerging, though it seems unlikely given that one of the greatest fantasy, science, and speculative fiction writers of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin, who I used as an example of one of the few transcendent science fiction writers. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite modern writers—her work is uneven, but Moo and A Thousand Acres are excellent—and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and novellas are masterpieces. Perhaps the “subtle mechanism” described only applies to fantasy and science fiction, but even there I’m not sure it’s truly at work, and separating where the many legitimate attacks on Rowling end and the possible sexism begins isn’t an easy task. Because there are so many legitimate attacks to be made, I’m not sure it can be done save through critics aren’t all that serious in the first place.

As long Rowling is in the air, I will give her credit for her commencement speech at Harvard, which has gotten a tremendous amount of deserved attention in blogs and the media: it’s funny and deep, while the temptation to keep throwing on positive adjectives is difficult to resist. I only wish Harry Potter had been up to the standards of that speech, in which case this post wouldn’t have been written.

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