Novels, notoriety, and memoirs

Megan McArdle discusses contemporary literary culture in the context of yet another fake memoir that’s apparently famous but I’d never heard of prior to its notoriety:

I do think, though, that Matt has hit on something about our own time, though I’m not quite as down on contemporary fiction as he is. Since the modernists, all contemporary literary fiction–including narrative fiction–has focused less on certain aspects of telling a story. I understand that some cognitive scientists theorize that the reason we enjoy stories so much is that they activate the parts of our brain that deal with social cognition and learning. The reason that genre fiction, even though it is usually not a masterpiece of prose styling, can be so absorbing is that it provides this function. The fantasy of a space opera or a bodice-ripper is compelling because we’re imagining ourselves as the hero–imagining ourselves as a better, more interesting version of ourselves. We’re also exploring how we should/would act in certain (unlikely) situations; the novels that do best in these genres are the ones where the hero ultimately acts rightly, which is to say, producing the best result in some sense. This is possibly silly, even counterproductive–one sees women actually acting like heroines of romance novels, and wondering (though not in so many words) why men do not respond to them in the same way as in the book. But it’s a deep element of most peoples’ fantasy lives.

This is an itch that contemporary novels try very hard not to scratch. “The moral of the story . . . ” is an archaism.

So for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a bodice ripper, memoir fills that space. Having neatly separated fact and fiction, we now read only “fact” as a way to learn about correct behavior, where a hundred years ago people were perfectly accustomed to taking moral or social lessons out of obvious fiction (from whence the term “morality play”). Memoir alone do we permit ourselves to read for the (now conscious) purpose of obtaining information about how human beings behave in other situations than ours.

My take: I’ve never been interested in memoirs because fiction and journalism are vastly more interesting than what a person did/has done, especially if that person hasn’t done something vital or important. Call this preference for something vaguely important an offshoot of the popes and princes school of history. My lack of interest in the memoir notwithstanding, the genre seems to be quite popular, and I suppose McArdle has as plausible an explanation about why this is as anyone.

But I’m not sure I buy the premises that McArdle’s piece is based on, which I’ll call the stultifying literary hypothesis theory or the literary/genre split theory. Neither, apparently, do some of McArdle’s colleagues. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it comes from, as was discussed recently. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve seen all that many people highly invested in defending airless literary fiction; if I could find these strawmen who wield influence out of proportion to their size, I would love to meet them.

Furthermore, the biggest problem with these literary / genre distinctions is that different people have different wants, and the quality of writing itself cannot be measured by what “genre,” if any, a book belongs to. I hesitate to say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s true, and how a novel uses language to express itself is an important quality of what makes good fiction. What the fiction says is, I think, a separate issue that too often gets muddled in with how it is said.

That being said, I think the novel still has many places to go, and rumors of its death have been circulating such a long time that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still dying whenever I am. Being 24, I hope that won’t be for a while yet.

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