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.

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