Last week, I read a piece in The Observer called "Where Have All the Mailers Gone?" In it, Lee Siegel argues that The New Yorker Twenty under Forty fiction writer list was not only annoying, but revealed just how culturally irrelevant fiction writing has become. Why? It's too safe. Too professional. Siegel writes:
"The carefulness, the cautiousness, the professionalism that keeps contemporary fiction from being meaningful to the most intellectually engaged people is also what is stifling any kind of response to The New Yorker. After all, kick against The New Yorker's conventional taste and you might tread on some powerful person's overlapping interest."
This may be true, but it also may be overstated. Not bothering to put up any dukes to The New Yorker at a time when the Gulf of Mexico is filling up with oil every day, generals are dismissing presidents, refugees are fleeing from Kyrgyzstan with small children and elaborate tapestries in tow, and things in general seem hot and bad might be a sign of exhaustion, but irrelevance?
Siegel lays out a reasonable argument for the demise of fiction's place in the cultural theater. He pines for the good old days when commercial fiction was better and Mailer was there to mix things up. Yet I can't help but wonder a little bit at people saying it was so much better when Mary McCarthy and Phillip Rahv and Mr. Mailer were smoking their way through downtown bringing urgency to the literary endeavor. I mean, OK, it was different, and people as in the general public probably read more fiction than they do now. And?
Siegel goes on to argue that these days, non-fiction writing is so good, it's taken over the place of fiction among people who think and write big thoughts.
I don't know. Honestly, I don't even know what it means for fiction to be culturally irrelevant. People don't read like they used to; it's a truism of our time. The relevance of fiction, and non-fiction, for that matter, is so personal, so private. Even when great ideas of life and power are being discussed, the impact they might have happens one by one, one page, one reader at a time.
So, yes, maybe fiction writing programs tell people to drown too many of their kittenish sentences. (For a perfect description of this problem, read The Possessed by Elif Batuman.) Yes, people can and should argue about books and ideas in a public forum. OK, maybe there's not enough of that in the bigger writerly venues -- I wouldn't really know since I don't have time to read all of those venues and also read books.
But, for me, fiction or non-fiction, either way, a writer is telling a story. People like to read stories. They need to read them, and they can engage with big ideas about life and power and justice and love and all that through both fiction and non-fiction writing. (Plus, non-fiction writers may not fictionalize, but they must construct a narrative which must be much more streamlined than any situation fully lived.) As long as we keep reading, and as long as we don't only turn to The New Yorker for guidance on fiction writers, I think the question of the relevance of one form of writing versus another may just be irrelevant.