Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fiction in the 21st Century

I remember following a discussion on the internet some time last year about the greatest works of fiction. There were no real surprises in the discussion until I realized that all the novels that were mentioned were written during the 20th century. It seemed as though a dozen years had passed since the millennium without producing any work worthy of attention.

How does this compare against the last century? Looking at some of my favourites, one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad was doing some of his strongest work. Jack London, Thomas Mann, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Leo Tolstoy were publishing. In 1913, Sons and Lovers and Swann's Way both appeared. I suppose the next dozen or so years of that century are better remembered today, but this is not a bad collection of novels. It struck me that we ought to have something written by now, in this century, that warrants a mention in a discussion of great novels; something that will be remembered a hundred years hence.

Trouble was, I couldn't think of anything I'd put forward as a candidate. A lot of my favourites from the 20th century were still publishing worthy novels, such as Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood. Some, like Don DeLillo, were running out of steam. Others, like David Foster Wallace, were running on empty. I wanted to find someone new, to me at least, or if possible, several new authors. I started reading, almost exclusively, new novels by authors unknown to me. Some fifty or sixty novels later, I'm almost ready to report.


  1. With globalization and this wonderful & interesting world of ours getting smaller, perhaps fiction is dying on the vine. Give Dr. Kevin Dutton & "The Wisdom of Psychopaths" a try, or Gavin De Becker & "The Gift of Fear". Maybe Freakonomics by Steven Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner will rock your boat. The important thing is we keep on reading and learning.

    1. I think stories and story telling will always be with us. Fiction as we've understood it may well be dying, but it was never meant to last. The idea of putting 'fiction' into one box and EVERYTHING else into another box labelled 'non-fiction' is arbitrary and silly. I see the future of story-telling in pieces which blur the fiction/non-fiction distinction. They'll be shorter, too - our diminishing attention span is an undeniable fact.

      I have read and found profitable Freakonomics, and will look out for the other two. While I'm at it I'll send you a copy of "Why We Love Sociopaths." It's a short read about how suddenly all the most loved characters in TV are now sociopaths, from Homer Simpson to the cast of Seinfeld to Madman's Don Draper. The author is writing from a Marxist/Freudian perspective but he soft pedals it.

    2. I like your observation that fiction was never meant to last. My view is that fiction has the survivability of a cockroach, and after this holocaust, will eventually exist only in the form of newspaper articles. The information age most richly rewards those with the most exclusive and abundant information. This has led many down the slippery slope of creating noteworthy news, or as many call it CNN.:-)

      I look forward to reading your suggestion. Did you know that there is a sequel to Freakonomics? "Superfreakonomics". Its more of the same eye opening information from the first effort.

    3. I'm not sure about the future of the novel, but we need story-telling and we need more than newspaper articles. Stories tell us about the world and how people live in it. Novels may be in trouble but movies, video games, songs and new forms will come along to pick up the slack. I can show an example how story-telling is the only way those of us who are not hyper literate in mathematics can grasp the contradictions of modern physics. Here's a couple of excerpts from the recent film A Serious Man, one of the better efforts of the Coen brothers.

      Clive is a foreign student from Korea, failing in physics.
      Dr. Gopnik is his teacher, the serious man.

      Gopnik: Oh, Clive, come in.
      So, what can I do for you?

      Clive: Dr Gopnik, I believe the results
      of the physics midterm
      were unjust.

      Gopnik: Uh-huh? How so?

      Clive: I received
      unsatisfactory grade.
      In fact, F,
      the failing grade.

      Gopnik: Yes. You failed the midterm.
      That's accurate.

      Clive: Yes, but that is not just.
      I was unaware to be
      examined on the mathematics.

      Gopnik: Well, you can't do physics without
      mathematics, really, can you?

      Clive: If I receive the failing
      grade, I lose my scholarship,
      and I feel shame.
      I understand the physics.
      I understand the dead cat.

      Gopnik: But you can't really
      understand the physics
      without understanding
      the math.
      The math tells how it really
      works That's the real thing.
      The stories I give you in
      class are just illustrative.
      They're like fables, say,
      to help give you a picture.
      I mean...
      Even I don't understand
      the dead cat.
      The math is how
      it really works.

      Clive: Very difficult.
      Very difficult.

      Gopnik: Well, I'm sorry, but I...
      What do you propose?

      Clive: - Passing grade.

      Gopnik: - No, no.

      Clive: Or perhaps I can
      take the midterm again.
      I know now it cover
      the mathematics.

      Gopnik: Well, the other students
      wouldn't like that, would they?
      If one student gets to retake the
      test until he gets a grade he likes?

      Clive: - Secret test

      Gopnik: - No...

      -Clive: Hush-hush.

      Gopnik: - No.
      That's just not workable.
      I'm afraid we'll just have to bite
      the bullet on this thing, Clive...

      Clive doesn't bite the bullet, but later secretly slips an envelope of money into Gopnik's desk. Clive refuses to accept responsibility for the money when Gopnik confronts him. This leads to another confrontation when Clive's father catches Gopnik as he returns from work.

      Father: Culture clash.
      Culture clash.

      Gopnik: With all respect, Mr. Park,
      I don't think it's that.

      Father: - Yes.

      Gopnik: - No,
      it would be a culture clash if
      it were the custom in your land
      to bribe people
      for grades.

      Father: Yes.

      Gopnik: So, you're saying
      it is the custom?

      Father: No, this is defamation.
      Ground for lawsuit.

      Gopnik: Let me get this straight.
      You're threatening to sue
      me for defaming your son?

      Father: Yes.
      - But it would...
      I, uh...
      See, look...
      If it were defamation,
      there would have to be
      someone I was defaming him to, or I...
      All right,
      let's keep it simple.
      I could pretend the money never
      appeared That's not defaming anyone.

      Father: Yes. And passing grade.

      Gopnik: - Passing grade?

      Father: - Yes.

      Gopnik: Or you'll sue me?

      Father: For taking money.

      Gopnik: So he did leave the money?

      Father: This is defamation!

      Gopnik: It doesn't make sense. Either
      he left the money or he didn't.

      Father: Please.
      Accept the mystery.