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Fiction in a Time of Crisis

Another interesting article I came across today, “No Time for Novels–Should We Ditch Fiction in Times of Crisis?” (11/18/11) by Zoe Williams, was also published on guardian.co.uk. The article discusses the book Whoops! Why Everyone owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester. Williams writes

I  didn’t really know why a low interest rate would suit a strong economy, and I didn’t understand the point of devaluation. I was too busy reading Martin bloody Amis. As if that’s going to help. Lanchester says, possibly by way of reassurance, “We’d all rather be in the back seat of the car, with our parents in the front, driving. But now we’ve woken up doing 90.” The problem with ignorance is twofold: you feel alienated and disempowered, and that’s quite anxious-making, but you also feel embarrassed by the limits of your understanding, so you back out of the conversation.

When you back out of a conversation at a macro-level, that’s how you wake up doing 90, with a government full of bankers and technocrats…The alienation effect makes it necessary, much as it pains me to say it, to understand what the parents who were driving were actually thinking: so not only do we have a citizenly duty to understand Germany, economics, the new world order, science and climate, but we probably also have to read, if not Tony Blair’s autobiography, at least Gordon Brown’s and/or Alistair Darling’s.

Haven’t we all, at some point, felt that? We’re in the middle of a huge, world-wide economic disaster, the fall out of which we can’t really imagine, and how many average individuals (especially, yes, American individuals, though this is changing) know anything about it; how/why it happened, what it all means, etc.? At what point do individuals like me, who bury their noses in fiction to escape this very world, have a responsibility to try and understand it? I have been feeling this way for some time and the excuse I’ve used to not even try understanding is that it’s so big, yet relies on such specific terms, events, and amounts that I feel as if there is an ocean of information and I have no idea where to start. I also worry about heavy spin by authors who want to paint a picture that suits their own or a political party’s ends. Essentially, I never know who to trust and I’m not willing to read a variety of books about the same thing and try and figure it out for my self. This is extreme laziness on my part, especially since this is, more or less what I have been doing for the past 6 years as a Lit. student. I want one book that lays it all out for me in a way that I can easily understand. I don’t mind thinking about things, but when it comes to things like the economy, I don’t really want to have to think hard. I’d much rather have it wrapped up into a neat little book, or better yet, a neat little story. Williams writes, quoting Damian Barr, a writer and playwright, and Lanchester, that

there is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn’t have to be informed, and it doesn’t have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter. Of course, I only mean the ones worth reading. (Barr)

In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that’s not literary enough. (Lanchester)

I take both of their points. Novels these days seem to be more concerned with the inward state of humanity, our souls (or lack thereof) and all of the issues that usually encompasses (think Freud, et al.). But think about Dickens, whose novels were fiction, yet they exposed and help bring attention to and awareness of the plight of the poor, horrible labor conditions, and the treatment of children in a society that thought itself to be the paradigm of Modernity and justice. What happened to those kind of novels? One answer might be the advent and stasis of post-modernism, which has its roots in Romanticism and the privilege of the individual over the group. We’re so much more concerned with ourselves and our own demons that we forget the demons of the world. Demons we helped to create simply by not paying attention. However,

Of course, there’s a caveat, isn’t there? A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the “tell me, Professor” moments, that will be more use to you, probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms. “If I’ve learnt anything real,” [Hannah Griffiths, editorial director at Faber and Faber] concludes, “I’ve learnt it through fiction.”

This gets at, I think the primacy of storytelling in our lives. We tell stories to each other and to ourselves every single day, as I always tell my freshman composition students. It’s how we make sense of the day, or of a strange experience. We put the contents of our day into narrative form and dole it out to our friends, relatives, husbands or wives, so it makes sense that we should seek information, factual information in similar matters. That’s what one would think, anyway. And yet, as Lanchester notes above, the more interesting (and I would add relevant) a novel is, the less literary it becomes. I take his point, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Why can’t novels that deal directly with the social ills of our time be bestsellers? Why, as has long been known to be true, do the most scathing critiques of current society have to be couched in the SF or fantasy genres, which are highly marginalized by the “literary” community? There is hope, in the form of Lanchester’s new novel Capital, due out next summer (why do we have to wait so long?–this is part of the problem actually, as Williams, quoting Griffiths, notes elsewhere in the article). Whoops! Why Everyone owes Everyone and No One Can Pay is a by-product of the research Lanchester was doing for Capital. If this is the case, then I can wait to read it. Both books are on my to-read list.

How many of you read to be informed (through fiction or non-fiction) and how many of you read to escape? Do you think there is an obligation to be informed about current situations in the world, and how should one go about doing that? What advice or books would you recommend to get informed? Comments and discussion would be welcome.

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