Alcibiades Today's Blog

Outsider view, insider knowledge
NOVEMBER 15, 2009 11:36PM

Why Good Fiction is Dying With Our Society

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Reading the fiction of a society can tell you a lot about where it is, and where it is going. No new insight there, true so many times that there is nothing new to be learned. Let's just move along, shall we?

Ours is one sick society. No news there, either, but let's stay awhile, because there is something to be learned. A particular diagnosis.

The hottest trends in literature right now, in terms of sales, are imitators of Harry Potter and Twilight. In other words, pure escapist fantasy, written primarily for teenagers but read by just as many adults. The first is a fantasy about power, the second about indulgence of pure sensuality while flouting all conventional morality even beyond the bounds of sensuality. In other words, the escape is from a state of powerless sterility bound by convention.

The boundaries of our minds are not stretched by this stuff. Nor are they stretched even a smidge by mainstream fiction. Check out this list of winners of prestigious literature awards and, if you're read any of them, please comment below and tell me what you got from them other than (possibly) a good time. If anything.

This is not a particularly original thought of mine, so far. Kim Stanley Robinson made a compelling argument about a part of this deal, though he takes it in a different direction. And he's right, there is some great mind-stretching fiction out there. It's so good I once used it in a philosophy course to help people understand really complex social theories. The suspension of disbelief that good fiction allows can be used not just to escape, but also to give concrete examples to difficult abstract ideas. Want to know how anarchism could work? Pay attention to the character Arkady Bogdanov in Robinon's own Red Mars.

It's not just about the grand direction of society, though -- as important as that is.  There is also that little thing called daily life, the stuff that occurs between all the world changing historical moments. And that is where the feeling of sterility comes from. That life, in too many ways and too often, is like what the dig against Oakland says, "there's no there, there."

The problem is that even if there were really good fiction out there, stuff that could inspire us in our daily lives, what difference would it make? We don't read much, as a society, except stuff that we already agree with, already know we will like. The huge proliferation of books available makes it easy to find just what suits our fancy. Gone are the days when a single book could inspire graffiti worldwide saying something like "Frodo lives."

And that is what makes it difficult to share the fiction we love, even with the few fellow readers we each know, because being so idiosyncratic and particular in our own tastes, there is no strong basis for passing along so something so particular to ourselves. And yet, there is some very good fiction out there which does exactly this: that reminds us of what we have lost and, even more, encourages us to go beyond what we have dreamed. Truly heroic stuff, even in the most basic aspects of life. I'd offer, as an example, the work of Jacqueline Carey.

Just enter the phrase "love as thou wilt" into the search engine of your choice to see what you find. I can only tell you that reading Carey's work, and following the many, many interpretations of that phrase, has made each morning more challenging, and most evenings more satisfying.

And that is all I can do, at this moment to row against the tide that threatens to drown us. Pick up an oar, and tell me what else is out there.

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It's tough to get past the gauntlet toward publication nowdays. You have agents who actually are the gatekeepers, and many, who wouldn't know a good read if it slapped them along side the head. Will it make us money, can I get a new car out of this one, or I'm tired today, so this isn't a fit for our agency. There's a lot of good writing left, finding someone with the balls to take a chance on it is another thing. Oh, and remember, you're now dealing with a dumbed-down society who has no problem joining the rest of the lemmings so they all can say, "man, that was a good book."

I hear you, on all counts, though would argue there are also some decent gatekeepers out there, too.

What I was trying to get at was the notion that there are some good works out there today, things that matter to and change those who read them. What we have to do is share the good ones with our friends.
That's why I read the classics. Heinlein, Anderson, Clarke, Asimov, Brin, Adams, Pratchett, etc..
Sad and true.
I'm reading"The Enchantress of Florence"by Salmon Rushdie. Maybe there are some good writers out there, still.
Andy Heizeler,

I started there, too. Read a lot of post-Tolkein fantasy, too, the stuff that was making oblique comments on our society using different rules than SF. What are you reading now that's rocking your world?


Thanks for the recommendation. Never been a fan of Rishdie's prose, but if the ideas are good, I'll have to take a look.
I'm sorry, but if you call Harry Potter pure escapist fantasy, you haven't read Rowling. I'm an avid reader of fiction. When I read the first Harry Potter years ago, I was blown away by the quality of the writing. Please don't confuse good fiction with the movies.

Wow, pretty angry, yeah? That doesn't mean there's anything wrong your premises, though dialogically I would address them thus:
1) Writing, outside of a period in time that started later than people think and is ending now, was never much of a paid profession. That entire line of reasoning is beside the point, however, because paid or not there are some very good writers at work today. More below at 3).
2) The point is that there aren't enough readers anymore, though the cause seems a little more diffuse than just poor teachers. Most Americans literate in the most basic sense of being able to decode characters into words, which is all that most schooling requires. No different than the pre-Seuss world of the McGuffey Reader or Dick and Jane, when the overall literacy rate was much lower by any measure but literature was doing well. Your last point, however, about teachers not imparting a reason to read or a love of literature -- that's not exclusively the job of a teacher any more than it is a parent or a publisher.
3) Nice reference, but I don't buy the line. In the past 24 years there have been quite a few things published that seemed pretty new, at least to the extent that anything can be in the past 2,000 years. Not a movie buff, really, but even there something like "Big Fish" had something going for its form of telling and therefore impact, if not original in terms of material -- but that was the point of the material in relation to the theme. As for television, well, the proliferation of channels certainly has led to new things from a creative perspective, and there de gustbus non est disputadum.

Patton Lee Beaugus,

Like anything worth reading, there's more to the Potter books than mere escapism -- though that had nothing at all to do with why there were gobbled up like so much popcorn. If there were, don't you think a large segment of teens and pre-teens would be up in arms about the extension of FISA and the continuing atrocities committed under the so-called Patriot Act. (So, yeah, for most readers, the other content could be and was ignored with no damage to the plot.) As for Rowling's actual prose, I'll happily grant that it got better with each book, and kudos to the author because it sure wasn't a requirement of any kind. But, oh, the first book -- please, even USAToday has better, less cliched prose than that one. (That scholastic determined Americans wouldn't get the reference to the Philosopher's stone and so changed the title speaks so poorly of our own reading public -- and it is precisely the British reading public against which Robinson directs his rant.)
I don't remember the first Potter book being anything but well written, but it has been a while. Maybe there are no big issues, but the plight of Harry with the Dursley's was something kids could identify with. And isn't there a wizard inside all of us, just waiting to be told how to access our magic.

And as a sidebar, when you say you read the classics, Terry Pratchet is very contemporary.

While I agree with the premise of your blog, I'm not sure things are as dire as you do.
Patton Lee Beaugus,

To each his own. As I read it, the first Rowling book on Potter was a well-told story, which to some degree masks what it just not very mature writing. The characters are more archetype/stereotypes than people -- because of how Rowling writes their characters -- and the dialogue of one character could most of the time be put in the mouth of any other given the style of speech. Clearly, the characters were three-dimensional in Rowling's mind, and had their own voices, but she at athat time seemed to lack the skill needed to help us see that. That she later honed and utilized those skills is very much to her credit, and hopefully those who read the whole series utilize her most recent writings as a minumum bar for good writing.

More generally, a patient in critical condition is in danger of dying, but many don't. The real problem cases occur when there is no help available, or when the condition is improperly diagnosed, unknown, or simply unknowable. I think we're in the latter case as a society and reading public -- we don't know there is a problem, and even those of us who do really have no diagnosis on what to do to get better. Most solutions are the equivalent of telling someone under cardiac arrest to get more exercise.
And that's where fiction can really help us.