Novelist Ian McEwan writes a deliberately provocative little squib for the newly-redesigned New Republic (disastrously redesigned as well – it disappears on the newsstand, especially this current issue, which for no particular reason has no cover illustration, just the boring new logo on a field of white), something called “The God That Fails” and sub-titled “When I Stop Believing in Fiction.” Ostensibly it’s about the wan nature of contemporary fiction – “I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending” – and the dire aftermath once that veil is pierced:
When the god of fiction deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church and mic-ed-up pulpit, the respectful congregation, the interviewer’s catechism, the confessions disguised as questions, the reviewer’s blessing or curse … My heart fails when I wander into the fiction section of a bookstore and see the topless towers on the recent-titles tables, the imploring taglines above the cover art (HE LOVED HER, BUT WOULD SHE LISTEN?), the dust-jacket summaries in their earnest present tense: Henry breaks free of his marriage and embarks on a series of wild …
The first half of that quote undercuts the second half and points at the Achilles heel of the squib: McEwan, it turns out, isn’t exactly writing as Everyreader here. He talks about the crisis in general terms (“Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief”), but whenever he comes down to brass tacks he’s off in another – and much more rarefied – world: “Such apostasy creeps into the wide gap that separates the finishing of one novel and the start of the next” – with ‘finishing’ and ‘starting’ here referring to writing novels, not reading them. With a brisker edit (perhaps by the art editor, since he apparently has nothing else to do?), the squib should have been entirely about that interesting subject: how does a working novelist ‘refuel’ between books?
Instead, McEwan takes intermittent jabs at broadening his topic – at weighing the different rewards of reading fiction and nonfiction:
I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have twenty good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauties of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rises and falls, the adepts of the English Civil War. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph?
McEwan does eventually limp around to acknowledging that fiction can sometimes add a thrill to truth that no amount of well-written history or science can match, but I think the real point of his ramble is that ‘widely spaced.’ Because it’s true: the rewards of fiction tend to be rather thin on the ground. I try to read a large percentage of each year’s new novels (and I regularly commiserate with others who make the same effort), and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s mostly a slog. When I’m in the trough of going from one slushy, sloppy, derivative novel to the next, I can sympathize with McEwan’s yearning for the flat, flinty facts of the English Civil War. Sometimes ‘widely spaced’ doesn’t begin to cover it – you go six, seven, ten, fifteen novels without encountering anything that merits a second look, and it can get depressing.
But although he’s typically wishy-washy about his bigger point, he’s right: when fiction does work, it works better than anything. The dramatic payoff a reader can get from such modern masterpieces as The Age of Innocence, Doctor Zhivago, or Meg simply can’t be reaped from even the best nonfiction. Encountering something like Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader or Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies or John Wray’s Lowboy, something that thrills you and lifts you entirely out of yourself for a little bit, not only completely validates the genre but also acts like a drug: it hooks you, and it keeps you searching for your next rush. So far in 2013, I’ve read roughly 30 new novels and encountered that rush twice. Not the best ratio in the world, as McEwan would doubtless agree (he himself has only provided me with that rush once in his entire career, although that’s the eternal lure: his next book might do it), but it’ll suffice. The god of fiction hasn’t deserted me quite yet.