Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Fiction Dead?

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I recently read the article “Where Have All the Mailers Gone” by Lee Siegel declaring that fiction is dead. Now I’m wondering if I need to have a funeral service for my stack of to-read books. Also if I don’t have a non-fiction story to write, should I put down my pen (actually my keyboard) and look for something else to do?

Siegel says, “The practice is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession, and professions are not characterized by creative mischief.”

According to, the first definition of vocation is, “a particular occupation, business or profession, calling.” The first definition for profession is, “a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science.” The second definition is, “any vocation or business.”

Excuse me if I’m a little slow, but I don’t see a difference between vocation and profession. The words seem interchangeable. Is he trying to say writers are only in it for the money and not as a creative outlet? If so, I think he is sadly out of touch with ninety-nine percent of authors.

He also writes, “But with the exception of a few ambitious and obsessively competitive-fiction writers and their agents and editors, no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided.”

Once again, I’m not sure what that statement means. I “go to” fiction for the enjoyment of reading interesting and entertaining novels, both old and new. If while I’m reading, I’m introduced to an unfamiliar world or identify on some level with the characters or their plight, that’s an added bonus. Some of my book selections might be from the New York Times bestseller list while other are from lesser known or newly emerging authors. The status or ambition of the author is not a contributing factor to my enjoyment level.

Another of his statements, "The most interesting, perceptive and provocative writers of our moment write narrative nonfiction." I know there are some excellent non-fiction books out there, but whether they’re better than current fiction is a matter of preference. I know my husband reads mostly non-fiction while I read mostly fiction, but neither of us opposes tackling a good book out of our usual genre.

Siegel remarks that fiction is, "a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers." That certainly doesn’t sound very flattering toward fiction and those of us who like writing it, but I guess he has a right to his opinion.

My opinion is that fiction is alive and well, and today’s authors are as talented as ever. Therefore, I don’t think I’ll need that funeral service for my unread books. I don't plan to retire my keyboard either.

What do you think of Lee Siegel’s allegations? Do you think fiction is dead?

Thanks for stopping by today. I hope to see you next Monday.

Tags: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lee Siegel, fiction is dead, profession, vocation,


Jenny S. said...

Life without fiction is like sleep without dreaming. I'm glad that nonfiction is no longer assumed to be dry and academic, but fiction will never die!

Joanne said...

I don't think it's dead at all, but for me, it seems to be cyclical. There are times when my reading list is a mile long, and other times when I can find nothing that hooks me and turn to nonfiction and memoir.

Darcia helle said...

I can't imagine a time that fiction will ever be dead. What an absurd notion! While it might evolve, it will never fizzle out and die. And to hold fiction up as a competition with nonfiction is purely ridiculous. I read both and I read them for completely different reasons.

Of coures, Lee Siegel's reputation precedes him and, for me, eliminates any trust in his word. He is a bit of a disgruntled author, who used the anonymous name "Sprezzatura" to slam his critics and defend his work as if he was a fan.

Journaling Woman said...

Wow. Maybe we should break it gently to millions of readers that fiction is dead? There could be tears...or a riot.

Maybe he was trying to say that fiction has become a business instead of a creative venture, a task instead of a creative outlet. Just trying to help him along. :(


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Jenny S., I like your analogy.

That’s interesting, Joanne. Maybe Mr. Seigel was going through one of those cyclical changes when he wrote the article.

Darcia, thanks for filling me in on Lee Siegel’s reputation. That explains a lot.

You are right, Teresa. I perhaps should have broken the news more gently rather than jumping right into it!) If he is trying to say it’s a business instead of a creative venture, he’s forgetting that in order to have a business fiction, authors have to have some creativity to write the book in the first place.

Glynis said...

It most certainly isn't dead. While there are writers out there with an imagination, so fiction will thrive.

Stuff and nonsense as my Gran would say. :)

Helen Ginger said...

I think he prefers nonfiction and is so wrapped up in himself that he believes his opinion is everyone's opinion.

Carol Kilgore said...

Fiction isn't dead for me. I love reading fiction. It's my favorite thing to read.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'm not sure what to think of it! I've been wondering if maybe he said those things because he was trying to be provocative. I hope so..I can't imagine a world without fiction!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Glynis, I think your Gran sounds like a very wise woman! I can’t imagine a world without fiction, either.

You may have him pegged, Helen!

Carol, I think I know enough avid readers to keep fiction going for a long, long time.

Elizabeth, I haven’t read other articles he’s written so maybe ‘provocative’ is his writing voice.

Lynda Young said...

It makes me wonder what Siegel is reading to get those opinions. He must have read a whole bunch of really bad novels ;)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think the man is wacked!

Hart Johnson said...

I see vocation and profession as distinguished by formal training. A vocation is picked up by DOING it, a profession you go to years of school to be trained and THEN do it. But you're right in the lines being fuzzy with writers--I don't know that someone having an MFA makes them 'less genuine'

I think I get what he's TRYING to get across, in that fiction writers are not really DEFINING social commentary--making all the rest of us THINK... I think since maybe Bonfire of the Vanities I haven't seen a book talked about that way that was fiction. But I don't think it is writers or even fiction falling down on the job, but that the MASSES aren't interested in things that require a lot of thought, so the books that DO IT, aren't as widely read. Instead, the widely read books are pure entertainment.

But it is OVERKILL to say the entertainment version means fiction is DEAD. It just means it is partying for a while until the masses are ready to think a little more deeply again.

Or so I see it.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Lynda, I haven’t thought of that – maybe we should send him some good novel suggestions to read.

Diane, you could be exactly right!

Hart, thanks for a different view. I think you suggested some valid points. I also think there are still a lot of books out there that make the reader think; books that suggest a gray area instead of the usual black and white.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

If you really look at it, fiction writing as a professions is one fraught with risks. You can put in so much effort, and yet get nowhere if luck doesn't favour you.
That being a case, only a fool would take up fiction writing as a profession. You have to really love writing and/ or stories to start writing.

Chelle said...

I scanned through this article and found the author a bit dopey and out-of-touch. I've read quite a few books this year that have been enjoyable and made me think. I'm inclined to agree with Lynda that he must have read a string of bad novels lately.

The Old Silly said...

If fiction is dead, so is my writing career! lol...

KarenG said...

No fiction isn't dead, but literary fiction isn't real popular right now which is sad. I love narrative nonfiction myself, but nothing hits the spot some days like a novel!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Rayna, I agree - if you don’t love writing, it would be a crazy profession to pursue.

Chelle, I think out-of-touch is a good description of many of his points. Maybe he’ll write a retraction when he finally reads some of the great fiction that’s out there.

The Old Silly, the same goes for quite a number of us!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

KarenG, I think part of the problem is with publishers and the media pushing what they think has mass appeal – if literary fiction received the same attention, it might be more popular.

Stephen Tremp said...

Not at all. Fiction is an escape, a place where men and women can live and explore outside of the boundaries the powers that be set for us. Actually, this is where invention and innovation exist long before they become reality.

Stephen Tremp

Patricia Stoltey said...

Fiction is alive and well at my house. I have books all over the place. Well, a little nonfiction here too, I'll admit.

Susanne Drazic said...

Fiction dead? No way!

Bob Sanchez said...

Hi Jane, Siegel's comments are silly. He seems to be reaching for thoughts that are deep and profound, and they are well beyond his grasp.

Bob Sanchez

DazyDayWriter said...

Agree, fiction is alive and well. Stories and life simply go together, and some things can only be truly revealed via well-written fiction. Thanks for a great post, Jane!

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