When Will Novels Fix Society Already?
Fiction can help us understand our world, but that doesn't mean novels can solve our problems.
In the 18th-century, a specter was haunting Europe—the specter of “Werther Fever.” Goethe’s 1774 epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was so popular that it catapulted the young Goethe into international fame and set off a trend of young men wearing yellow trousers and electric blue jackets… and also, allegedly, thousands of imitation suicides.
Goethe was an unknown 24 year old when he wrote the book, and he certainly didn’t set out to popularize garish fashion or suicide. The novel is an example of both art’s cultural power and also the unpredictability of its influence. There’s no better example of that than overtly political works. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was written to expose the poor working conditions of meat packers and inspire a socialist movement, but readers focused on gross meat industry health violations so instead of socialism we got the 1906 Meat Inspection Act. Even works as blatantly left wing and anti-capitalist as Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Star Trek can be turned into inspiration for rabid capitalists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Etc.
You simply cannot choose what people will take from art. Nor can you overestimate the recuperative powers of modern capitalism, where even the most pointed artistic critique can be turned into just another product. Just yesterday Netflix announced it is creating a game show based on Squid Game, the anti-capitalist Korean series about a fictional dystopian game show that became an unexpected Netflix hit.
All this brings me to the latest discourse about The State of Literary Fiction, which was kicked off by British Journalist Ben Judah declaring that “we live in an extremely sick society”—hard to argue—and that what this sick society needs to address its massive, systemic, and global problems is… better literary fiction?
There’s a lot to argue with in this thread. For example, is Jane Austen not a novelist of interiority? But mostly what’s notable is how commonplace the central claim is. Sometimes it feels like every week someone argues political literature is dead or decries the failure of fiction, especially literary fiction, to cure our ailing society by… well it’s not exactly clear. Helping to “rock the vote”? Inspiring a resurgence of left wing politics? Igniting an armed revolution?
Judah’s formulation is rather restrained compared to others:
Politically, I’m as in despair about the state of the world as anyone else. From the resurgence of right wing authoritarian leaders and violent white nationalism to online conspiracy theories and the looming threat of climate change, things feel increasingly dire every year.
But are we really looking to obscure novels to save us? Is that the novel’s job?
Part of these complaints is a failure to understand the shifting role of the novel. In the 18th or 19th century, novels could perhaps serve a role in “explaining” parts of society that the upper class readership had little interest in accessing in real life. It shouldn’t take a lot of head scratching to figure out why the novel has less of an explaining-the-state-of-society role for modern readers when everyone has access to television, social media, and 24-hour news.
Another issue is, well, look. How did that work out before? When was the point in which novelists, bourgeois mimetic or otherwise, saved society? As much as, say, Tolstoy was a genius—and he was—did his novels fix the ills of Tsarist Russia? Or as Vonnegut famously put it:
(As a side note, it strikes me as funny these “fiction isn’t fixing society!” tweets are popular in political scientist and activist journalist circles. Aren’t you the ones supposed to be explaining society’s ills and offering concrete solutions? Look inwards!)
These complaints that literary fiction novels are not doing enough to address the complexity of society’s problems strike me as a the flipside of another popular literary discourse: that fiction has a duty toward moral purity and ambiguity-free politics. That fiction should be a series of Goofus and Gallant lessons, basically. Both positions strike me as, frankly, absurd in their focus on novels.
Why are we pretending to be naïve here? It is the year 2022. Not many people read novels, and very few read literary fiction whether bourgeois mimetic or not. These days a literary novel is doing well if it sells 10,000 copies and is a massive hit if it sells 100,000. While I’d be thrilled to sell that many copies, it’s nothing compared to the audience of a mediocre network TV show or Hollywood blockbuster film. How could a millennial Balzac compete with a billion dollar MCU film?
Of course, as a novelist I care deeply about fiction and like to think novels are important. I certainly believe they can make massive differences to individual readers. Novels can help us think about the world. Fiction has absolutely shaped me and my views. And novels do still influence culture to some degree. Still, 100 excellent literary novels are unlikely to—on the level of the entire culture—counteract one US-military backed blockbuster like Top Gun: Maverick.
This isn’t to say I don’t have plenty of complaints about The State of Fiction myself. I don’t even disagree with the idea that a lot of popular (and award-winning) literary fiction novels are rather anemic in their approach to the massive issues of the day. As John Merrick tweeted, much of what passes for political and socially relevant fiction “ends with vague liberal handwringing and little else.” This seems right to me. The average “political” mainstream American novel asks one question: “How can I be a good and happy [artist / parent / American citizen] in a world that’s falling apart without giving up any of my privilege or luxuries?”
These novels never end with their main characters doing anything, much less sacrificing anything, to try and make the world a better place. A perfect example might be the novels of Sally Rooney—cited several times as a rebuttal to Judah’s tweets—which I quite enjoy as novels about youthful longing and the complexities of intimate relationships yet whose alleged left-wing politics feel entirely invented by critics. A character casually saying “I’m a Marxist” once while eating potato chips or sighing about global inequality while redecorating their mansion isn’t exactly praxis.
I’m reminded of Brandon Taylor’s excellent (and largely positive) review of Rooney’s most recent novel, where he remarks: “In my less charitable moments, it felt as though we’ve reached a point in our culture where the pinnacle of moral rigor in the novel form is an overwhelmed white woman in a major urban center sighing and having a thought about the warming planet or the existence of refugees […] Characters acknowledging their privilege and access to capital has somehow come to be seen as actual class critique in one’s art.”
This feels spot-on to me, as far as celebrated mainstream literary fiction novels go. (White women are the main writers and readers of literary fiction today, but I’d extend this critique to most mainstream literary fiction by any type of author.) Of course, this doesn’t mean those are bad novels. The novel’s job is not necessarily to be political, though I like political novels, or to deconstruct systems and society, although I love system novels and social novels.
The novel doesn’t have a job. Or it has a million jobs to choose from, and each individual novel can pick what fits.
But even more importantly it doesn’t make those mainstream literary novels the only novels. There are excellent works of literary fiction that aren’t tearing up the bestseller list. There are interesting and complex social and system novels being written. There are great works of science fiction, experimental fiction, and more. There are books on small presses and books in translation. Technology may have eaten away at the novel’s role in culture, but it has greatly expanded the number of works we can read. There are more books being written by more types of people in more languages and more genres than any other time in history… and they’re all right at your fingertips.
Instead of moaning about the state of popular books, we’d all be better served by acknowledging popular books are rarely the best ones much less the most politically radical ones. Writers like Tolstoy, Austen, and Balzac were exceptional writers. That is to say, they were exceptions. Judging the average novels of today by the exceptions of the past is silly. Instead, find the works you think are important—yes, they are out there!—and champion them.
As for fixing the world… well, if you’re focusing on novels you’ll be lucky to get a few people buying yellow pants.
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