I read this line from a review author Jonathan Franzen wrote recently, and while he’s prodding for a reaction, it works:
…haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them; and wouldn’t we all be better off with one less thing in the world to feel guilty about?
As an avid defender of contemporary fiction, it’s heartbreaking for me to admit that this rings so true. But the form is not dead: there is too much to be said and too much changing in the world to not allow room for fiction to grow with it. I am now, and always will be, a reader of fiction. This post is about why.
I was not always so obsessed, making my way through works that have been heaped with praise and those relatively unknown to search for something beautiful to be said. But it’s been worth it, and it started with Jonathan Safran Foer. Until I read Everything Is Illuminated, I was happily working through classics, comics, and anything but modern fiction. I was interested, but but I knew nothing out there was for me. Illuminated changed it all, and for that I am grateful. I think I have copied about half the book in my journal, and I’ll still go back and read a passage and want to start the book all over again.
Shortly after that reading experience, I was finally introduced to David Foster Wallace. Evidently my blooming interest in contemporary fiction was limited to writers with three names. However, I wasn’t ready for Infinite Jest (nor, after attempting to read it three times since, do I think I ever will be), but I was graced with Wallace’s magnificent novel, The Broom of the System. This book showcases Wallace’s genius but never loses its focus — in other words, it’s like a short story within Jest.
By then I was totally hooked. I read Shantaram (another three-named dude!), House of Leaves, and The Savage Detectives all in succession. The only problem with reading three amazing books in a row is that you are officially spoiled forever. No subsequent books will be this well-written, this fresh, or — as an added bonus — by relatively new authors.
In hindsight, I got lucky with the books that influenced me and encouraged me that not all contemporary writing was lost. It may not be so easy for others. But if you are ever in need of a pickup, check out one of these titles from your local library, and try to keep from writing every sentence in your journal.