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May 11, 2007

In Search of the Great 9/11 Novel...Or Not

Jerome Weeks, writing at the next blog over, ponders the sources and consequences of the expectation that our novelists will produce topical narratives on major events (and in a timely fashion):

In part, it was the growing self-consciousness of American culture and American authors after World War II -- our assumption of world leadership in politics and the arts, the perceived need to explain and advance our values against the Soviets' -- that led to this peculiar and unexamined expectation, especially on the part of critics, that novels are a kind of "wiser journalism." We now regularly anticipate that major authors, like competing news networks, will eventually weigh in on significant events, to extrapolate, to pronounce, to tell us why they're significant.....

It's certainly true that the "novel of information" -- to use Larry McMurtry's term for the hefty tomes of earlier writers like James Michener and Herman Work, popular social novelists who reported back from foreign lands or historical periods -- has been supplanted by cable TV, by the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. No one seems to write something like Michener's Poland or Chesapeake anymore, or if they do, they're not read at the volume that Michener was. Thank God: Who says art doesn't progress?

But now, "the novel of higher punditry," the expectation that a Didion or a Foster Wallace will explain events to us, may have passed its effective prime, too.

It's easy to go all aestheticist and claim that reportage and commentary are not the proper functions of the novel, etc. But that is simply a matter of dismissing certain kinds of fiction you don't like. (In the conflict between Henry James and H.G. Wells, I'm not at all disposed to assume that James's victory was as clearcut as it's sometimes made out to be.)

I think Jerome makes some good points here and urge this piece on your attention, if you aren't already reading him regularly, which you should be.

PS. A case in point is Terrorist, John Updike's novel from last year, which I reviewed for Newsday. Although the text was duly placed on my website, it seems that I failed ever to link to it there -- so no search engine ever noticed it, making it in some ways the equivalent of Helen Keller falling down in a forest.

Anyway, here at long last is a link to it.

Posted by smclemee at May 11, 2007 10:48 AM


Hawthorne had a perspective relevant to this at the end of P's Correspondence.

Posted by: The Constructivist at May 21, 2007 4:33 AM