Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

What's Behind the Notion That Nonfiction Is More 'Relevant' Than Fiction?

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

What's Behind the Notion That Nonfiction Is More 'Relevant' Than Fiction?

Article excerpt

The opinions of Rivka Galchen and Pankaj Mishra.

Pankaj Mishra

Mary McCarthy once described how Henry James had denuded the novel of its 19th-century attributes: "battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, the sewers of Paris, crime, hunger, the plague, the scaffold, the clergy, but also minute particulars such as you find in Jane Austen -- poor Miss Bates's twice-baked apples." James, she wrote, had "etherealized the novel beyond its wildest dreams and perhaps etherized it as well."

The catastrophe of World War I forced James to examine the confident assumptions of, in his words, "the whole fool's paradise of our past" -- the bourgeois faith in progress, above all -- that had informed his work. "The subject matter of one's effort," he wrote in 1915, "has become itself utterly treacherous and false -- its relation to reality utterly given away and smashed."

Some prominent literary fictionists in Europe and America were plunged into a no less demoralizing sense of irrelevance by the attacks of 9/11, which shattered what Reinhold Niebuhr once called "the paradise of our domestic security ... suspended in a hell of global insecurity." Many readers of fiction, too, found reportage and memoir better equipped to allay their bewilderment and sate their reality hunger. Americans may "think this was ... the end of civilization. In the third world, this sort of thing happened every day," Dexter Filkins wrote in "The Forever War," one of the recent works of narrative nonfiction about geopolitical and economic disasters that appeared to suggest a sturdier relation to reality than etherealized literary fiction.

But then, as Robert Musil pointed out in "The Man Without Qualities," "most people" seeking "refuge from chaos" long for "narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: 'First this happened and then that happened."' The numerous obituarists of the novel in the West, who opportunistically thrive after the periodic battering of bourgeois illusions, underestimate its will to live, to improvise resourcefully and mutate.

James pioneered the art-novel of high modernism just as science, the new disciplines of sociology and psychology, and the growth of a historical consciousness proposed a simultaneously broader and more precise comprehension of the human condition than the social- realist novel. …

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