The Taste for Fiction: Re-Reading Novels, Reading the Self
Teleky, Richard, Queen's Quarterly
The headline caught my eye: "Philip Roth Gives Up Reading Fiction." As I read on, the New York Times article cited an interview where Roth said, "I've stopped reading fiction. I don't read it at all. I read other things: History, biography. I don't have the same interest in fiction that I once did." When asked for an explanation, the novelist replied, "I don't know. I wised up ..." and changed the subject. Regretfully, I knew what he meant.
FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER I've been a devoted reader of fiction. One of my first loves was Anna Sewell's novel Black Beauty (1877), and as a boy I insisted on sleeping with a copy of it under my pillow. I didn't long for a horse; I wanted the book nearby. Ever since, I've been puzzled by people who didn't care for fiction, or who claimed they lacked the time for it. Even stranger were the people, always a few decades older than I, who said they had stopped reading novels: from my twenties, a Russian-born engineer who refused to read any novel longer than 200 pages, and in time not even those; from my thirties, a university librarian who gave away all her novels, except for Don Quixote and The Hobbit; and from my forties, an editor who lent me out-of-print novels by Henry Green--the last novels he had truly loved. What had gone wrong? This lack of interest in fiction, almost a distaste for it, would never happen to me.
Then decades passed. Gradually I picked up new fiction more from duty than interest. And for the first time in my reading life I found myself setting aside novels halfway through them. I continued to value fiction, and had even written three novels and a collection of short stories. Was I becoming detached from our culture, increasingly out of sympathy with it? Most of the pirouetting contemporary fiction by male writers--Martin Amis, Michael Chabon and Jeffrey Eugenides, for example--tried my patience, while novels by much-praised women writers such as Ann Patchett and Alice Sebold struck me as contrived or trite. I no longer wanted to read about alienated adolescents, impossible love affairs, and messy marriages; postmodern effects were too clever by half; and the social commentary seemed like easy satire. Of course this wasn't true of every new novel I purchased--I loved Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World, Jill Ciment's Heroic Measures, and Ward Just's Forgetfulness---but these were exceptions.
Like Roth, I turned with greater pleasure to historical studies, biographies, memoirs, and journals. Could I recover a taste for fiction? I needed a plan. I needed to understand what was happening.
FICTION has many functions, which inevitably change over one's lifetime. We read novels and short stories to satisfy our curiosity about how others live as well as for entertainment, for comfort and consolation. Very few people, I suspect, read fiction mainly for the pleasures of language, though that shouldn't be discounted. Yet readers' interests evolve, and reading preferences may change along with them. Why, for instance, would anyone over sixty still need book after book about the love problems of fictional twenty--somethings, a popular subject with writers and publishers? It's not that I want only novels about aging, but subject matter counts. As well, my work as a teacher determines some of my reading, and teaching classic novels has kept me close to books that have been favourites since I first discovered them. Rereading Anna Karenina or To the Lighthouse, for example (which stand up well to rereading), has also shaped my dissatisfaction with the thinness of most contemporary fiction.
The publishing, reviewing, and academic worlds distinguish between literary and popular fiction, a distinction both unavoidable and arbitrary. The popular nineteenth-century writer Charles Dickens would now be considered a classic or literary writer by most people. Other distinctions--such as "middlebrow," "bestseller," and "trash"--only suggest the trouble with categories. …