Who Killed Fiction (and Why)?

If you want to feel really good about your community, publish a book.

That’s what I learned last year. I thought releasing my first novel, after such a long process, would make me feel good about myself. But instead, it made me feel good about other people. I have been so gratified and amazed by how eager people are to help me, how much they want to see me succeed. I do believe that is in part because I wrote a good book, and because people see it as useful to social justice movements, specifically to justice for Palestine. But many people reached out before they’d ever read the book, and that includes people I never thought liked me, people I’ve had ambivalent political relationships with over the years, and even some people who don’t agree with my politics on Palestine. Coworkers bought multiple copies to give to their families and friends for Christmas presents, while some of my good friends had private book signings (Tory bought more books than we sold at the Modern Times reading). Local bookstores have promoted it and let me know when there were problems in the supply chain.

I’ve also gotten some wonderful nuanced feedback from writers I respect, which will help me as I delve into Book 2 of the Rania & Chloe Palestine mystery series (pleased to have editor Elana Dykewomon back on board for Murder Under the Fig Tree). I’ve gotten used to talking about my writing process, how art differs from life, and had opportunities to reflect deeply on the events in my life that led to embarking on this project. I even remembered what I was working on before I went to Palestine, and made a commitment to get back to it before too long.

One of the less encouraging things I’ve learned is that fiction is out of favor in US culture right now. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have told me, “Oh, I don’t read fiction.” I’m not sure how I missed knowing this, since as early as 2004, commentators were reporting that “Although fiction still sells in great quantities … the attention of publishers and booksellers has moved elsewhere. Everyone in publishing agrees it is getting harder to sell a new novel, even by a distinguished name, in this country; book buyers seem interested only in non-fiction.” “The top 10 non-fiction books on the bestseller list always outsell the top 10 fiction books, save an occasional mega-seller,” wrote Anthony Chatfield in 2007.

Blogger Scott Esposito suggests that this trend reflects a desire for instant gratification: nonfiction offers the appearance that we’ve made an immediate gain in terms of useful knowledge. Another reason nonfiction might work better for people in this overscheduled information age is that it’s easier to pick up and put down, or read parts of, requiring less commitment than a novel. Who, after all, really read Thomas Pickety’s bestseller on capitalism from start to finish? I really liked Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of the Islamic State, but it didn’t exactly make me miss any bus stops because I had to find out how it ended.

At the same time, alarm bells have been sounded by those worried about gaps in our kids’ education – the same ones unwilling to address the elephant in the room, poverty. Researchers claim that high numbers of graduating students “may be able to compute a math problem or analyze a short story but they can’t read a complex non-fiction text.” To remedy this perceived weakness, the Common Core Standards “calls for a shift in the balance of fiction to nonfiction as children advance through school. According to the CCSS guidelines, by the end of 4th grade, students’ reading should be half fiction and half informational. By the end of 12th grade, the balance should be 30 percent fiction, 70 percent nonfiction across all subject areas.”

I seriously question whether students can in fact analyze a short story if they can’t “read a complex text.” The key words “analyze” and “complex” are not defined, at least not in any of the metareports I looked at; I didn’t see the original data, which is attributed to the creators of the ACT college readiness exam. If by “analyze,” we mean anything beyond describing what happened (which is not analysis, but reporting), analyzing a work of fiction should require more complex thinking than reading even the most difficult nonfiction work because the information in a remotely well-written nonfiction text should be communicated directly, while the themes and lessons of fiction must be intuited or derived by careful attention to the symbolism of events and characters. A more likely explanation of the disparity between students’ ability to analyze fictional versus nonfictional texts, if it exists, might be that the fiction they are reading is chosen, by themselves or their teachers, for its relevance to their lives, while the nonfiction is simply presented as information they need to know.

I remember when I was in graduate school complaining to my teacher, the always brilliant Michael Rogin, that I couldn’t remember dates and characters in history.

Can you remember the plots of novels?” he asked.

Sure,” I replied. (The same might not be said today, when I can easily read half a mystery before realizing I’ve read it before. But that might have more to do with the books than my failing memory.)

That’s because you attach symbolic significance to the events in the story. If you can do the same with historical events, you’ll remember them too.”

It was good analysis, good advice and it helped me become a better nonfiction reader. It might well work for students who are having the same trouble today. More to the point, if the “complex texts” are about things they think they need to know about, they will probably figure out a way to understand them.

The solution may well be worse than the problem. A series of studies that came out a few years ago found that reading literary fiction increased readers’ empathy. One study used “a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts.” Of course, once again, key words like “literary” and “popular” fiction are not defined. Examples of the literary works included books by Don DeLillo, Charles Dickens and Louise Erdrich, while popular fiction included Gillian Flynn and Danielle Steele. One hypothesis about the difference was that the characters in the popular works were not as well defined. I might offer some other hypotheses regarding Gillian Flynn (a friend and I just watched “Gone Girl” on TV) – such as that her characters are so unpleasant, one would not really want to get inside their emotional worlds. And yet, as I have previously mentioned, Flynn is often included among genre writers who have “crossed over” (a review of her book, Sharp Objects, says, “this is more literary novel than simple mystery”).

I haven’t seen studies proving this, but I don’t need any to know that fiction also helps us stretch our imaginations. Reading fiction is essential to the creation of revolutionaries, because if you can’t imagine something that doesn’t exist, you cannot help to create it. Is that perhaps a reason why these education reformers are so determined to limit the time that kids spend exercising their imaginations? Or is it simply that their own imaginations are so starved, at this point, that they can’t remember the joy of being transported into another place, another time or another person’s reality?

I went to see ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens” the other night. I enjoyed it, especially the 3D effects. But there was a lot less to the story than in the 1970s episodes, which is not saying that much. There’s almost no character development; it’s two hours of nonstop battle scenes. The best mainstream movies I saw last year, “Spotlight” and “Trumbo,” along with some I didn’t care for like “Bridge of Spies,” were barely fictionalized versions of true stories. Among the 12 top grossing films of 2015, nine were installments in multi-film franchises, two were based on old television shows, one was based on an alleged true story and one was a remake. Only two, “Inside Out” and “The Martian,” were original fictional narratives.

Those of us who write fiction might need to start fighting for its place in our culture, for the sake of the culture as well as ourselves.

About Kate Jessica Raphael

I have been fighting the power for 30 years, with limited success but a lot of passion and fun. From 2002-2005 I spent a lot of time living in Palestine working with a women's peace group, and while there got the idea for a murder mystery. So I set up this site to serialize this novel and its sequel, which I've been working on ever since I was deported in 2005.
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